Singapore is a beautiful city at the best of times. Factor in the number 1 motorsports category on a humid early spring evening, and it’s a destination that punters, and F1 teams, love to visit. Charles Leclerc started on pole and knew he had something special on his side. Alongside him was the championship leader, Lewis Hamilton, and behind him his team mate, Sebastian Vettel. Ferrari have fitted a new nose cone to their cars and Leclerc’s qualifying time, as was Vettel’s, surprised many.
It’s a crucial race for Ferrari, with their points standing in the constructors’ championship, at 351 points, seeing them second and a fair gap behind Mercedes.
Leclerc would get away to a fantastic start, as would Ricciardo, starting from rear of grid. Inside the first lap he would be up to 16th. Leclerc was already a full second ahead. Nico Hulkenberg would be tagged by Carlos Sainz, and with damage to his front wing and front right would pit on lap two. Carlos Sainz would also pit with a right rear damaged as a result of his impact..
Four laps in and Ricciardo was up to 14th, with Leclerc holding down a gap of nearly a second, Vettel was clean off the line, with a gap of 1.2 seconds from Hamilton on lap 5. Three laps later and the Australian was digging deep into his reserves, and he’d see 13th next to his name. The touch between Sainz and Hulkenberg would be declared a racing incident.
Ten laps and Leclerc was gently extending his lead. Hamilton, Vettel, and Verstappen would stay split by a second between them. Bottas would see Albon a second behind, with Lando Norris 3.5 seconds shy, and down in 7th. Giovinazzi, Magnussen, and Pierre Gasly rounded out the top ten . Lance Stroll filled the mirrors of Ricciardo as he found space to pass Daniil Kvyat on lap 12. That move would put the Australian 4.3 second shy of the veteran Kimi Raikkonen. Sergio Perez would also put a move on the hapless Russian just a minute later and Kvyat would be lucky as his left rear touched the wall. Meanwhile Leclerc would extend his lead by a half second. Kvyat, in 18th, would pit on lap 13. Perez pitted a lap later, and is 16th behind Robert Kubica.
Raikkonen pitted on lap 16, with that allowing Ricciardo into 11th and eyeing off Pierre Gasly. Leclerc had been given the ok to change engine mode and the lead was now out to two seconds. Vettel was also starting to feel tyre pinch, with his 3rd position now over two seconds. Robert Kubica would use his experience and move aside for Kvyat and Perez. Quietly beavering away was Alexander Albon in 6th, sandwiched between Bottas and Norris. Bottas had Verstappen in front and down to under a half second. Vettel and Verstappen would be called in on lap 20 for hard compound tyres for a run to the finish. This put them to 10th and 13th.
Leclerc would pit inside the same lap, handing the lead to Hamilton. Ricciardo, yet to pit, was up to 5th. Leclerc would come out behind Vettel and this would lead to much angst from the Monagesque, questioning the team’s decision to have Vettel undercut him. Lap 21 and it was Hamilton, Bottas, Giovinazzi, Gasly, and Ricciardo. Bottas was 5.7 seconds behind Hamilton before pitting on lap 23. Hamilton on lap 25 was 17 seconds ahead of Giovinazzi but both had yet to pit. Gasly and Ricciardo, inside a second between them, and with Lance Stroll a second behind, would be watching Vettel make up space. Hamilton would finally be called in on lap 27. This left Giovinazzi, Gasly, Ricciardo, and Stroll, as the four yet to pit.
Leclerc would see Verstappen in his mirrors too, with a bare half second between them. Also in mirrors was Vettel in those of Ricciardo and the Australian had to move across for Vettel to pass, as would Stroll for Leclerc. Vettel’s new tyres would shortly have him in close proximity to Gasly, with a touch between the two at half race distance. Renault still hadn’t called in Ricciardo and with a pit lane stop of close to 30 seconds, a call would see him at somewhere around P15.
Vettel managed a sneak pass through on Giovinazzi who had lead for three laps and being the first Alfa to lead for two decades. This saw a change in the lead, placing Leclerc in 4th and four seconds adrift. Verstappen had also found space and Ricciardo was going backwards with a 6th instead of 4th. On lap 22 just he and Giovinazzi had yet to pit.
It’s lap 34 and the Renault of Ricciardo tags the Alfa of Giovinazzi, with the right rear of Ricciardo deflating quickly. This pits both and puts hard rubber onto the Renault. Vettel’s lead was out to 5 seconds and Verstappen ahead of Hamilton by 2.5 seconds. And suddenly there are yellow flags for George Russell against the wall for the first retirement for Williams in 2019. Romain Grosjean has given him a tap on his left rear, and the nose goes wide and rips off the front left. This plays into the hands of both Ferraris, Verstappen, and the Mercedes of Hamilton and Bottas.
With 21 laps left it was Vettel ahead of Leclerc, Verstappen in the Red Bull heading both Hamilton and Bottas, whilst Albon, Norris, Magnussen, Raikonnen, and Perez closed out the top ten. The restart sees frantic movement throughout the field and it’s Vettel that quickly opens the gap. Lance Stroll gets squeezed with Gasly and a front left from a subsequent wall impact have the Canadian in. Racing Point’s luck goes even further awry with Perez pulling his car off to trackside with an apparent power unit failure. The subsequent safety car would again bunch up the field, and again put Leclerc into a position to challenge. What was also coming into play was the mandatory two hour track limit, and with a lengthy second safety car, the balance between the 61 laps and the 120 minutes was getting closer to tipping towards the clock.
Again the restart would see frantic action and both Ricciardo and Raikkonen would come off second best. The Australian would try, and fail, to pass and make up places, whilst Raikkonen would turn left into Kvyat and broke his front left. The third safety car would close the gap for a time certain finish even more, leaving Leclerc pondering, again, what he needed to do to win. It’s here that Verstappen would look in his mirrors also, with Hamilton and Bottas still 4th and 5th.
It’s a delicate balancing act between the clock and laps, and a gap of 1.4 seconds between Vettel and Leclerc sees the German looking to break is year long winless streak. The cynics would point fingers at the order of strategy by Ferrari for this. At the other end of the field Ricciardo and Renault need to have a discussion about their tyre strategy, with the Australian finishing outside the top ten. Verstappen is still a full second ahead of Hamilton who is four seconds in front of Bottas.
On the final lap Hamilton has closed to within a half second of the Red Bull. Ferrari leads and Vettel takes the flag with barely 90 seconds left on the clock, holding out a disappointed Leclerc. Verstappen locks out Hamilton for 3rd and Bottas in 5th, and, importantly, there is no silver on the podium. It’s Vettel’s first win for 392 days. Albon would hold out for 6th, Norris in 7th, with Gasly, Hulkenberg, and Giovinazzi rounding out the top ten. Grosjean claims a provisional 11th, ahead of Sainz, Stroll, Ricciardo, and Kvyat, while Kubica and Magnussen round out the finishers.
Vettel confirms that the call to come in and be released ahead of Leclerc was indeed a team order, leaving Leclerc to potentially question this later. Leclerc says: “It’s always difficult to lose a win like that. It’s the first one – two for the season, so all the team deserve it. For that extremely happy, but of course extremely disappointed on my side.” Verstappen? “The whole race went well, I started to struggle with the tyres so we boxed and that became a good call as we undercut Lewis. In general happy to be on the podium.”
F1 heads to Russia, and hits the Sochi Autodrom for practice this Friday.