SINGAPORE GP PREVIEW – By Bob Constanduros

After two high speed victories at Spa and Monza, Lewis Hamilton leads the World Championship by a scant three points as Formula One heads east to Singapore, then Malaysia and Japan, before heading west to Texas, Mexico City, Brazil and finally back to Abu Dhabi. It’s a long way in distance, but it’s just seven races, a third of the championship or so, and of course the overseas races get under way here in Singapore this weekend.

It really has become a duel between Lewis and Sebastian Vettel and one to relish. The championship will ebb and flow as individual car performance matches to each of the circuits, power unit penalties will play their part, the teams will be under intense pressure, there will be great pressure to get everything right at every turn. It’s hard to imagine just how much pressure there will be on those involved.

At this stage, it’s hard to really envisage either team running away in the next few races. If Mercedes have had an advantage in past years, they don’t seem to have anything similar this year. And if Ferrari have dropped off in the past, there’s no indication that that will happen his year. Lewis has won in China, Spain, Canada, Britain plus the last two. Sebastian has won in Australia, Bahrain, Monaco and then Hungary. Kimi Raikkonen has backed up his Ferrari teammate with a couple of second places only, whereas Lewis’s Finnish teammate Valtteri Bottas has not only scored wins in Russia and Austria, but has four second places as well.

Both championship protagonists have scored points in every race; their worst score has been a seventh for Lewis in Monaco and the same position for Sebastian at Silverstone. Bottas didn’t score in Spain and Raikkonen failed to score in Spain and Azerbaijan. Mercedes, however, have a relatively comfortable 62 point lead in the Constructors’ series.

The first of these overseas races is in balmy Singapore where the temperature is 28 degrees at nine o’ clock this evening as I write this (I wish it was this warm inside, the aircon is a bit too efficient in here). Outside, lights blaze as they will for the next three evenings, as fans from around the world gather for this unique event. They don’t just come from Asia; a South African couple I met today were pleased to have found a direct flight to bring them here from Johannesburg, and the flight from Perth, WA, will be full of Ricciardo fans. It’s a big event.

Ferrari and Mercedes have won this race twice each with Red Bull Racing pipping them by a win to be the best most successful team here. Sebastian Vettel is the most successful driver with four wins – three from pole – and he has finished every one of his nine Singapore GPs, never lower than fifth. Lewis has had three poles and went on to win two from there – seven out of nine Singapore GPs have been won from pole. But that doesn’t mean you can’t overtake; Sebastian Vettel gained 17 places last year, racing from 22nd to fifth and beating Felipe Massa’s record of making up 16 places in 2010 when he came through from 24th to eighth.

You could say, then, that honours are pretty even so far but in doing research, you keep coming up on Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo has started and finished second for the last two years and he holds the race lap record. Teammate Max Verstappen was fastest in FP1 last year; Daniel was fastest in Q1. Red Bull do seem to be well suited to this race.

While it’s not quite the hectic scramble of Monaco, it is still a lively, bumpy ride around the streets with ever present walls and not much run-off anywhere. By the time you read this, Sean Gelael and Antonio Giovanazzi may have driven FP1 for Scuderia Toro Rosso and the Haas F1 respectively; not, perhaps, the ideal circuit on which to step in for one session…

It’s a circuit with 23 corners, you brake for 15 of them and spend nearly a quarter of the time on the brakes which makes it pretty severe. It’s the second slowest race on the calendar and therefore with a lap time as long as Spa’s, it is highly like to go to the full two hours allowed. It all takes place under lights and every day – Friday and Saturday as well as Sunday – finishes at 10pm. There will almost certainly be a safety car period; there has been one at every one of the nine races so far, so teams will build that into their strategy.

It is, of course, a pretty dirty surface initially and therefore one that evolves throughout the weekend; the improvement is likely to be in the order of over three seconds. Parts of the track have been resurfaced since last year. Rain has only affected one session in the past, but that’s no guarantee of a dry race.

Pirelli are bringing the ultrasofts, supersofts and softs for the seventh time this year and last year’s strategy was a two stopper for the first two finishers, but of course it can be influenced by those safety cars. Apart from the brakes, it’s also tough on gearboxes; there are more gearchanges per lap than at Monaco, with around 5000 in total during the race. There is so much to trip up teams and drivers at this circuit and in this race that it’s sure to be one that will grab the attention.

So physically and mentally this requires not only commitment but also preparation and some teams and drivers know what it takes to win, it’s just a matter of managing all those factors and using them to the best of advantage. Whoever wins will have done a pretty amazing job and will deserve those 25 points, but it has probably never been such an intense race as this year, a vital 25 points for the winner – but who that will be…?