Singapore GP: Tropical Thunder at Marina Bay
The hype around the driver market has settled down to a mild panic from where it was since the Oscar Piastri saga. The news came in during the break that Yuki Tsunoda and Zhou Guanyu have seats for one more year, while Nicholas Latifi announced that he'll no longer be with Williams in the new year.
The calendar for 2023 has been released, and we're seeing another American GP. "Hee-Haw". This time in Las Vegas, and you know what they say about what happens in Vegas, right? All drivers were preparing for the heat Singapore delivers, including some of the stickiest humid conditions on the calendar. Not quite ideal when you're wrapped in fireproof Nomex gear and a three-layer race suit, but there's no escaping mother nature, so best you prepare.
It was tricky conditions in qualifying. Conditions were neither wet nor dry, with some parts of the circuit ready to catch gambling drivers out. Mick Schumacher made it out of Q1, ahead of Esteban Ocon and Valtteri Bottas, a bit of a shock departure there, but bear in mind that Mick is fighting for a seat in 2023. He'll need to continue this trend for the rest of the season. That gamble came in Q2 with Aston Martin swopping the intermediate compound tyre for full slicks. Alfa Romeo followed suit, but unfortunately, both teams failed to render any results and failed to move to Q3. George Russell added to the misery by not making it into Q3 by 0.006 seconds.
For a circuit that had remained unchanged as far as conditions go, it was odd to witness the track only drying out with a few minutes remaining. The five-kilometre street circuit, one of the longest on the calendar, wouldn't allow the soft compound tyres to get enough heat or adequately work. Verstappen almost connected with the wall at one stage, too, desperately trying to get the tyres activated, and the stalwart Alonso even clipped the wall. Tell-tale signs of the struggle.
The big shock came with Verstappen instructed to box on his last flying lap, with the team needing enough fuel for a sample to be taken at the end of qualifying. If he had gone for the lap, he'd have used that fuel and received a grid penalty anyway. A strange miscalculation from the Red Bull team and another absurd story about how tight the margins in F1 can be. The final results saw Charles Leclerc take pole position and Sergio Perez in P2 with Lewis Hamilton in P3. Verstappen would only start in P8, meaning that the mathematical chances of him taking the championship in Singapore were no longer looking as positive.
Race day and mother nature decided that a heavy downpour should descend on the circuit, causing an hour delay. With the course warming up sufficiently to start on intermediates, all eyes were fixed on the first lap for drama, but everyone was, for the most part, on their best behaviour.
Sergio Perez was keen to stamp his mark, taking P1 away from Leclerc in the first corner. Meanwhile, his teammate, Verstappen, had a shocker of a start, getting bogged down as the lights went out and losing a further four places on the first lap. Another example of how unforgiving mid-pack battles can be, even for the current champion. This is especially true when battling past champions like Alonso and Vettel. Another Nicholas Latifi-inspired safety car period on Lap 8 after he connected with Guanyu, forcing the Alfa into the wall and needing to retire the car.
A virtual safety car period on lap 21 and another opportunity for teams to roll the dice. Mercedes was the first to the table, pitting George Russell for Medium compound yellows. Given his track position, this was expected. Nothing to lose. Five laps later, and another virtual safety car scenario after Alex Albon went straight on and lost his front wing thanks to a massive dose of understeer.
Lap 33 saw Lewis Hamilton make a mistake at turn seven after frustrations at not being able to pass Carlos Sainz, and losing a place to Lando Norris in the process. He needed a front wing replacement, putting him out of podium contention. Three laps later, a flurry of pit stops amongst the front runners saw everyone go for the slick option. Ferrari's slow pit stop with Leclerc's car gifted Perez, who looked in blistering form, just that extra bit of edge. It's the margins Ferrari needs to get right if they want to see a championship. They can't afford to give Red Bull an inch.
A mistake from Verstappen saw him lose more positions in an attack on Norris, ending on the escape road. With 28 minutes of the race remaining, Sergio Perez would have to fight for his life, having Leclerc in hot pursuit only 0.676 seconds behind and bagging the fastest lap of the Grand Prix. Putting yourself into Perez's race boots, you can just appreciate how much pressure that was, without him buckling even once. Another 20 minutes of that meant Perez climbed further out to the top, edging a respectable lead of 2.7 seconds. Still, his situation would be compounded after a possible Safety Car infringement, which could have meant a five-second penalty. When doesn't it rain, right? Perez's sheer grit and determination were that his first response was the fastest lap.
In the end, Perez held onto a tooth-grinding victory and proved once more why he occupies that second seat on the Red Bull team. Charles Leclerc secured P2, and Carlos Sainz came in at P3. The constructor's championship continues to flow toward Red Bull, even on a day that saw Verstappen not at his best. A sign that luck, and hard work, is clearly favouring Red Bull. Lando Norris finished in P4, followed by Daniel Ricciardo in P5, a great ending for the Australian who still doesn't have a seat for 2023. A result like that certainly won't do his CV any harm.
What Singapore showed was a clear sign of just how exciting things can be given the unpredictability of weather on a street circuit. Combined with effective team strategies and out-of-position drivers, the situation lends itself to be quite the spectacle. F1 now moves to Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix and the possible chance for Verstappen to make it a fairy tale moment for Honda if he wins the championship there this Sunday, 9 October. Arigato, Honda.
Words: Brent vd Schyff