Qualifying Analysis: 2018 Singapore Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton pulled out a mighty lap to clinch pole position for the 2018 Singapore Grand Prix at the Marina Bay Circuit. The Briton clinches the 200th pole position for a driver from his country and the 79th pole position of his career. Max Verstappen claimed the second position the grid for the second time at this circuit and was followed by Sebastian Vettel limping his car back in third.

A weekend which is normally an underwhelming weekend for the Silver Arrows outfit turned out to be one of their best and maybe a title deciding one for the season. The Brackley squad managed putting both their cars ahead of both the Ferraris, at a circuit where Ferrari clearly has the superior machinery and unmatched potential. Valtteri Bottas qualified with the fourth fastest time, which should help Hamilton cover Vettel in the race, if he has a quick start. Kimi Raikkonen who set the fastest time in the second session failed to put in a quick lap and had to settle for fifth place on the grid.

Daniel Ricciardo qualified sixth on the grid, followed Sergio Perez with the seventh fastest time. Haas driver Romain Grosjean split the Mexican and his team-mate Esteban Ocon with the eighth fastest time. The junior Frenchman whose future in Formula 1 remains a doubt, qualified ninth on the grid. Nico Hulkenberg remained the only Renault driver to qualify in the top ten point scoring position, claiming the final point scoring spot on the grid.

As Martin Brundle put it “It was a Lewis lap!!”, and this might be the lap that defines the Briton’s potential and invincible talent. At the Singapore circuit seventy percent of the job done is by securing the pole position. However with the track history guaranteeing at least one safety car per race, and the chances for first lap incidents, there can be a cloud of uncertainty looming over until the chequered flag drops.

Vettel was heard on his pit radio in Q3 telling the pitwall, that the Mercedes were putting in slow outlaps, to get their tyres ready which was helping them get a clean lap. However, if he were not controlling the pit-wall from his car and had taken a leaf from Verstappen’s playbook, he would have concentrated on what matters the most which is driving, extracting the best out of the fastest machinery he has at his disposal.

By design, chassis and engine the current Ferrari looked the most agile machine around this circuit in the practice sessions. However whether it is the title pressure, or tyre choice errors during qualifying by the team, remains a question unanswered. Mercedes gambled with their tyre choice due to lack of sets of hyper soft tyres, therefore opting for a set of ultrasofts which compromised their Q1 session. Ferrari followed the same in Q2, which surprised many but managed putting one car in first place which was Raikkonen’s, while Vettel could only post the fifth fastest time.

It was only in Q3 where Hamilton pulled out a cracker of a lap to clinch a comfortable provisional pole. Ferrari drivers managed third and fifth in their first run but were unable to improvise their times on the final run or unleash their cars potential due to traffic incurred in the second and third sectors of the session, resulting in a botched qualifying. This compromised qualifying might cost the team some serious points if they are not able to translate todays outcome into podiums tomorrow.

All wasn’t smooth sailing for Mercedes either, coming into Singapore. The Silver Arrows lacked pace on the long runs on both tyre compounds where Red Bull seemed more competitive than them. Ferraris errors in the qualifying session, have just handed than opportunity at another weekend where they could have had a compromised result, and the renewed confidence they carry for race will make the scarlet outfit a nervous garage consumed by the pressure to win.

In Q1 if the ultrasoft tyre gamble has not paid off, it would have been a compromised qualifying. Pierre Gasly and Kevin Magnussen who were unable to improvise their time, were the reason Hamitlon was saved by a whisker of a tenth of a second. Drivers eliminated in the first session apart from Magnussen were, Brendon Hartley, Stoffel Vandoorne, Serie Sirotkin and Lance Stroll. Vandoorne has now been out-qualified by his team in every race this season.

In Q2, the drivers eliminated were Fernando Alonso who starts in 11th, Carlos Sainz , Charles Leclerc, Marcus Ericsson, and Pierre Gasly. Alonso could finish well within the points tomorrow with the free tyre choice available to him, and the Sainz can’t be discounted either. Alonso was heard on the radio telling his team that 11th place was the better position and post the session he admitted he planned to qualify to that grid position despite having the pace to qualify further up the grid.

According to the Spaniard, it was better to start 11th with an option tyre or a free tyre choice, rather than starting on the compulsory Q2 tyre, which the top 10 have to start on. Whether the deliberate strategy unfolds as plans remains to be seen but the double world champion has been known to be an opportunist and if it pays off a seventh-place finish in the race could be a possibility.

Overall, in the mid-field the Racing Point Force India cars looked the most competitive and had some innovative updates on the car bodywork. However, Haas driver Romain Grosjean should be the man ideally in contention for the best of the rest place in the points finishes in the race.

According to Hulkenberg, an eighth place or seventh was a possibility but the Force India updates seemed to have paid off to give them the edge, coupled with a poor outlap. A critical part of qualifying or stringing a good lap around this track can be a neat or clean outlap. Another instance of a poor outlap ruining qualifying here, was reflected by both Ferraris, who pushed too hard to get out of traffic and get their first shot at posting a time.

As far as the top six are concerned apart from the Renault engine reliability that Verstappen was heard ranting about over the radio, this could be a race where the young Dutchman could deny Hamilton his win. If there are no engine failures or technical problems with the Red Bull Racing cars in the race tomorrow, they could be in a good position, to claim more than one podium.

For Hamilton however, this pole position lap could be his title decider, if all goes as planned, he could run away with the lead from the first lap itself. A win here could guarantee the Briton a two-race win lead over Vettel, calculating the number of wins. For the Ferraris, the start will be key and if there are lessons learnt from their performance at the last race here, they will have to be certain of not repeating the similar hasty mistakes on the opening laps.

On paper and in theory, the pecking order might be Ferrari at the top, Red Bull Racing as second fastest and Mercedes in third fastest in terms of race pace. But the 61 laps around the Marina Bay circuit, are the most unpredictable ones every year. The history opts safety cars, and first lap incidents can often throw the best of predictions out of the window. Whether this is Ferraris race to lose, or whether it is their weekend to regain lost momentum will be a critical question to answer.

The 61 laps around the Marina Bay circuit can span over 2 hours, along with the 100 percent guarantee of a safety car. Therefore, this race becomes a play ground from interesting tyre and pit-lane strategies to play out. Start-line performance could play key for the underdogs on the grid, and there’s nothing like some tropical rain to add to the havoc. The forecast for the race is mostly dry, with low chances of rain during the race, however there could be a build up in humidity levels posing physical challenges for both man and machine. The only night race on the calendar is scheduled to start at 8:10 pm local time and 5:40 pm Indian Standard Time.