It wasn’t the best race, but the Singapore Grand Prix threw up plenty of talking points. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari come under scrutiny from our panel of journalists, but blue flags, Sergio Perez’s temper and Mercedes’ young driver programme are also up for debate…
Blue flags became a talking point in Singapore. Does F1 need to amend or completely scrap the system of making back-markers move aside for the lead drivers?
KW: I’m in two minds on this one. Half of me thinks drivers should have to overtake the cars ahead, irrespective of whether or not they’re on the race lap — it is racing, after all. But the other half of me is wary of races ruined when someone who’s done a brilliant job from lights out runs into a Pastor Maldonado equivalent in the closing stages. But perhaps that’s also racing? Ditching blue flags would certainly up the drama.
MH: F1 currently presents a perfect storm in this area. Life is made unnecessarily difficult because these cars can’t get close to each other when running maximum downforce and so the leaders need help to a ridiculous degree. My preference would be no blue flags at all. Getting past back markers is part of racing and should be a challenge, with race control/stewards keeping an eye for anyone blocking deliberately.
NS: No. The paying public comes to see the fight for 1st, not the fight for 18th, and I don’t think anyone wants to see the former ruined by cars at the rear end of the field.
LE: The danger with scrapping blue flags is that you end up with situations where great battles for the lead get ruined. The incident with Romain Grosjean in Singapore added some excitement, but it can just as easily end up going the other way. In modern F1 we have clear B-teams such as Toro Rosso and Sauber and they would inevitably end up waving their A-team drivers through while blocking drivers from rival outfits.
Can Vettel still win the championship from here?
KW: Vettel’s car can win the title from here. Vettel himself? Not so much. As a professional sports psychologist (not!) I think Germany was a massive turning point inside Seb’s head, and one he’s been struggling to recover from ever since. There have been too many easy wins lost for silly reasons, and I don’t think you can underestimate the psychological damage of knowing you’ve got the best package on the grid but being beaten by someone who is consistently performing at the peak of their abilities.
MH: Mathematically, yes. But the chances have to be very slim, with Vettel doing the bulk of the winning. It’s going to take a DNF for Hamilton — these things do happen, as Lewis will recall from Malaysia 2016 — to give Seb half a chance. But it’s not over until it’s over and we’ve got some tricky and intriguing races (not Russia!) coming up.
NS: He has the car to, but Italy and Singapore made me doubt whether he and Ferrari have their heads in the right place. I can’t see Vettel in his current form beating Hamilton in his current form without something happening to the No.44 Mercedes.
LE: Yes, but it’s no longer in his hands. He and Ferrari need to rely on Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes making mistakes because I can’t see a series of events where he wins at all the remaining rounds. He should never have found himself in this situtation with the car he has, but credit to Mercedes for taking advantage.
Ferrari’s strategy calls once again came under scrutiny in Singapore. Does the team need a complete revamp of its race operation?
KW: I’m going to go with no on this one, because we’re all human and we all screw up. Race strategy is basically gambling — sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s a lot of guesswork in all those numbers. This season we’ve slagged off both Mercedes and Ferrari for making a mess of things, and we’ve also celebrated both teams for getting it right.
MH: You can tell the Ferrari race management needs a revamp judging by the way Vettel seems to be worrying about it and trying to discuss strategy from the car — which is no way to win a championship. Everyone, Mercedes included, makes mistakes but Ferrari seem to be making more across the board, the handling of the Raikkonen situation at Monza being a good example.
NS: It seems so. Leaving Singapore without a win was inexcusable. Something is not right at that team and until it gets fixed it will not win a championship.
LE: The problems go beyond just race strategy. It’s clear that Vettel didn’t extract the maximum performance from his car in qualifying and that led to the team taking risks in the race. The engineering team at the track need to start getting results, because at the moment they are letting down the brilliant work that has been going on back at the factory in Maranello.
Should Sergio Perez have received a harsher punishment for his clash with Sergey Sirotkin?
KW: Yes. I was in the post-race Charlie Whiting media session and was very confused by Whiting’s responses to questions over the incident, which he appeared to compare with Seb in Baku last year while saying that it was less of an issue because it happened at racing speeds? I’m still confused, tbh — any deliberate attempt to hit another driver at any speed should merit at least a one-race ban, in my opinion.
MH: I wouldn’t say he deliberately drove into Sirotkin; that’s a serious accusation. It was more like a bad-tempered, frustrated and clumsy defence (caused by these cars unable to race in close company: see Question 1 above) that at the very least deserved the punishment it got. But I wouldn’t go so far as to ban him.
NS: He should, but the FIA set itself a weak precedent to follow here. If Vettel intentionally hitting Hamilton in Baku is a small time penalty, I don’t know how F1 could ban a driver for something that was probably more clumsy than it was malicious.
LE: We have a superlicence penalty point system for a reason and I think Perez should have earned six rather than three points for his actions. Six points would be halfway towards a ban, which seems fair given the severity of what happened.
Esteban Ocon looks likely to be without a race drive in 2019. Should Mercedes have promoted him from Force India rather than re-signing Valtteri Bottas for another season?
KW: No. I’m a fan of Esteban, and I think it’s criminal he’s without a race drive (although I’ve heard mutterings about both a reserve driver role with Merc and a race seat with Williams), but why should Valtteri lose his seat? He’s done an excellent job for Mercedes over the past two years, winning races, collecting podiums, and helping the team secure a healthy wedge of constructors’ points and the cash they bring. Esteban deserves to have a seat, but why would Valtteri deserve to lose one?
MH: F1 looks bad when a driver of this promise and quality finds himself without a drive through no fault of his own. There’s merit in this question, but only Mercedes can give you the answer. Bottas has done a very good, professional job. But nothing exceptional. Bringing in Ocon would probably upset the harmony that currently exists on both sides of the garage. But if Lewis wins the title, then Mercedes should feel obliged to run Ocon if they are claiming career-crushing ownership of the poor guy.
NS: Yes. Bottas isn’t the future of Mercedes, Ocon is. I see how Bottas brings stability and calm alongside Hamilton but I don’t think it would be difficult to demand subservience from a junior drive who owes his recent career trajectory to the Germany company.
LE: No. There would have been an equal amount of outrage if Bottas had been ditched for 2019 earlier this year. He was the better of the two Mercedes drivers in Bahrain, China and Baku at the start of this year and has only recently lost his edge to an inspired Hamilton. What’s more, when Bottas was signed it looked as though Ocon would easily slide into a race seat at Renault for 2019. It’s unfortunate the way things have panned out, but Mercedes did the right thing retaining Bottas when they did. A year on the sidelines won’t be a disaster for Ocon’s career and you can bet Mercedes will consider him for 2020 when the option on Bottas comes up next year.