MARINA BAY, Singapore — The perceived wisdom ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix weekend was that the race — and the championship — was Sebastian Vettel’s to lose. The season’s results up to that point suggested Ferrari would have the better car at the Marina Bay street circuit and that Lewis Hamilton’s 30-point lead in the championship was more fragile than it looked. The theory went that the pace of Vettel’s superior car would allow him to do what he does best: lead from the front and break the resolve of his rival.
The reality at the end of the weekend couldn’t have been more different.
Pinpointing exactly when Vettel’s race weekend went wrong is difficult. Several small errors culminated towards the final result as Ferrari’s weekend unravelled from session to session.
There was the collision with the wall at Turn 21 on Friday night that cost him valuable setup time and tyre data.
There was the ongoing debate over the team radio between Vettel and his engineer about how best to prepare the tyres ahead of a single lap in qualifying.
There were the little lock ups at Turns 13 and 14 on his qualifying lap — possibly linked to the tyre preparation — that leaked crucial tenths of a second in the middle sector of his Q3 qualifying lap.
There was the timing of his first pit stop in the race that saw him exit behind a Force India just as he needed to push to fend off Max Verstappen.
There was the decision to put him on the ultra-soft compound tyre instead of softs, which forced him to nurse his tyres for the vast majority of the race.
And there was the simple fact that Ferrari didn’t hold the pace advantage over Mercedes that everybody thought it would.
As the dust settled on Sunday evening, it was the race strategy that stood out as the most glaring error. After gaining a place over Max Verstappen at the start, Ferrari was looking to attack Hamilton for the lead and attempted to undercut the Mercedes driver by pitting Vettel relatively early on lap 14. The thinking behind the strategy was simple: a fresh set of ultra-soft tyres, while not ideal for the 57-lap stint that would follow, would offer a performance advantage over Hamilton’s aging hyper-softs and potentially get Vettel ahead.
But Ferrari had underestimated how much performance was left in Hamilton’s tyres — ostensibly because it misheard a radio message in which Hamilton said he had “lots” of life left in tyres, believing that he said “no life” — and as Vettel set a quick pace on his outlap on new ultra-softs, Hamilton was able to match his sector times on his in-lap. The Mercedes driver retained the lead after his pit stop, and by pitting second Mercedes had the flexibility of taking the safer option of fitting the more durable soft tyres to his car. Game over for Vettel.
What proved to be even more costly was that Vettel’s pit stop dropped him behind Sergio Perez on track. That meant he was baulked by the Force India and lost crucial time to Verstappen who successfully overcut Vettel by upping his pace and pitting on lap 17. Vettel then had to nurse his fragile tyres to the flag and eventually finished the race 39 seconds adrift of the man his strategy was trying to beat.
“You see with the gap in the end and it’s clear we weren’t quick enough today, so we need to understand why and it’s largely to do with how we decided to race and which tyres [we used] and for how many laps,” Vettel said. “We tried to get to first position and get ahead, but Lewis was too quick. Once you are ahead you get to control the pace around here but we never managed to get ahead.
“I will always defend the team. I think the decisions we took in the race, the decision to try and be aggressive, if it works it’s great and today it didn’t work and it didn’t work by quite a bit, so we need to look into that. But I believe we saw something and we went for it. Inside the car it’s difficult to be on top of everything because you don’t see the whole picture.
“We were aggressive trying to get ahead, taking into account that you have to go through traffic, but that came back to bite us as we also lost second place. If it doesn’t work it’s always easy to criticise afterwards, but we will always defend what we did.”
The bottom line, however, is that Ferrari wasn’t quick enough. Had Vettel beaten Hamilton to pole, none of the above would have been issue. And that is what stands out as Ferrari’s biggest shortfall in Singapore.
“We came here thinking that we are strong, and I think we were, but not strong enough or as strong as we want to be in terms of raw race pace,” he said. “Yesterday, I still believe we could have had a better day, the same as today, but it is history and we need to move forward.
“There are a couple of differences that are standing out, about yesterday, about today, so there are things that we can learn from the others because they simply did a better job – if they finish ahead of us by half a minute then clearly they did something better than us.”
Among all the talk of Ferrari having the faster car in the second part of the season, it should be noted that Hamilton has won four of the last five races. In Germany he benefitted from Vettel sliding out of the lead of the race and took a remarkable win from the back of the grid. In Hungary a sensational wet weather qualifying lap secured pole and he won on a track where it is near impossible to overtake. In Italy he took the fight to Ferrari and came out on top after a clash with Vettel. And in Singapore another on-the-limit qualifying lap set up his win on Sunday.
Ferrari can count all four races as missed opportunities, but that should take nothing away from the achievements of Hamilton and Mercedes. Hamilton has barely put a wheel off line at the last five rounds and that is piling the pressure on Vettel. Meanwhile, Mercedes has focused on the weaknesses exposed on its car at the Belgian Grand Prix and those lessons were a big part of the reason the performance of the car was so surprisingly good this weekend.
“I think you need to make your own destiny,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said on Sunday evening. “We worked so hard after Spa to understand the car and we knew that against many voices, that we could perform well in Singapore. We came here, qualifying was amazing, the lap was stardust and then he controlled it throughout the whole race.”
The result is a 40-point lead in the drivers’ championship for Hamilton and a very different outlook for the final six races. Three wins and a third place finish are enough for Hamilton to put the championship beyond Vettel’s reach, while Vettel would only take the title by two points if he goes on to win all the remaining races with Hamilton finishing second. Of course, such statistics can be blown out of the water by a reliability issue on either car, but Hamilton’s hand is several times stronger than it was before Singapore.
After the unpreditable result of this weekend it seems unwise to try to gauage the relative performance of Ferrari and Mercedes in the coming races, but Russia should be a circuit that suits Ferrari and it’s one where Hamilton hasn’t won since 2015 despite having a competitive package.
But in order to win, Ferrari and Vettel must raise their game to the level of Hamilton and Mercedes. Another weekend like Singapore and it’s check-mate Hamilton.