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How the safety car robbed us of a thrilling showdown in Singapore

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How the safety car robbed us of a thrilling showdown in Singapore
Sep 25, 2012, 5:40 PM

The Singapore Grand Prix can definitely be classed as a “what might have been” race, as the intervention of two safety cars meant that we were ...

The Singapore Grand Prix can definitely be classed as a “what might have been” race, as the intervention of two safety cars meant that we were denied an exciting and unpredictable finish. Also the retirements of Lewis Hamilton and Pastor Maldonado spoiled what would have been intense competition at the front.

None of this will have bothered Sebastian Vettel, who took his second win of the season, nor Fernando Alonso, who extended his championship lead over all his rivals bar Vettel.

But despite the anti-climactic ending, the strategy decisions and factors that shaped the race are very interesting and worth a deeper analysis.

Pre-race expectations

One of the key factors in the weekend was that the gap in performance between the Pirelli soft and supersoft tyres was greater than expected. In qualifying it was as much as 1.6 seconds on some cars. In the race, many teams found that the soft tyres were not working to the optimum; they were designed to be more resistant to high temperatures, but didn’t perform on the slippery surface.

Degradation was always going to be the limiting factor in Singapore, especially with the rear tyres, so the opening stint was crucial. Everyone expected high degradation in the opening stint. Teams which were unable to get to around lap 13 or 14 on the set of used supersofts from qualifying were going to have to stop three times. And as the pit lane in Singapore is the slowest of the year at 29 seconds, there was a premium to being able to extend the tyre life and do it in two stops.

So most of the top teams went out at the start aiming to do two stops but waiting to see how bad the tyre degradation would be in reality. Among the rival team strategists there was a suspicion that Red Bull would put Mark Webber on a three stop strategy, as this would gather information on the supersoft tyres and once he moved onto the new softs, which would help Sebastian Vettel’s race effort.

Webber’s tyres were two laps older than Vettel’s so the team could monitor the degradation. However there were also signs that Webber had an over-steering car and this led to higher rear tyre degradation, so he was obliged to do a three stop in any case.

Second Safety car spoils the show

There is always a safety car at Singapore and this year we had two. The first, on lap 33 for Narain Karthikeyan, fell in the window for the second stops and lasted six laps. Most of the front runners took advantage of it to make a stop, although Fernando Alonso and Pastor Maldonado were slightly caught out by it as they had stopped five laps earlier.

But the second one, on lap 40 for Michael Schumacher hitting Jean Eric Vergne, really changed the game. It meant that the cars were able to spend another three laps at reduced speed, making it a total of nine laps behind the safety car. Add in the fact that because of the safety car delays the race ran to two hours and so only 59 of the 61 laps were covered and it meant an 18% reduction in the number of racing laps - a real boost for drivers who were gambling.

This saved quite a few cars, which would otherwise have run into serious trouble in the closing stages of the race without making a third stop.

We would have seen the cars with higher wear coming under pressure from those with better wear, as we saw in Valencia, for example and it would have made for a very exciting finish.

Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso certainly fall into this category. Vettel stopped on lap 10 with clear signs of tyre degradation and Alonso a lap later. Red Bull were on a three stop plan with Webber and may have been obliged to do the same with Vettel without the nine laps of safety car; it certainly helped them to make it to the end in two stops and it’s likely that Alonso would have had the same problem. Ferrari had some issues with overheating the rear tyres in Singapore, so the safety cars were a blessing.

In contrast Jenson Button had been conserving tyres in the opening stint and managed to get to lap 14 before the first stop.

He was preparing the ground for the end of the second stint and the end of the race, when he would be able to attack Vettel on tyres that were four laps newer. The McLaren seemed to be working very well in Singapore and even Hamilton would probably have made the finish in two stops, despite pushing hard in the opening stint and a front tyre issue that forced him to make his first stop on lap 12, slightly earlier than planned.

The first safety car took Button’s advantage away and the second one meant that Vettel had no tyre issues at the end.

Force India – strong result with one car, disappointment with the other

For the second year in a row in Singapore, Force India’s Paul di Resta got a very strong result, in this case a career best fourth place.

Di Resta is another driver who was able to make it safely with two stops; he pitted on lap 12 and then took advantage of the first safety car to stop a second time, losing only one track position to Alonso, who had already stopped. He followed him to the flag. He had stayed with the Ferrari for most of the race, but in the final stint the Ferrari was a little faster on the new soft tyres.

Without the second safety car Di Resta too might have struggled on 28 lap old tyres. Luckily for him there were no fast three stopping cars coming up behind. Di Resta benefitted from the Mercedes of Rosberg holding up cars behind him, in the run up to the second stop, creating a gap for him to drop back into.

Team mate Hulkenberg was one of those who tried a three stopper and lost out due to the second safety car.

Hulkenberg had qualified 11th and started on the soft tyre. His strategy was to run a long first stint but he lost time behind Raikkonen and Schumacher in the second stint, just before the safety car. The second safety car meant he couldn’t take advantage of track position and he stopped when it came out, then tried to do two ten lap sprints on new supersoft tyres, but it didn’t work out and he lost further track positions with a third stop on lap 50.

The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading F1 teams' strategists and from Pirelli

TYRE CHOICES, SINGAPORE

SS= Super soft; S = Soft; U = Used; N= New

Vettel: SSU SN (10) SN (33) 2

Button: SSU SN (14) SN (33) 2

Alonso: SSU SN (11) SN (29) 2

Di Resta: SSU SN (12) SN (33) 2

Rosberg: SSN SN (12) SN (33) 2

Räikkönen: SSU SN (13) SN (32) 2

Grosjean: SSU SN (14) SU (33) 2

Massa: SSU SN (1) SN (19) SSN (33) 3

Ricciardo: SSU SN (11) SN (31) 2

Webber: SSU SN (8) SSU (28) SU (40) 3

Perez: SN SN (18) SSN (40) 2

Glock: SN SSN (13) SN (25) 2

Kobayashi: SN SN (14) SSN (30) SSN (50) 3

Hülkenberg: SN SN (18) SSN (40) SSU (50) 3

Kovalainen: SSN SN (12) SSU (26) SSU (45) 3

Pic: SN SN (16) SSN (32) 2

De La Rosa: SN SSU (18) SN (30) SSN (40) 3

Senna: SSN SN (10) SSU (25) SN (33) 3

Petrov: SSN SN (1) SSU (18) SSU (30) SU (40) 4

RACE HISTORY, Courtesy of Williams F1 Team

The graph has been adapted to better reflect the safety car periods of the race. The zero line is the average of the winners' race lap times, expressed as the same lap time every lap for reference.

Note the sudden drop off in pace on Vettel's car in the first stint as the tyre degradation suddenly hits.

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