Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel kept his nerves and endured the high temperatures in Singapore to win his first race of the 2019 season, with victory coming more than a year since he last won a race.
He was the beneficiary of a strategy that worked better than expected, catapulting him from third to first after the only swap of tyres in a circuit which is difficult to overtake.
During qualifying, the German seemed on course to grab pole in a circuit that has been kind to him in the past. Ferrari was not expected to be anywhere near the front of the grid and so it was expected that that Mercedes and Red Bull would battle for the honours.
Vettel’s teammate, Charles Leclerc, however, had other plans, pulling out a spectacular lap at the tail end of qualifying which earned him his third consecutive pole. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton bettered the time of Vettel by just 0.029 of a second but was still 0.191 of a second behind the Monegasque.
It was crucial that whoever got pole started well because the Marina Bay Street Circuit is not friendly to overtaking. On that front, Leclerc delivered perfectly.
It was Hamilton who came under attack from Vettel in the first few corners but he was able to withstand the assault.
Seven laps into the race and with the difficulty in overtaking evident to everyone, the fastest cars on the track were the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg and the Williams of George Russell.
This gave a clear picture of how those at the front were managing their tyres rather than going all out. It meant that as the race started stretching out, cars were still bunched up. For instance, on the 16th lap, only eight seconds separated the top seven cars.
Vettel and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen were the first to dive into the pits on the 19th lap. Leclerc came in a lap later.
The extent of the undercut, however, had not been well anticipated by both Ferrari and Mercedes as first, Vettel emerged in front of his younger teammate’s Ferrari after the latter’s pit stop and Hamilton, who had hoped that staying out would give him the advantage, lost it altogether.
Leclerc was clearly unhappy with the turn of events. He had made no mistake yet here he was behind his teammate, at a race which he would almost certainly win if Vettel had not gained the two positions from pitting early.
Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas got a fresh set of tyres on the 22nd lap. By staying out, Hamilton completely blew his chances of competing with the Ferraris. It now turned into damage control for the team.
Bottas got the dreaded call from Chief Strategist, James Vowles, politely ordering him to slow down in order to allow Hamilton to re-emerge ahead of him after his pit stop.
Hamilton did lead the race briefly but after getting his fresh set of tyres, fell well behind Verstappen but ahead of his teammate, just as the team’s engineers had postulated. Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi inherited the lead with Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly right behind followed by Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo.
The Italian driver’s lead of the race presented the first time since 2015’s British Grand Prix that a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull was not at the front of the pack. A few laps later, Vettel came charging through to take the lead.
Singapore has never had a constructor finish one-two and the likelihood of this happening was now becoming evident for Ferrari. Just when one thought that the Ferraris would comfortably cruise to the end with no drama, the Williams of Russell and the Haas of Romain Grosjean collided, sending the young Briton into the barriers.
The Safety Car came out. Would Leclerc’s anger lead to him charging at his teammate and possibly taking both cars out in an attempted overtake? It was a possibility but at the same time, Leclerc has matured enough to appreciate the importance of team dynamics which at times mean that one needs to tame their ambitions.
The Safety Car was required again after Sergio Perez’s SportPesa Racing Point stalled on track and again after Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat collided.
The race was now approaching the two-hour limit at which it would have to be stopped regardless of the number of laps completed. Vettel was able to keep calm and take the chequered flag ahead of his teammate.
Verstappen finished third ahead of the two Mercedes drivers. The results now mean that Leclerc and Verstappen are tied for the championship with 200 points while Vettel trails them by just six points.
Hamilton still leads comfortably but with Ferrari winning on a track where it was not expected to, the momentum is now with the Italian team and nobody can rule out wins on other tracks even if they are said not to suit them.