There may well be six races remaining in the 2013 Formula 1 season but Sebastian Vettel’s form means that the title will probably be wrapped up long before the Brazilian Grand Prix. In Singapore, he simply drove away from the opposition to win for the third successive race; it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could collect the next six races. The Singapore Grand Prix wasn’t a race; it was a 61 lap exhibition of man and machine totally at one, with the others incapable of mounting any form of challenge.
Nico Rosberg said pre-race that he was wary of Vettel keeping one eye on the championship and he provided the best hope of stopping the Red Bull driver. Vettel didn’t make the best start and was edged out by Rosberg into the first corner. However, the Mercedes driver’s lead lasted mere seconds as he ran too deep into the braking zone, slithered across the kerbs at turn two and had to play second fiddle to Vettel. From there, Vettel bolted. His lead was 1.9 seconds after the opening lap, 4.1s after lap two and 5.6s after the third tour of the Marina Bay street circuit. The gap stabilised until the pit stop phase, after which Vettel was pulling away from Rosberg at a rate of half a second a lap until Daniel Ricciardo shunted his Toro Rosso at turn 18, triggering the deployment of the safety car.
It was fitting that Bernd Maylander would make a trip out on track as the race marked 40 years (minus a day) since the first use of the safety car in the sport. Back then, a yellow Porsche 914 driven by Eppie Wietzes picked up the wrong car and led to confusion in the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix. There were no such problems for Maylander, although the rule to allow lapped cars through prolonged the caution period for a lap or two further than required.
The safety car period wiped out Vettel’s lead and Red Bull opted not to pit the reigning champion. Nico Rosberg, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton also stayed out, but Fernando Alonso dived into the pit lane for a fresh set of primes, with the intention of running the remaining 36 laps of the race on those tyres, dropping him to fifth place.
Usually Vettel’s race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin acts as exasperated teacher to his star pupil, urging Vettel to maintain his pace and nurse his tyres. But the order for the German was to push. He responded in devastating fashion.
The safety car peeled into the pits and gap between Vettel and Rosberg at the end of each lap progressed as such: 3.2, 5.5, 8.3, 9.9, 11.9, 14.3, 16.5, 18.7, 20.4, 22.1. Rosberg pitted for his second stop, with Hamilton pitting a couple of laps later. Vettel pitted at the end of lap 44, with his lead over new second placed driver Alonso up to over half a minute. He came out a few seconds ahead of the Spaniard. With a new fresh of option tyres – and Alonso preserving his primes – Vettel continued his relentless march towards the chequered flag, eventually winning by 32.6 seconds.
The only worry in Vettel’s mind was a brake issue, which he had to nurse through the final few laps.
“I could definitely feel it,” he said. “It was building up towards the end of the race. Fortunately we were in the lead and we had a new set of supersofts which we saved yesterday, so I could afford to take it a bit easy.”
Alonso owed his second place to a fabulous start, in which he perfected the acceleration and stuck to the outside line around the first corner to rocket up to third place. He was briefly marooned behind Paul di Resta after the first stops – the Brit had yet to take to the pits – but third place looked probable. When those in front of him opted not to pit under the safety car, he was elevated to a net second position, which he was able to maintain until the end of the race. Alonso won’t win the championship, but he’s doing a damn good job of not chucking in the towel.
Kimi Raikkonen suffered from a bad back all weekend and the Lotus driver was in such pain that he missed a large amount of running in final practice, scuppering his qualifying simulation and that had a knock-on effect later in the evening. The Finn started the race from thirteenth but dispatched rivals with aplomb and pitted behind the safety car. From there, he managed his tyres and ran in fourth place, eventually going around the outside of Jenson Button at turn 14 once the McLaren driver began struggling with his primes. Even so, it was a superb move.
“After the weekend where we had some problems with myself and not the ideal setup with all those things and where we were yesterday, finishing third, I don’t think we could have asked much more,” he said.
Webber managed to jump Rosberg through the pit stop phase and the duo, along with Hamilton, began carving their way through the midfield, sometimes taking five seconds out of rivals on used tyres. Webber was up to fourth when his Red Bull developed a problem and he was urged to short-shift. The car then lost more power and Webber conceded positions to the Mercedes, as well as the Ferrari of Felipe Massa, who was running a similar strategy. Webber coasted around the circuit but eventually the RB9 caught fire on the final lap. He also ignored the instructions of the marshals in order to bag a lift back with Alonso after the chequered flag, and while the moment sparked memories of the past, Webber was perhaps fortunate to escape with a reprimand for the manner in which he hailed his taxi…
Webber’s demise promoted Rosberg and Hamilton to fourth and fifth, with Massa in sixth. Hamilton briefly battled with Rosberg as they came up behind slower rivals but eventually had to play second fiddle.
Button’s pace dropped like a stone once his tyres were shot but he did enough to hang on to seventh place, half a second in front of the similarly tyred-out Sergio Perez. Nico Hulkenberg collected a couple of points for Sauber, but was dismayed at having to concede a position to Perez. The McLaren nosed up the inside of Hulkenberg at turn seven, forcing Hulkenberg across the run-off to stay ahead. The incident again highlighted the inconsistency of decisions, for had Hulkenberg not taken evasive action, the two would have collided…
Adrian Sutil took the final point in tenth place, although Force India should have taken a bagful of points that would have reignited their battle with McLaren. Di Resta was running on fresh tyres during the final stint and was following Massa, when he locked up and hit the barriers at turn seven. The Brit’s ignominious run continued and Force India lost a probable seventh place.
Pastor Maldonado showed improvements in the Williams and came home just outside of the points in eleventh, while Esteban Gutierrez was unable to convert his strong qualifying pace and finished in twelfth. Valtteri Bottas had problems at the start and picked up rubber on his front wing and ended up thirteenth, with Jean-Eric Vergne in fourteenth after suffering from severe tyre wear and an overheating car.
Webber was still classified fifteenth after his last lap fire, while Giedo van der Garde won the battle at the back. The Dutchman leapt ahead of Bottas at the start and was within sight of Sutil during the opening stint. Max Chilton beat Jules Bianchi, with the Frenchman having to change his steering wheel during his first stop. Charles Pic finished in nineteenth place after having to make a late stop for a fresh set of tyres. The bad day for Formula 1’s French connection was rounded out by Romain Grosjean. The Lotus driver endured several problems in practice and was on course for a top five finish when his E21 lost air pressure, which eventually led to his retirement.
It was the first time that Vettel had won the same event for three successive years and he was quick to point out that, in spite of his commanding performance, winning isn’t easy.
“It was surely not easy to get everything right all weekend. I think the whole team can be extremely proud. I know how much work is going in. They are flat out checking everything on the car they can. Same with the engineers, late hours in the office here but also in the factory. So there’s a lot of team effort going in. If we have results like today where we have the luxury to control the race at some stage, then it’s because of those late hours, because of the commitment that goes in from everybody. It’s just a privilege to be part of the team and be part of that. It’s one of my favourite races here. I’ve won here three times in a row – which is incredible – so I’m just extremely happy with that and extremely happy to be with the team at this stage.”
Next up is the Korean Grand Prix at the universally unloved Yeongam circuit. Vettel has led all but 10 of the 165 racing laps there. Then there’s Suzuka, scene of Vettel victories in 2009, 2010 and 2012. After that? India. Vettel has never been beaten there.
It’s a case of when, not if, the German becomes the youngest four times world champion.