Mercedes had not been beaten in a straight fight since the 2013 campaign concluded in Brazil and, as on that occasion, it was Sebastian Vettel who delivered an emphatic performance. Now resplendent in Ferrari red rather than Red Bull purple and blue, Vettel was at one with the SF15-T and hooked up Marina Bay’s punishing 23 corners to complete a torturous 61 laps in front for the fourth time in five years, wrapping up Ferrari’s third triumph of an increasingly intriguing 2015 campaign.
Mercedes was off the pace all weekend, World Champion Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Nico Rosberg mystified by the inability of the erstwhile supreme W06 Hybrid to negotiate the twisty track as effectively as the SF15-T, a situation which enabled Vettel to take his first pole position in almost two years.
It was a lap of sheer beauty, a confident Vettel pummelling the kerbs assured that his machine would remain glued to a circuit which suits his style, dancing between the walls in a manner which drew flashbacks to his Red Bull days. Kimi Räikkönen, meanwhile, was less confident and could salvage only third, losing out to Daniel Ricciardo, happy that the RB11 was performing as expected on a circuit which demonstrated the improved nature of its chassis and lessened the impact of Renault’s power unit, as divorce loomed closer off-track.
It was vintage Vettel on the opening lap for the Ferrari ace left Ricciardo in no doubt over his intention. Having negotiated the winding few corners which began the race, Vettel put the hammer down and flew through the second and third sectors, crossing the line for the first of 61 laps a full three seconds clear of Ricciardo.
Vettel stretched his advantage to over five seconds, extracting the maximum from his Super Soft tyres and gliding his car between the walls and beneath the bright lines which line the streets typically utilised by normal Singaporeans. The ‘honey badger’, however, wasn’t yet done and gradually witnessed the rear wing of his former team-mate looming larger ahead. The pit stop window was edging closer and the gap was down to 3.6 seconds, Ricciardo having sliced half a second from Vettel’s advantage on the 12th lap as he entered undercut territory.
Further back, several drivers had already ducked into the pit lane to discard their increasingly worn Super Soft tyres, with a surprising number of teams suffering from slow stops, including both Williams and Force India, which set Felipe Massa and Nico Hülkenberg on a collision course.
Massa exited the pit lane behind Hülkenberg and upon feeding back onto the circuit at Turn 2, he was behind the Force India driver, albeit not unreasonably so. Massa put his car on the inside of the left-hander at Turn 3, Hülkenberg rounded the turn believing the Williams would not be there and the cars interlocked. Massa’s front right tyre hit Hülkenberg’s left rear, scattering debris across the circuit and sending Hülkenberg’s Force India spinning into the barriers. Stewards wasted little time in penalising Hülkenberg for the next event, much to his chagrin, as Massa soldiered on with a slow puncture, before a gearbox problem scuppered his race.
The Virtual Safety Car was triggered, meaning that the drivers dived into the pit lane en-masse, the lead trio taking on another set of Super Softs as the Mercedes pair selected the Softs, jumping Daniil Kvyat as a result of their time loss being minimised. Before long the real Safety Car was deployed due to the debris at Turn 3, condensing the field and eradicating Vettel’s six second lead.
Vettel quickly brought his lead up to 1.7 seconds but perhaps mindful of tyre wear backed off, bringing Ricciardo to within six-tenths and Räikkönen a similar gap behind the Australian, albeit the deficits fluctuating across the course of the lap.
Hamilton, back in fourth position, had spent the weekend lacking pace but he was now bringing Vettel’s tardy pace to the attention of his engineer, as he sat just three seconds down on the leader while running on the slower Soft compound. Hamilton and Mercedes were quietly confident that they held a strategic advantage though angst was suddenly rife in the cockpit of the #44.
Hamilton suffered a loss of power and his pace dropped off, into the 1:55s (from the 1:53s) and then down into the 2:03s. Hamilton was a sitting duck, plummeting down the order as a failure of a clamp between the intercooler and plenum inside his power unit meant he was haemorrhaging performance. Hamilton communicated with his engineer in a bid to salvage points from the weekend but when it was clear the car could not be fixed, Hamilton opted to call it a day, having tumbled behind the Manor Marussia pair.
As Hamilton grappled with the multitude of buttons on his steering wheel, Vettel pulled the pin. Having lapped in the 1:53s, Vettel delivered a 1:50.520 on lap 27 and followed it up with another strikingly similar five laps. Ricciardo upped his pace into the 1:51s but slipped four seconds back, leaving Räikkönen to assume a lonely third position, unable to live with the leading two and wary of the degradation of his tyres.
The undercut remained a possibility for Ricciardo but once more he was thwarted by the appearance of the Safety Car, though this was for an altogether more frightening incident. A man had traversed the circuit at Esplanade Drive and was ambling up the side of the circuit, as Vettel blasted past at full speed. The man climbed back over the barriers and towards safety, but it was a serious breach of security and the second time in 2015 that a person had invaded a track (following a bafflingly over-enthusiastic spectator’s attempt to drive a Ferrari in China). It may be a subject of mirth but it was a hugely dangerous moment and the consequences of the worst-case scenario do not bear thinking about.
The lunatic’s presence coincided with the second pit stop window, allowing the drivers to make their final planned stops and maintain position, Vettel, Ricciardo and Räikkönen still occupying the top three. It left no differential for the last stint of the race, with the leading trio all on the Soft tyres; Vettel opened up and maintained a three second gap, while Räikkönen was never going to threaten Ricciardo’s hold on second place.
“The race was intense and long, I had some pressure from Daniel behind me, we were the quickest two cars out there today, but I was able to control the pace and look after the tyres, which ran ok for the whole weekend,” explained Vettel. “The car felt fantastic, I could control the gap until the end. Today we are in paradise, but we know we’re still a long way to go. It has been a surprise that Mercedes hasn’t been on the pace this weekend, we don’t know why, but to be honest we don’t really care!”
Ricciardo was satisfied but left to rue the timing of the Safety Car. “At the start Seb just went away and then I was coming back to him and if it hadn’t been for the Safety Car, we’d have got pretty close and maybe an undercut would have been possible at the pit stop,” considered Ricciardo. “Making both stops under the safety car affected our chances and I think that dictated the race really.”
Mercedes’ disappointing weekend was epitomised by Nico Rosberg, who was once again adrift of Hamilton’s pace but profited from the Briton’s power problem to move into fourth position, having taken advantage of Daniil Kvyat at the first round of stops, when the Red Bull driver was skewered by the timing of the Virtual Safety Car.
Kvyat was hindered further at the second round of stops and that enabled Valtteri Bottas to move his Williams into fifth place; the FW37 had struggled at circuits with similar characteristics but in race trim it was a firm points contender and Bottas extracted the maximum with his performance.
With one Force India eliminated early it was left to Sergio Pérez to salvage pride for the punchy midfield team. Pérez dropped out in Q2 but leapt ahead of Fernando Alonso and Romain Grosjean at the start, prior to moving into seventh place and defending on Soft tyres against the racy-looking Super Soft-shod Toro Rosso pair, who had recovered from earlier woes.
Max Verstappen stalled from eighth position on the grid and dropped a lap, which he was able to recover through the Safety Car periods, but once on the Super Soft tyre he thrived, carving through the midfield pack, the highlight an opportunistic move on Romain Grosjean into the grandstand cut-out corner at Turn 18. He was pursued by Toro Rosso team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr.
The elder rookie scuppered his prospects by hitting the wall in Q2 and initially trailed hero Alonso, before his STR10 dropped into neutral at the second restart. Sainz recovered and was glued to Verstappen, who in turn was stuck behind Pérez. Toro Rosso asked Verstappen to allow Sainz through, but they were met with an emphatic ‘no’, a resolute riposte with just a couple of laps remaining. Sainz was slightly miffed, believing he should be afforded a chance to attack Pérez, willing to concede the spot back to Verstappen should he be unsuccessful. Verstappen felt otherwise. Their positions were maintained.
Half a minute further back the final point was contested between Felipe Nasr and Grosjean, the E23 Hybrid increasingly sliding around as rubber levels decreased. On the penultimate lap it cried its last as Grosjean locked up and went wide at Turn 7, elevating Nasr and leaving Grosjean to cruise into the pits and retire, Lotus taking a precaution with his gearbox.
Nasr thus beat Sauber team-mate Marcus Ericsson for the first time in several months and it ended a spell of points finishes for the Swede.
Pastor Maldonado also struggled with tyre wear and was hit by Jenson Button exiting Turn 17, causing damage to the Lotus’ diffuser and exacerbating matters further. Button had taken the inside line for Turn 16 but Maldonado was unyielding, running off-track and re-joining prior to Turn 17, thus compromising his line and catching a surprised Button unawares. It was six of one, half a dozen of the other. Button had been in the running for points, the Safety Car eradicating a huge time loss for a desperately slow stop, but the collision left him requiring a new front wing. Such matters became trivial as his gearbox overheated and he retired, joining Fernando Alonso in the McLaren garage. Alonso had been the sparkiest of the pair throughout the weekend and held a fine ninth place until the MP4-30 went into neutral at Turn 19. The saving grace for Alonso was his proximity to the pits, meaning he at least didn’t have to walk back to the paddock.
Manor Marussia completed the finishers as debutant Alexander Rossi had a fine race to 14th, keeping his head despite losing radio communications for the final half, which led to some confusion over being permitted to un-lap himself, meaning the second restart began with the American unwittingly in the thick of the action. Will Stevens was 15th, one of his weakest performances of the season.
The consequence of the weekend’s action is that Hamilton holds a healthy 41 point lead over Rosberg, having had the dose of misfortune which has affected others in recent races. However, a more pressing concern is the prospect of a resurgent Ferrari and Vettel, now only 49 points adrift.