After celebrating dual wins at Spa and Monza, Ferrari's team principal Mattia Binotto boldly claimed in the build-up to the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix that Ferrari could win more races in the season. At the time, it seemed Binotto was being optimistic. In fact, till the qualifying hour of this weekend's race, no one imagined that Ferrari would claim pole position and eventually the race win on the streets of Singapore. After Charles Leclerc's success in the previous two rounds, it was Sebastian Vettel who stepped onto the top step of the podium, followed across the chequered flag by Leclerc and Red Bull Racing's Max Verstappen.
" Formula 1 (@F1) September 22, 2019
This was only the second race of this season where neither Mercedes driver finished on the podium. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finished fourth and fifth respectively, in a race where Mercedes surprisingly lacked outright pace and the tyre strategy against two of their rivals. Alexander Albon finished sixth, ahead of McLaren's Lando Norris who claimed the 'best of the rest' among the mid-field drivers. Toro Rosso's Pierre Gasly, who is still in contention for a re-promotion at Red Bull Racing in 2020, finished eighth and was followed by Renault's Nico Hulkenberg and Alfa Romeo's Antonio Giovinazzi. Seven out of the ten teams finished in the points " Racing Point, Haas and Williams being the ones that missed out.
Is Sebastian Vettel back?
Before we get into dissecting Ferrari's controversial race strategy, it would be worth pondering and celebrating Vettel's win " one that has come after more than a year's wait. After a grim last many months and races full of mistakes, it was good to see Vettel claim the top step of the podium, despite not being the fastest driver on track, barring a few minutes in Q3 when he briefly held provisional pole position. Singapore, where Vettel now has the highest number of wins (five) for any driver, should offer a psychological boost to the quadruple world champion, who also claimed his 53rd career win. The alternate truth also being that Vettel is still the only driver on the grid closest to a race ban.
Ferrari favoured Vettel?
Ferrari scored their first 1-2 of the season. In fact, it is the team's first three-wins-on-the-trot since 2008 " a display of form and pace that everyone was expecting from the Scuderia since the start of the season. However, their win had a cloud of doubt and controversy. On lap 20, Vettel was called into the pits for fresh rubber. This was considered out of line since Vettel was third, behind the then race leader Leclerc and Hamilton. Leclerc was called for his tyre change a lap later and at the exit, he found himself jumped by Vettel in the race classification. Leclerc's expectation that he should've been offered the winning tyre strategy by virtue of being the faster and higher placed driver in the race classification is fair.
Given the nature of the circuit, the reduced race pace, Ferrari's desire to score a 1-2 finish and the repeated Safety Car periods in the latter half of the race, Leclerc was unable to challenge Vettel for the lead of the race, even though he claimed multiple times on the team radio that he could go faster. So did Ferrari favour Vettel in race strategy? Given the team's history of offering staunch support towards their 'number 1' driver, it would be hard to assess this question without a bias. However, here are some facts that could help reach an answer that might not be crystal clear.
Post-race, Leclerc shared that Ferrari had agreed to drive to a slower race pace in their race debrief. From the race simulations on Friday, Ferrari knew that Mercedes and Red Bull Racing were faster. Their best bet was to score pole position, maintain track position at the start and control the pace of the race " all of which went to plan on Sunday. In the early part of the race, Leclerc did as Ferrari had planned. lap as slowly as possible (nearly 13 seconds off his qualifying pace), thereby bunching up the field and reducing the chance for his rivals to pit earlier and attempt the undercut. "We couldn't really go much slower,'' radioed a frustrated Hamilton.
Why so slow?
Despite the pit window for the 'soft tyre' runners opening up, the front runners chose to drive around slowly in circles waiting for someone else to take the bait. The situation was such that had Leclerc pitted from the lead, the 30 seconds required to complete a full pit-stop would have seen him drop to 17th place. On lap 20, Ferrari saw a gap open up, by pitting Vettel when they did, they managed to bring their driver out of the pits and ahead of Nico Hulkenberg, who was running lower down the order after an early pit-stop to repair first lap damage. Vettel made the most of this clean air, built a gap, one that allowed him to take the lead from Leclerc on the next lap. Expectedly Leclerc was upset and radioed his team multiple times during the race to express his displeasure, but could Ferrari have done any different?
In hindsight, one should question why this very question is being asked. For Ferrari, the World Championships are out of sight in 2019. The team is rebuilding itself after repeated changes in management and personnel. After embarrassing mistakes in the first half of the season, the team acted smartly for the third time in three races to claim victory. If the championships are out of sight, why would the team favour one driver over the other? Ferrari's agile strategy saw them go better in Singapore. Instead of settling for a 1-3 finish, the team scored a 1-2 finish, scoring vital points in the Constructors' Championship, one they were under immense threat from Red Bull Racing only a few races ago.
Leclerc's new learning
It is understandable to see Leclerc question his team's tactics and be upset. After all, the Monegasque is in the form of his life, claiming two back-to-back wins against Hamilton in the last two races. In Singapore, Leclerc claimed a sensational pole position (again, ahead of Hamilton) after driving an on-the-limit and sublime qualifying lap. It was Leclerc's pole position that opened up the possibility of Ferrari aiming for victory in the first place. Again, actual nature of conversations in the post-race debrief or Ferrari's actual reasons in not known, but for Leclerc, the Singapore Grand Prix would've offered one more learning " the politics of racing for Ferrari.
Back to race strategy, Ferrari pitted Vettel at the time they did to protect the German's podium spot from Verstappen, who also pitted on the same lap. The question could be asked if Leclerc should've pitted a lap earlier, but there are two things to keep in mind. First, Leclerc was leading the race and was under no real threat on-track or in the pits. At the time, Ferrari were happy to keep track position while waiting to see Mercedes-Hamilton play their card. Second, Ferrari's understandable desire to get both cars on the podium, especially on a track where no one expected them to be in contention. In fact, Ferrari's strategy checkmated Mercedes, their immediate rivals on track.
Mercedes didn't see the Ferrari onslaught coming, not in qualifying, not in the race. In fact, Ferrari's pit wall out-thought the reigning world champions, leading Hamilton to lose second place. Mercedes and Hamilton did try and salvage their race by attempting a different race strategy. They went longer in the first stint and hoped that a Safety Car would intervene and gift them a free stop.
However, the Safety Car periods arrived much later in the race and at a time when it made no impact to the race strategy of the front runners. In their final attempt get onto the podium, Mercedes deployed team orders. Bottas, who was leading a pack of mid-field drivers, was asked to slow down by about three seconds a lap in the build-up to Hamilton's pit stop. As a result, Hamilton emerged ahead of Bottas with tyres that were seven laps fresher than his immediate rival, Verstappen. Hamilton's planned charged was dented by traffic and even more so by the three Safety Car periods in the second half of the race. The Safety Car periods further aided Ferrari's strategy by helping their drivers manage tyre wear in the closing stages of the race. After the race, Hamilton admitted, "It's painful for us because we could have easily won today. I was asking them to do the undercut, to take the risk, and go for it, but they didn't. Two other teams got it right today and leapfrogged us."
Red Bull missing
A podium would have been consolation for Red Bull. However, if Ferrari were favourites for Spa and Monza, Red Bull Racing were dubbed as the favourites for Singapore. In the build-up to the race, the narrative was a Mercedes vs Red Bull and Hamilton vs Verstappen battle. The Red Bull Racing-Honda package didn't deliver to expectations, although the team did well to beat Mercedes-Hamilton in the pit stops. From being the second fastest team in the first half of the season, Red Bull Racing seem a distant third since the summer break.
If Spa and Monza offered high-speed racing action, Singapore was like most other street circuits " about preservation, race strategy and multiple Safety Car periods. Those following Formula 1 since the ages would agree that both speed and strategy are vital ingredients of the sport. The 2019 Singapore Grand Prix was processional in parts, but anticipation built up every lap once the pit window opened up. In fact, the race gave us an unexpected race leader in Antonio Giovinazzi, who had the longest first stint (34 laps on the medium) among the points scoring finishers.
Mercedes would be disappointed after leaving Singapore without a podium, as would Red Bull Racing. These two teams dominated in Hungary (finished 40 seconds ahead of Ferrari), only three races ago " a circuit with characteristics similar to Singapore and Monaco. However, Hamilton built further on his gap to Bottas in the Drivers' Championship. It is only a matter of when and not if for the British racer to claim his sixth Formula 1 title. Though not celebrated as much, it is the battle for third place that will offer excitement as the season nears its end. Verstappen and Leclerc are tied on 200 points each, followed by Vettel who is six points adrift. Carlos Sainz Jr, who is targeting an ambitious sixth place (helped the Gasly-Albon swap), scored his third successive no points finish.
Alexander Albon, who is also aiming to get up to sixth and is targeting to retain his seat at Red Bull Racing in 2020, is only 16 points behind Sainz and is fast closing in. The British-Thai racer has finished fifth, sixth and sixth in the last three races. The battle for ninth place is between five drivers. Ricciardo is currently on 34 points, one point ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Nico Hulkenberg. A further two points behind are Lando Norris and Kimi Raikkonen. In the Constructors' Championship though, things are status-quo " Mercedes leading Ferrari and Red Bull Racing, followed by the rest. Ferrari's upswing in form and performances sees them nearly 100 points ahead of Red Bull Racing in second place.
This is a double header Formula 1 week, which means that the 2019 Russian Grand Prix is the coming weekend. The season has been reignited with Ferrari's resurgence. Can the Scuderia take the fight to Mercedes and Red Bull Racing at all the remaining rounds of the season?