James Eagles | @therealjeagles
On his 200th Grand Prix, Nico Rosberg reassumed the lead of the Driver’s Championship with six races to go in the 2016 season, after taking victory by just four tenths of a second from the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo in the intense heat and humidity of Singapore. The pulsating finale proved to be as uncomfortable as the ambient conditions for the German.
Rosberg’s Mercedes teammate, Lewis Hamilton squandered his lead in the championship despite finishing third, his 99th career podium in Formula 1. It was far from easy for both Mercedes cars, both struggling with critical brake issues throughout the race.
Hamilton now has some digging to do in order to take the fight to Rosberg, the gap only stands at a mere eight points, but Rosberg has shown that he can be prone to a run of form, taking seven victories from seven races at the back end of 2015, into the start of 2016 and is currently unbeaten after the summer break. With some strong tracks for Hamilton awaiting, including Malaysia, Japan and the United States- where he has created a duopoly between himself and Sebastian Vettel since 2012 – there may be a repeat of 2014’s final day showdown in Abu Dhabi.
After the day’s thunderstorms diminished, the several halogen lights lit up the tarmac in Marina Bay for the ninth time in Formula 1’s history, with Rosberg lining up on pole position, alongside Ricciardo, with Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen poised to pick up the potential scraps on the second row. Vettel started right from the back after his rear anti-roll bar problem curtailed his Qualifying.
However, due to a brake-by-wire issue, Romain Grosjean didn’t even get the privilege of being able to start. His early glory with Haas seems a very long time ago now for the Frenchman, suffering the ignominy of a career first Did Not Start.
The race start was neutralised via a Safety Car after just a matter of yards – Nico Hulkenberg caught between a rock and a hard place – trying to avoid the slow starting Max Verstappen, was sandwiched between the Toro Rosso’s of Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat, clouting Sainz and careering into the pit wall, making a dog’s dinner of the right hand side of the Force India.
As Bernd Maylander pulled in at the end of lap three, racing resumed; with Rosberg and Ricciardo trading fastest lap times. But, even as early as lap nine, Rosberg was warned about his degrading brakes by race engineer Tony Ross, the Englishman pleading to the German “Okay, this is serious now, Nico. We do need the brake management.” Rosberg resumed to lift and coast, as Ricciardo stayed within the five second range.
The rest of Rosberg’s race was a matter of damage limitation, managing the gap, the brakes and the tyres. It wasn’t easy, Rosberg saying that the “whole car was on edge” but the German was very satisfied with his night’s work, calling it an “awesome weekend“. Mercedes opted to bypass the supersoft compound on Rosberg’s car, trying to make a three stop work with two sets of the soft tyres, with the chasing pack going for a more aggressive four stop strategy. Rosberg had good reason not to follow the trio of Raikkonen, Hamilton and Ricciardo into the pits for a final attack on fresh rubber.
“I couldn’t come in because I had traffic, so I was very slow on that lap and [Ricciardo] would have beaten me.” Rosberg said on the podium “But it was a cool ending.” A cool ending it may have been, but you’d be inclined to think that it got the Mercedes driver a little hot under the collar, with Ricciardo eating away at the original 18 second gap at a rate of knots.
However, in the mid-part of the race, the best battle on track was not at the front of the field. A very personal battle between Daniil Kvyat and Verstappen for eighth caught the glare of the television cameras, with the Russian proving he’s more than capable of holding his own against his Red Bull successor, as the Dutchman dipped and dived, trying to find new pieces of tarmac to pass, to no avail. Dr. Helmut Marko looked on with intrigue, quite happy to see both his young drivers race.
Verstappen endured a tough race, making plenty of passes, but not on the cars he hoped, ending up fighting with the midfield runners rather than his team mate, the Ferraris and the Mercedes on his way to an eventful sixth. However, he was lucky not to have been collected by the spinning Hulkenberg in the first lap melee, his onboard camera making for uneasy viewing.
Speaking after the race, Verstappen was in a reflective mood. “Considering the start, I think we did the best we could to get past. As soon as I was in clear air, it was fine, I could manage my tyres.”
Another driver who had a hard nights work was Valtteri Bottas, who ended up retiring after a bizarre seatbelt malfunction. Spending 25 seconds with his mechanic frantically tightening the belt, Bottas was demoted to last, Williams deciding to bring him into the garage with 25 laps to go. With Felipe Massa also out of the points, the Finn rued the missed opportunity to capitalise on Hulkenberg’s crash.
“Yeah for sure, it was a good chance to get good distance with Force India, but it wasn’t our day.” Sergio Perez compounded Williams’ misery, finishing in eighth, stretching Force India’s lead.
Hamilton spent his race embroiled in a tight battle with Raikkonen for the final podium spot, whilst also managing his brakes carefully. He was deeply unhappy with the strategy chosen for him, Mercedes putting him on the soft tyre for his second stint – the hardest compound Pirelli brought to Singapore.
The Brit called the event “a trying weekend“, but felt that he left nothing on the table. “I feel like I did everything I could and obviously when you have a mistake that’s not a good thing, but it wouldn’t really have made any difference to the result.” However, trying to keep in high spirits, Hamilton simply said that he had to push on.
His podium position looked to have slipped away from him after a lock up at Turn 7 allowed Raikkonen to squeeze past. However, his and Mercedes’ decision to pit with 16 laps to go triggered a chain reaction that shaped the end of the race.
Stopping for a final set of supersoft tyres, Hamilton waited a lap before Raikkonen followed suit, a rash decision by the Ferrari pit wall. The undercut had got the better of them, Hamilton coming out in front of the Finn. Two laps later, Red Bull called Ricciardo in for one last attempt, bolting on a set of supersofts and setting about chasing down Rosberg, 18 seconds up the road.
With a set of blistering laps, one after the other, the affectionately known “Honey Badger” scythed down the gap at around two and a half seconds a lap. Soon, 18 turned into 15, 13, 11, nine, seven, and then five; before the Australian, a short five hour flight from the place of his birth, in Perth, hit traffic.
The sole remaining Haas of Esteban Gutierrez made life difficult for Ricciardo, leaving Rosberg free to turn up his engine and deploy what he had of his dying brake discs. Ricciardo set about for a final charge, closing the gap to less than a second in the final lap, but it wasn’t to be enough, Rosberg holding out to take victory by the narrowest of margins, just 0.488 seconds separated the two after ten minutes shy of two hours of racing.
Despite the crushing loss, Ricciardo was typically all smiles post race, saying that his team had not made him aware of Mercedes’ brake troubles. “I wasn’t aware of the brake issues. The team were keeping me informed about his traffic, you might be able to catch him a bit more this lap, but the brake stuff I wasn’t aware of.”
However, the Australian noted that whilst catching the German would be hard, passing him would have been a different matter. “I knew my pace would drop off a bit because I was getting into the tyres pretty aggressively, but I knew it was going to be close.” he said “I knew even once I caught him, it would have been tricky to overtake, but I tried to keep the crowd interested!”
He took heart from the fight his team took to the Mercedes duo, and will not give up in his pursuit of a first race victory of the season.
Rosberg meanwhile looks towards the task in hand, and is hesitant to get carried away just yet, knowing full well that this time two years ago he held a 22 point lead, and ended up second best to Hamilton. “I’m not focussed on points. I’m just happy with the win today.”
Relieved as well, no doubt.