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What is going on with Mercedes' fall from grace in Singapore?

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What is going on with Mercedes' fall from grace in Singapore?
Sep 19, 2015, 6:18 PM

It's rare for a pace setting car to have an off weekend like Mercedes is having at the moment.

It's rare for a pace setting car to have an off weekend like Mercedes is having at the moment. Rarer still when the advantage it enjoyed in the previous races of the season was as great as this Mercedes has been.

So what is going on in Singapore this weekend?

How does a car that enjoyed over half a second a lap advantage over Ferrari two weeks ago trail the same car by 1.5 seconds in Singapore? And how does a car that set pole position and won in all the other races this year where Pirelli has brought soft and supersoft tyres struggle so badly to get them working here?

It's fair to say that the response from most in the field is, "Who cares? It's a shot in the arm for the sport" in a season that has been so utterly dominated by Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton in particular.

Jenson Button articulated those exact thoughts tonight and pole sitter Sebastian Vettel expressed broadly the same sentiment, while noting that Mercedes is likely to be back to winning ways in Suzuka next weekend with its long straights, fast corners and choice of hard and medium tyres.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton said tonight that he got the most out of the car, that it was well balanced, no understeer, but just lacked grip and traction. Nico Rosberg said that he felt the car was okay, but he and his engineers have no explanation for why the Ferrari and Red Bull cars are so much faster.

Nor have Mercedes turned the engine down after the reliability dramas of Monza; Hamilton and Rosberg were the fastest in the speed traps in qualifying at 310km/h, as they have been all weekend.

Pirelli say that they cannot see anything in the data which suggests an obvious problem. Mercedes is not overheating its tyres, nor is it failing to heat them up sufficiently.

It is however failing to get the maximum out of them.

Mercedes F1

It is circuit specific; the answer lies in the strange alchemy between the chassis, tyre and track surface that means the tyres operate perfectly or they don't and when there are 23 corners, as there are here, any small disadvantage is magnified.

The peak of the operating window of the super soft tyre at Singapore this year is around 2 degrees - a much smaller than usual and most drivers either didn't get into that window (Mercedes, Williams) or passed through it but couldn't maintain it.

Vettel, uniquely, managed to do his whole lap at that peak. This is down to set up, tyre preparation on the out lap and the way the front brake duct cooling heats the front tyres from the inside. This could count against him in the race, if he overheats the tyres.

The same tyre choice will be in Russia and probably in Abu Dhabi, but Mercedes do not see any reason to believe that they will struggle there as they are doing here. Nevertheless, with Vettel just 21 points behind Rosberg in the championship, the intriguing possibility remains that he could be under pressure at these events.

It's also undeniable that Ferrari and Red Bull have improved. Mercedes has noted that the corner speeds of both teams were impressive at Spa and Monza, both tracks where their engines carry the day. Ferrari has greatly improved its qualifying engine modes and on top of that James Allison's team has evolved the car to suit Vettel's demands for a strong rear end, which was the hallmark of his Adrian Newey designed Red Bull title winning cars in 2010-13.

Vettel said he expects a stronger challenge from Mercedes in the race, but team boss Toto Wolff poured cold water on that: "On a circuit which is so tough for the cars and drivers, and where overtaking is very difficult, we shouldn't expect miracles tomorrow.

"It's going to be a day for damage limitation."

He's right; it's not like Mercedes were fast in the long runs on Friday and slow in single lap qualifying. They did not have the pace of Red Bull or Ferrari on long runs and their tyre degradation was worse.

Vettel, Ricciardo

Daniel Ricciardo's long runs were the most impressive and he must be considered a serious contender for the win tomorrow.

He, Vettel and Raikkonen all saved a new set of super soft tyres from Q1 and that means that they will carry a speed advantage all the way through the stint in which they use them. Ricciardo may try a different strategy from Vettel in the middle stint, saving his supersofts for an attack at the end. If he matches Vettel's likely supersoft/supersoft/soft strategy he will follow him home.

An undercut remains a possibility as the Red Bull can hold on to its tyres better than the Ferrari at the end of the supersoft stints.

Hamilton was fairly relaxed after this curious day for two reasons; he has a 53 point lead in the championship so he can afford a poor weekend and his main rival Nico Rosberg is behind him on the grid anyway with the possibility of an engine penalty in one of the later races this season due to his issues in Monza.

No need to panic, but Hamilton will do well to get on the podium in Singapore.

Do you have any theories about what's caused this upset in Singapore? Let us have them in the Comments section below

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Series Formula 1
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