2013 Singapore Grand Prix analysis: Where Sunday's race was won and lost
Pondering the full scale of Vettel's advantage, how Alonso finished second, and what might have been for Grosjean and Mercedes...
By James Galloway and Pete Gill. Last Updated: 25/09/13 10:07am
Fernando Alonso finished second, but how slow was the Ferrari?
As Formula 1's resident escapologist, Fernando Alonso did it again in Singapore, rescuing a weekend that had been veering towards mediocrity with yet another second-place finish - his fifth of the year. Given the astonishing pace of the Red Bull in Sebastian Vettel's hands, second was the best result Fernando - or anyone else - could realistically aim for.
Yet, such was the pace of the F138 around Marina Bay up until the race that even a podium had looked a long shot for Ferrari. Through practice and qualifying the competitive picture had essentially mirrored that of the Hungaroring, the previous higher-downforce track on the calendar: Ferrari were consistently slower than Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus. Indeed, in all but one Friday and Saturday session in Singapore, Alonso trailed the pacesetter by one second or more.
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That the brilliant Spaniard made remarkable light of that on race day with what Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle reckoned was a drive that even outflanked Vettel's is therefore worthy of closer scrutiny. Undoubtedly, it was the Spaniard's latest stellar start, which saw him hug the outer confines of turns one and two to jump ahead of four cars from seventh on the grid, which thrust him into immediate podium contention. From there he stayed within four seconds of second-placed Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes and, crucially, ahead of the second Red Bull of Webber through the first stint. On a day when nobody could touch the race leader, Alonso even lapped marginally quicker than Vettel for four consecutive tours between ten and 13.
After being trapped behind Di Resta on his return to the track, the arrival of the Safety Car at the end of lap 25 gave Ferrari the chance to roll the dice, cut their man's second stint short after just 11 laps and shift focus from pace to preservation, to make that unlikely second place possible. That change in approach was underlined by Alonso's position down in 11th place on the fastest lap charts, his best time of 1:51.082, which came 19 laps into his final stint on lap 44, some 2.5 seconds slower than Vettel's at a similar time of the race but when the German was on brand new super-soft tyres.
On the flip side, Alonso's fastest effort was fractionally quicker than the Lotus of Raikkonen - who was running the same strategy - but to beat what were undoubtedly quicker packages in one Red Bull, prior to its retirement, and both Mercedes cars was quite some feat.
Where would Romain Grosjean have finished but for his engine failure?
Is Romain Grosjean the new Mark Webber? The Lotus driver had excelled all weekend at Singapore, outpacing bad-back victim Kimi Raikkonen throughout, before being felled by Webberesque bad luck. The Frenchman's demise, after his engine lost air pressure, was particularly ill-deserved on a weekend when Romain had been providing a convincing impression of a team leader in the making.
While Vettel was uncatchable, Grosjean's post-race lament "I think a second or third place finish was a realistic prospect" looks to have been justified given that Kimi Raikkonen was able to reach the podium after stopping on lap 25 for a new set of medium tyres and then running to the finish. Not only did Grosjean also stop for a brand-new set of tyres under the Safety Car on lap 25, but he had returned to the track just behind Fernando Alonso and four places in front of the Finn. A podium was there was the taking after both Mercedes cars failed to stop.
The real question, then, is whether Grosjean would have finished third or second ahead Alonso but for his luckless retirement. A definitive answer is, of course, impossible when pondering any such 'alternative reality' scenario, but two sets of statistics are certainly suggestive: one) excluding Qualy Two, Grosjean had been faster than Alonso in every timed session at Singapore last week; two) at the end of the race, when both cars were finishing their ultra-long stint on the medium tyres, Raikkonen's Lotus was far faster than Alonso's Ferrari, with the E21 on average a second quicker than the F138 on each of the final six laps after passing Jenson Button's McLaren.
We'll never know for certain, but had Grosjean has still be on track, second place would surely have been his.
Should Mercedes have split their strategies?
It's almost as if the team saw this question coming...
According to Merc's post-race press briefing: 'The decisive moment of the race came on lap 25 when the Safety Car was deployed and both drivers stayed out. Pitting would have committed them to a 36-lap stint on a single set of tyres to make the finish. As was seen in the final laps, all but two cars were either forced to pit again or lost significant performance'.
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Which sounds fairly emphatic. However, let's look at the detail of that final line. The two cars in pertinent reference were those of Raikkonen and Alonso, Mercedes' closest on-track rivals, both of whom finished on the podium ahead of the two W04s. Now couple in the fact that both Nico Hulkenberg and Jenson Button finished in the points after pitting on lap 25, and Mercedes' decision not to hedge their bets and split strategies becomes far less convincing. If Sauber and McLaren both felt they could make it to the finish - which they did, albeit with some very poor lap times on their final tours of the circuit - then shouldn't at least one half of the Mercedes garage have followed suit?
Then there's the question of whether Mercedes' management should have insisted on split strategies given that the inflexibility meant both Rosberg and Hamilton were fixed onto an ultra-aggressive strategy whilst occupying the same stretch of road. Split strategies, split the danger? If Mercedes made a mistake, it wasn't merely failing to cover themselves against Raikkonen and Alonso, but also pitting Rosberg and Hamilton into head-to-head combat which could have very easily - and very nearly did - ended with neither driver making it to the line.
And a mistake it almost certainly was. "It would have been much better to have brought one car in when the Safety Car was in," lamented Niki Lauda, the team's non-executive chairman, afterwards. "Raikkonen and Alonso did the right thing. It was a strategic mistake - and we won't do it again."
Just how far ahead would Sebastian Vettel have been but for the Safety Car?
There has been a lingering feeling after many of Sebastian Vettel's victories this year that the German had been racing well within his and the RB9's limits and for much of the race was holding just a little extra back should he come under sustained attack. That certainly wasn't the case at the end of the Singapore GP after F1's benchmark driver and car combination produced what at times was an astounding show of speed to win by 32.6 seconds. In pure stop-watch terms, not only was it the largest victory margin of Vettel's career but the biggest by any driver in dry conditions for eight years.
The chasm between the World Champion and the rest at the chequered flag was all the more ominious given he had already had 13-second lead wiped out when the Safety Car was called out for Daniel Ricciardo's crash on lap 25. Considering a mid-race caution period can often flatter the chasing pack, one question that can justifiably be pondered is just how far into the distance Vettel would have been had he been able to run uninterrupted to the chequered flag.
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Speaking to Sky F1 after the race, McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh offered a counter position to any suggestions that the Red Bull would have been even further clear by suggesting that circumstances had slightly "flattered" the World Champions on this particular occasion. Indeed, there's certainly a strong case to make that Vettel's winning margin wouldn't have been much, if any, bigger had the Safety Car not appeared at all. How so? Well firstly, and most depressingly of all for Red Bull's rivals, without a caution period there just wouldn't have been any need for Vettel to push at that mesmerising two-seconds-a-lap-faster rate. With no stoppage and a comfortable lead already in place, there would have been no 'free' pitstop for Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen and therefore no outside chance of them throwing a spanner in the works for the World Champion.
As it was the Safety Car did complicate things, but having been unable to go with the flying Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton all dropped into traffic on their returns to the circuit after their respective second stops, while Vettel's new closest pursuers Alonso and Raikkonen had to preserve their tyres for 36 laps. So, as Whitmarsh suggested, there were certainly circumstances that contributed to the scale of Vettel's win - although not that any of that really changes the lesson of the weekend. Whatever way the cards would have come up, Vettel was simply too fast. Without a Safety Car, his pace may not have had been quite so jaw-dropping as it was, but that would only really have been because it wouldn't have needed to be.
Is Max Chilton getting closer to Jules Bianchi?
Having targeted an improvement in his single-lap pace several months ago, Max Chilton has certainly been making tangible progress in closing his Saturday deficit to Jules Bianchi - and Singapore was another step in that process.
Over the course of their first eight qualifying sessions in combat (discounting Monaco when Bianchi didn't set a time) the average gap between the two Marussia drivers was a mammoth 0.836s in the Frenchman's favour. However, in the last four races since just before the summer break in Hungary, Chilton has closed that down to a more respectable 0.226s margin. Having held an advantage over Bianchi in Singapore of having driven - and won on - the Marina Bay circuit from GP2 last year, Chilton got closer than ever to his team-mate in Q1, his qualifying lap precisely one tenth of a second slower than the sister Marussia.
Sunday's race itself was also had statistical significance as it represented the first time in the 11 occasions both drivers have made the chequered flag that Chilton finished ahead on the road. While the Briton did enjoy some clear good fortune when Bianchi, running two positions and a handful of seconds ahead of his team-mate at the time, lost track position when he was forced to pit on consecutive laps early on after his car got stuck in gear and the team had to change its steering wheel, the Safety Car reset their battle and from there Chilton was generally the quicker of the two on the timesheet. The Briton ultimately finished 7.1s ahead at the flag. Bianchi's fastest lap may have proved fractionally faster - 1:52.898 v 1:53.041 - but Singapore was certainty a weekend that Chilton can look back on with satisfaction.