By Bob Constanduros
‘Toughest race of the year’; words often bandied about but probably true for once; that’s everyone’s description of the Singapore Grand Prix, 15th round of the Formula One World Championship.
So what it is about the Singapore Grand Prix that makes it so tough? OK, it was 34 degrees in Gravesend (not so far from Brands Hatch) the day I left but it will be over 30 every day of the Singapore Grand Prix and humidity in the seventies will ensure that it’s nice and sticky with it. (The garages are not air-conditioned, incidentally). It also means that any on-board fluids to lubricate the driver reach the heat of a nice cup of tea – but without tea, milk or sugar. It’s hotter than Malaysia, just up the road, as the circuit is enclosed by concrete safety walls, hemming in the heat.
The 5.065kms circuit has the second lowest average speed of the year but that’s because there are 23 corners here, more than at any other circuit. (Curiously, Valencia, also a quasi-street circuit, also had 23 corners). There’s a lot of stop/start, putting strain on brakes and traction. And the corners are bordered not only by concrete walls but high kerbs as well.
And being a street circuit, it’s also bumpy which amplifies the tricky conditions in the cockpit. And just to make it all that more unbearable, the race often lasts up to the two hour mark; 1 hrs 56 minutes in 2009 is the shortest it has ever been; it’s stopped the clock for three out of the last four years, partially thanks to the consistent and regular intervention of the safety car in every one of the eight races so far. (But only one session has been wet, incidentally, a situation which might just change this year.)
Being a street circuit, of course, it’s difficult to overtake here, so pole position is that much more important. In eight races, it has been won from pole five times; Felipe Massa finished 13th from pole first time around, and Lewis Hamilton failed to finished in 2012. But Lewis won from pole in 2009 and 2014; Sebastian Vettel is the most successful driver here, winning in 2011, 2012 and 2013 plus last year from pole, his most recent. Fernando Alonso won in 2008 and 2014. Indeed, only world Champions have won in Singapore.
But what is curious is that Mercedes had problems last year that left them fifth (Hamilton) and sixth (Rosberg) on the grid and just a fourth place at the chequered flag for Rosberg. What went wrong? Mercedes think they know but have they cured the problem? That will be one answer we shall be eagerly awaiting.
Ferrari, meanwhile, won the race from Red Bull second, so they must be favourites for 2016. Certainly Red Bull’s chassis and aerodynamics perform well around here. Chief aerodynamicist Dan Fallowes will be putting in a rare appearance at the circuit, in the obvious expectation that his cars will perform as expected. But with Ferrari’s form here, it may well turn into an interesting tussle between the two teams.
Of course, tyre choices and degradation on what is always an evolving circuit will also have their effect. The track picks up grip – the delta from FP1 to Q3 last year was 4.110s – but it could be washed away by expected rain. Safety cars will upset team strategy as well and even though there were two stops last year for the winning cars, the addition of a third Pirelli compound surely stirs the pot when it comes to strategy.
As in Monaco, Canada and Austria, teams have a choice of yellow soft, red supersoft and purple ultrasoft after using the former two last year. One would expect the latter to be used in qualifying so it’s interesting that Force India have just six sets as do Manor, whereas Ferrari, Haas and Ericsson have nine sets. Everyone else has seven or eight sets.
When it comes to red supersoft, Rosberg, Vettel and Grosjean have just two sets while Renault have gone for five; everyone else has three or four sets. And the yellow softs would be expected to be a longer lasting tyre; Rosberg and Force India have four sets whereas Raikkonen, Massa, Renault, Toro rosso, Sauber and Gutierrez have just one set. Make what you will of that!
Oh, and did I mention rain? Well, it’s on the forecast today and for the weekend but so far no sign of it this evening. On a street circuit, rain tends to gather, drainage isn’t ideal but 1) in this heat it will dry quite quickly although 2) it is quite likely to be torrential.
All in all, then, this is a weekend of substantial variables, probably making it the most open race of the season. Remember that Lewis Hamilton leads the World Championship from Nico Rosberg by just two points; Daniel Ricciardo is just 18 points ahead of third placed Sebastian Vettel who in turn has his teammate just seven points further back. In the Constructors, Red Bull Racing are eleven points ahead of Ferrari, while Williams is back up to third, just three points ahead of Force India.
So there’s lots to play for in Singapore; it may well be a one-off but it’s going to be a great one. The potential is always there and the conditions only strengthen the possibilities. It’s one not to miss!