What a difference a night makes. Fernando Alonso's anguished, fuel-starved end to qualifying 23 hours before was wiped from memory Sunday night in East Asia when the two-time world champion cruised to improbable victory in the inaugural FIA Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore. Nico Rosberg was second in a Williams ahead of Lewis Hamilton for McLaren Mercedes.
With Formula One enjoying the Las Vegas Effect -- shiny and bright at night -- the other factor, problematic logistics of a street race, went overlooked. But the show was all Renault. An emphatic crash by Alonso teammate Nelsinho Piquet on Lap 15 -- he said the car was "heavy" -- brought out a safety car and unleashed a pit panic that put Alonso, who had rabbited from his 15th starting spot to 11th, in position to win. That he took the opportunity and triumphed is why the 27-year-old remains the only double world champion active in F1 and -- with the exception of perhaps one team -- the most coveted driver in the paddock.
"First podium of the season and first victory as well, I'm extremely happy," Alonso said. "I cannot believe it right now. I think I need a couple of days to realize. But we won a race this year. It seems impossible."
Alonso, who became the youngest world driving champion twice with Renault, was on target to continue winning championships with McLaren until conflict with rookie teammate Hamilton last year chased the Spaniard out of a three-year deal and back to the French team.
Behind the podium placers came Timo Glock for Toyota, Sebastian Vettel for Toro Rosso, Nick Heidfeld for BMW Sauber, David Coulthard for Red Bull, and Kazuki Nakajima for Williams in the points. Running thereafter were Jenson Button for Honda, Heikki Kovalainen for McLaren, Robert Kubica for BMW Sauber, Sebastien Bourdais for Toro Rosso, Felipe Massa for Ferrari and Giancarlo Fisichella for Force India. Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari), Adrian Sutil (Force India), and Piquet (Renault), crashed out; Jarno Trulli (Toyota), Mark Webber (Red Bull), and Rubens Barrichello (Honda), suffered mechanical failures.
Piquet's accident determined the race. Immediately affected was Rosberg in the lead Williams, who was heading for refueling when the safety car came out, putting the German afoul of closed pits. Rosberg, assessed a 10-second stop-go penalty, appeared to have lost the hard work of getting around heavily fuelled, one-stop strategist Trulli, accomplished with full brake lockup on Lap 7. Right behind him, fourth-starting Kubica, earned the same penalty. Such is the nature of racing that eighth-starting Rosberg, who managed to lead and pull out a 20-second gap before serving the penalty, had the horses and course placing to come up trumps while Kubica wound up pointless in 11th. The result was Rosberg's best in nearly three full seasons in F1.
"I got a bit of a difficult start, on the dirty side, and dropped behind Jarno," Rosberg said. "He was pretty slow. I suppose he was heavy on fuel. So I absolutely had to get by him. The problem was that my only chance was Turn 1, where I wasn't ever quite close enough, and Turn 7, where on the inside it's so bumpy that it's simply impossible to outbrake someone. I mean it's very, very difficult. So it took some time till I was literally alongside and I could brake on the inside. And even then it was quite a hairy moment because I locked up everything. But I came through. Then I was doing one qualifying lap after another because I knew it was my only chance to break clear of that group, and it worked out well."
Rosberg said he thought it was all over after he was told to pit only to have the safety car come on track. "I was really annoyed," he said. "I thought that was it, that was the end of it." Instead, he pushed open a gap and drove to his best F1 result through it.
Fate similarly tapped Hamilton, front-row starter whose second place fell to pit stops and left him fighting from eighth to third, spending quite a few laps in fourth place behind Red Bull's David Coulthard as the confusion that followed the Lap 15 incident mingled with team strategies to allow all sorts of drivers to cycle through the top positions. A second safety car with 10 of 61 laps left closed all gaps and left Hamilton to choose racing Rosberg or taking points. The Englishman padded his driving championship points lead, extending his lead over Massa from one to seven points, 84-77.
"My pit stop went really well," Hamilton said of the first or safety car round of stops. "To be honest, I had to wait a little bit because there was a few cars coming past, including Felipe and perhaps Nico or something, coming to his stop, so I lost a little bit of time there but it didn't cause me any troubles. We had great pace. Just, unfortunately, I got stuck behind DC. He was a good second slower than me but also a good second slower than anyone else in front of us and it was so difficult to get close to him to overtake, but he drove a fantastic race."
And what of Ferrari? They made the race exciting for all the wrong reasons. What looked like triumph -- and the drivers' title chase lead -- ended in tears when pole sitter Massa, who rocketed off the start and built a five-second lead over Hamilton, pitted in the first safety car frenzy, Lap 17, his third-starting teammate Raikkonen pulling in behind him. In milliseconds that followed, Ferrari did their best to dash the season.
The team's electronic minder system showed green for Massa to go before the fuel rig hose was off the car, and Massa reacted instantly, tearing away the hose, spilling a mechanic, and driving off down pit lane trailing the fuel hose. The Brazilian stopped at the end of the lane -- watching Hamilton's refuelled McLaren pull past, probably wanting to puke -- and waited as mechanics sprinted to him and struggled to remove the now-damaged hose, the engine whining all the while. Massa earned a drive-through penalty for early pit release and spent the rest of the race with backmarkers out of the points, the apparently bulletproof Ferrari engine pulling him to the finish line. The mechanic was stretchered off to the track medical center, found to have no broken bones, then he was taken to a local hospital for further checks.
Through all this, Raikkonen's F2008 was serviced and released without problem. Raikkonen waged a valiant effort until with three laps to go, the Finn bounced over the high curbs on Turn 10 then bounced straight into a wall to take him out of a points position. With bright sides slim pickin's, Raikkonen did set fast lap of the race, his 10th this season.
Alonso said his strategy for starting from the back half of the grid was to gain as many spots on the first lap as possible then count on opportunism because the R28 had pace.
"We thought about a one-stop strategy but we had some concerns with the brakes," he said. "We said one stop is not possible, so we try something very different. We try to make as many places places as possible then try from there. The pace was there."
So was tire strategy. Alonso used the prime or soft Bridgestone tire compound to have the better-wearing tire for the balance of the race. Rosberg and Hamilton were disadvantaged on the soft-soft compound. Alonso said he was able to back off engine revs to finish the race once he had the lead, which he took over from pitting one-stopper Trulli on Lap 34. The Spaniard then took off like un gato escaldo and was never headed, not even when a second safety car bunched things up with 10 laps left when Massa spun at Turn 17 and caught out a surprised Adrian Sutil, who promptly smacked the wall.
"This victory, I think, is well-deserved," Alonso said. "The guys worked extremely hard all through the season. We start far behind, maybe one second behind BMW and now we are the same pace as them or even better and this is thanks to the great job. So we'll keep pushing."
Renault team boss Flavio Briatore called the race "fantastic" but wouldn't be drawn on whether victory might keep his No. 1 driver, who has been linked to BMW Sauber and to Ferrari, despite the scuderia's drivers being signed through 2010. "It's not a victory that changes a situation," the Italian said.
Glock said fourth place let him reach a personal goal of 20 points this season. Vettel called the race one of the toughest of the season because of the city-state's heat and humdity, and the bumpy track surface that required total concentration. Heidfeld called the F1.08 good, but he was unable to show its pace for being stuck in traffic. Coulthard said he was happy to finish in the points even if the conditions were "hot as hell". Nakajima, who made his own scintillatng pass on Trulli, proclaimed the day a great one for the Williams team.
In a singularly ungreat day for Ferrari, the Italian team lost what had been a five-point constructors' title points lead to McLaren, who now lead, 135-134.
A Toyota protest that Toro Rosso released Vettel from his pit box early was disallowed.
The circus next stops in Japan in two weeks.