Analysis: Ferrari finds its way as Mercedes loses it
Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari were the dominant force in Formula 1 in Singapore, as Mercedes suddenly found itself over a second off the pace and looking for answers. Adam Cooper analyses an unexpected weekend.
Singapore threw Formula 1 a curveball when the track proved to be unsuited to Mercedes, and the world champions found themselves with the third fastest car in the field.
Nobody predicted that the race would be a fight between Ferrari and Red Bull – the two entities heading towards an unlikely partnership in 2016 – and yet that's exactly what we got. And a grid with four cars ahead of the two Mercedes opened up a mouthwatering prospect for Sunday night.
In the end we got a good race, if not a great one. A third win of the season for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari was a popular outcome, and the German won by just 1.4s from Daniel Ricciardo, albeit having allowed the gap to drop on the last lap.
Even allowing for that, and the fact that two safety cars cost Vettel his advantage earlier on, this was close stuff, although Ricciardo was never really in a position to challenge for the win.
Very often safety car periods spice things up, and we've seen at this same venue in the past. On this occasion they served mainly to ruin the fascinating prospect of seeing the strategies of the main contenders unfold, as they all dashed into the pits together.
We'll never know how things might have played out had the race run unhindered.
Vettel's flying start
Given that he scored so many of his Red Bull wins by taking pole and controlling the race from the front it was no surprise to see Vettel charge at the start. But like his pole lap, his first lap of the race was extraordinary, as he ended it a full three seconds clear of Ricciardo.
And from there the gap quickly crept up to 5.2s/5.3s, a margin that he held with some precision for several laps. It was more than enough to ensure that he could stay in front even if Ricciardo pitted first.
Then it began to fall again, albeit in small increments. The obvious conclusion was that Vettel's tyres were past their best, and that Ricciardo had something up his sleeve. But then the Massa/Hulkenberg collision triggered a Virtual Safety Car. Given that the pitstop window was open, everyone piled into the pitlane.
"You drive a bit into the unknown, so I was trying to put a gap," said Vettel. "I was surprised by the opening laps to put five seconds straight away.
"Then I eased off; probably I was pushing a bit hard at the beginning, which allowed Daniel to just be that two, three, four tenths quicker at the end. Obviously I had a bit of margin left but the safety car answered all the questions about the first stop."
"I think Seb experimented a bit today," said Ricciardo. "The start of the race he just went, but realised towards the end of the stint I was coming. I think if wasn't for the safety car it would have got pretty close in terms of the pitstop – maybe an undercut was possible.
"It was obvious Seb pushed pretty hard at the beginning to break let's say the DRS and all of that, but then as the laps were ticking down we were starting to come alive, I was able lean on the tyres a bit more and I could see it was working in my hands.
"So when I saw the safety car come out I was a bit frustrated, but I knew there was one more stop in the race, so I knew there was one more chance to do the same thing, replicate the same, let's say, procedure."
The stops were made under the VSC, and Ricciardo spent a little longer in the pitlane. Vettel managed to add three seconds to his earlier lead, bringing it back up to six, as the cars trundled around. But then race control converted it into a full safety car, so he lost that gap.
Just to add to the intrigue, both Mercedes drivers went from super-soft to soft for the middle stint, leaving them with the possibility to be on the faster supersoft again at the end. That gave the drivers ahead something extra to think about.
We might have expected to see Vettel charge off again at the restart, but this time Ricciardo stayed in touch from the off. It was not by chance – Vettel opted to save his gap opening for later in the stint.
Indeed, having been happy with an advantage of around a second, over the course of laps 27-29 he opened it out to over four seconds, and then held it there.
Ricciardo meanwhile felt confident that he could make his tyres last better and close the gap as the crucial second stops approached. Alas, once again the safety car intervened, this time for the most bizarre of reasons.
"Seb learned a little bit from the first stint – started off a little bit easier in the second stint, then broke away," explained the Aussie. "Then I think again as the laps ticked down I was probably able to make the tyres last a bit better on the option and close in, but then safety car again..."
"I did pretty much the opposite on the second stint," Vettel confirmed. "I knew that it's impossible for Daniel, for anyone, to go 40-odd laps on the prime tyre, it will just fall apart at the end, so I think some 35 or 36 laps to go, I knew we were approaching the pitstop window.
"Plus, I knew that one of the Mercedes was on the prime tyre [actually both as noted], which obviously allows them to be on the option for the final stint, so I said, 'OK a couple of laps to go'.
"When the pitstop window more or less opened for the final stint, allowing me to finish on the prime, to go for it, open a gap, put some three or four seconds between me and Daniel, so that we can react in case he dives into the pits and he doesn't get the undercut.
"So it worked pretty well. I was controlling the pace in the second stint for a while and then, as I said, went for it."
Intruder hurt Ricciardo
The track invader-induced safety car may have cost Ricciardo any chance of reeling Vettel in and performing an undercut, but it also cost Vettel his lead once again, so for the restart we had a straight 21-lap race to the flag with both men now on the softs.
"With no more stops and no undercut Ricciardo would have to get his passing done on the track, and in essence rely on having a little more left in his tyres at the end. It didn't work out that way, and Vettel maintained a gap of 2-3s – all the way to the flag.
"In the last stint I knew that with the prime they were a bit more resilient," said Vettel. "Obviously the safety car answered all the questions, as I said, and I could maintain the gap. I wanted to put, fairly quickly, two or three seconds between us, to make sure that Daniel doesn't get too excited, to try and attack in the end.
"And it worked. I new that the prime tyre would favour us probably a bit – and it did. At the end we faced some traffic but he never really got close, so I could control the end fairly well."
"With the prime, as Seb said, that was pretty much it," said Ricciardo. "It's hard to overtake here but we tried to do what we could. We just got the fastest lap at the end, so we proved our pace all weekend. I'm proud of that."
Ricciardo and Red Bull were left to rue the unfortunate timing of the safety cars, and indeed the team lost out even more with Daniil Kvyat, who twice pitted under green just before everyone else had the benefit of a free stop.
"I think we could have taken the fight a bit closer to Ferrari because our car was definitely softer on the tyre," said Christian Horner.
"So we were more competitive at the end of the stint. And at the end of the stint we either had a VSC or Safety Car, and that just gave Ferrari a bit of breathing space for each pitstop effectively and didn't have the opportunity to either undercut them or put them under pressure at that point of the race.
"So it would have been interesting to see without the Safety Car how it would have panned out. The biggest loser was Kvyat, because he had just done his stop and through no fault of his own, this VSC worked out, others had free stops ahead of him."
Kimi Raikkonen meanwhile could not match the form of his teammate, falling away in the final stint to finish 17s behind Ricciardo, while under no threat from behind.
"Obviously we had enough speed to be in third place but I had no chance to do anything about the first two," said the Finn.
"I could follow them at the beginning, but once my tyres dropped off that just went. It wasn't that nice to have that kind of difficulties but you know we still finished third and when you have a bad few days and you finish third it's pretty good and for the team nice and hopefully we can repeat them."
So what then of Mercedes? The switch to softs for the middle stint created a little hope – Hamilton said afterwards that he was optimistic that it would have worked in his favour, at least for a podium – but his engine issue put an end to that.
How ironic for Rosberg that on the day when Lewis finally hit mechanical trouble, he could manage only fourth.
"Yeah, but there are so many different ways to see it," said Nico when asked about that aspect by Motorsport.com.
"It's frustrating because we were slow this weekend, and we don't understand it, that's the worst part. A small positive is making up some points on Lewis. We were just quick enough, anyway."
Will it be business as usual in Suzuka? The likelihood is that it will be, but Ferrari is clearly not too far away on any track.
The last few races could be more interesting that we might have anticipated a few months ago...
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