Race under the lights produces few highlights
The 2015 Singapore Grand Prix last Sunday was an interesting event. I say interesting rather than exciting because, although the 61-lap race featured several moments which were fascinating to the die-hard F1 enthusiasts, (such as myself) there was almost no on-track action to be had.
From the very start of qualifying, it seemed clear that Mercedes’ dominance so far this season was about to be challenged. Despite using up their precious sets of super-soft tires, neither Mercedes driver was able to qualify above fifth. For championship leader Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain, Mercedes), it meant an end to a streak of seven first-place qualifying performances. All four Ferrari and Red Bull cars out-qualified the competition by a wide margin. Sebastian Vettel (Germany, Ferrari) won the session with apparent ease, and then drove the point home with a superfluous final lap a full half-second faster than second-place qualifier Daniel Ricciardo (Australia, Red Bull).
The Singapore Grand Prix is held at night, under thousands of floodlights, on closed city streets, surrounded by billion-dollar skyscrapers. Public overpasses are left open during the race, meaning that heli-cam shots show regular traffic on a freeway, with F1 cars whizzing by underneath at 330km/hr. Manhole covers must be welded down to prevent the downforce generated by the cars from flinging them through the air. From the giant illuminated ferris wheel trackside, to the brilliant glare of the cars under the lights, to the world-class fireworks display signalling the finish, the event is a visual treat from start to finish. Unfortunately, with almost no wheel-to-wheel racing throughout, I found my attention wandering away from the spectacle and onto my phone more than once.
That said, the race was not entirely without thrills. Seventeen-year-old Max Verstappen (Netherlands, Toro Rosso) stalled on the start and had to be pushed back to the pits, where he restarted after being lapped by the entire field. Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg (Germany) lived up to his nickname “The Incredible Hulk” by slamming the door shut on Felipe Massa (Brazil, Williams) as the latter exited the pits on lap 13. Unable to brake in time, Massa was forced to take the hit, but his car was undamaged while Hulkenberg slammed into a barrier and dislodged a wheel, ending his race.
Out in front, Vettel had been building a substantial lead when the Hulkenberg/Massa incident brought out the safety car and re-formed the pack. Despite this, Vettel was able to control the pace of Ricciardo and teammate Kimi Räikkönen (Finland, Ferrari), demonstrating the success of Ferrari’s plan to develop aero parts specifically for Singapore.
Jenson Button (Great Britain, McLaren) had a frustrating race. First, an issue at his first pit stop caused a delay of almost a full minute (consider for a moment that the pit stop record is 1.92 seconds stationary), and then he was told to avoid drafting the cars ahead due to overheating. After working his way back up the order, Button’s charge was spoiled by contact with Pastor Maldonado (Venezuela, Lotus) on lap 41. “I should have known, really. He’s mental,” said a dejected Button. His teammate, Fernando Alonso (Spain) also suffered from mechanical issues despite a valiant effort, and retired on lap 34.
Hamilton suffered from reliability issues for the first time this season, reporting a loss of power on lap 26, and retiring from the race soon after. Massa also suffered from an unspecified gearbox issue, retiring on lap 31. The so-called “Poltergeist of Singapore” (an inexplicable electrical disturbance which apparently occurs when the cars drive over buried subway lines at the bridge) was blamed for both issues.
Perhaps the most exciting moment of the race came when a fan somehow wandered onto the track on lap 37. The safety car was immediately deployed, and the unidentified fan was quickly removed. Fans are reminded that being hit by a 330km/hr car really hurts, and that the racetrack should probably be avoided by pedestrians.
With Hamilton retired, Vettel coasted to an easy win, with Ricciardo and Räikkönen rounding out the podium. Despite stalling at the start, Verstappen worked his way up to a brilliant eighth-place finish, proving once again that he’s the driver to watch. Overall, the Grand Prix was a fascinating thing to watch, but it would have been better if there was some racing involved.