Singapore Flashback 2008 - Ignorance is bliss for Alonso 25 Sep 2009
When Formula One racing headed to Singapore last year, the paddock was stepping into the unknown. Not only would it be the first F1 street event in Asia, it would be the sports first-ever night race. With 1,500 floodlights and a 5.067-kilometre course taking in some the citys most famous sights, it was to be an original outing.
Most excited at the prospect was Ferraris Felipe Massa, who had excelled on 2008s other new street circuit, Valencia. Championship rival Lewis Hamilton was equally confident that McLaren could do the business, but in the end a plot hatched before the race had even started - by a team desperate for results, and a driver desperate to retain his seat - would dictate the weekends ultimate outcome.
At 1900 hours on Friday evening Formula One history was made, as the cars made their way on to the floodlit track for opening practice. True to form, Ferrari and McLaren battled it out, with Hamilton beating Massa by just 0.080s to the fastest lap, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Heikki Kovalainen. As the drivers learnt the new circuit, there were plenty of off-track adventures, with Red Bulls Mark Webber and David Coulthard, Toyotas Jarno Trulli, Renaults Nelson Piquet, Toro Rossos Sebastian Vettel, Hondas Rubens Barrichello and Kovalainen all falling prey.
Second practice and Hamilton again looked strong, but Renaults Fernando Alonso pipped him at the death. Massa was third fastest, closely followed by Kovalainen, Williams Nico Rosberg, BMW Saubers Robert Kubica and Raikkonen. The overall feeling was that the track was bumpy, but fun - and the powerful lighting made driving in the dark effortless.
Alonso took the honours again in Saturdays final practice, ahead of Hamilton, Massa and Piquet. The Spaniard, BMW Saubers Nick Heidfeld and Webber all had off-track moments, but Giancarlo Fisichella suffered the biggest incident, slamming his Force India into the wall at Turn 10 after losing control over the kerbs.
But in spite of Alonsos dominance during practice, it was Massa who took pole with a lap over half a second quicker than second-placed Hamilton. Raikkonen was third, ahead of Kubica, Kovalainen, Heidfeld, Monza winner Vettel, Toyotas Timo Glock, Rosberg, Williams Kazuki Nakajima, Trulli, Hondas Jenson Button, Webber and Coulthard. Alonso was left languishing in 15th after his Renault ground to a halt with fuel supply problems in Turn 18. Team mate Piquet was 16th.
For the French team, who had looked so strong in practice, it was a bitter blow. Despite the R28s obvious pace, everyone believed overtaking would be tough on the Marina Bay track and Alonsos hopes of boosting Renaults points haul looked slim. During his post-qualifying interviews the Spaniard was feeling distinctly gloomy.
"It's a really big disappointment because we had a real chance to do something special today, perhaps not pole position but to at least qualify in the top four, he said. Our weekend was going really well and we had big hopes for this evening. I know that starting in the middle of the pack will make for a difficult race and I will need a miracle with the strategy to be able to make progress on this street circuit where it looks difficult to overtake."
The revelations of recent weeks have filled in what happened next. After qualifying, team boss Flavio Briatore and executive director of engineering Pat Symonds conspired with the struggling Piquet to cause a deliberate crash on Sunday to benefit the race strategy of Alonso. Although the former world champion knew nothing of the plan, he had unwittingly been granted his miracle.
As the race got underway, it looked hopeless for Alonso. While Massa led from pole ahead of Hamilton and Raikkonen, the Renault star tumbled further down the order after a very early first stop. But on Lap 14 everything changed. Piquet took the plunge, threw his car into a spin, hit the throttle and slammed into a wall. As required by the plan, the safety car came out.
All sorts of pit-lane chaos ensued. Frontrunners Rosberg and Kubica were both forced to get fuel and rubber before the pit lane officially opened and were given 10-second stop-and-go penalties. But the real pantomime moment came from Ferrari, when Massa pitted from the lead on Lap 17. He left his box when the green light told him to, but as he moved away it quickly became clear that the fuel nozzle was still attached. Knocking over his mechanics and flooding the area with fluid, he sped off down the pit lane with the hose trailing behind. Only when his team had run down, heaved the hose off and given him the signal to leave could he return to the race. It took an age and his afternoon was ruined. If that wasnt enough, the Brazilian was later given a drive-through penalty for another unsafe exit in front of the Force India of Adrian Sutil.
Hamilton, meanwhile, was delayed running behind Alonso, Rosberg, Trulli, Fisichella and Webber during the pit-stop reshuffle. He eventually moved up to fourth behind Alonso, Rosberg and Coulthard, but was unable to close on the third-placed Scot. For Alonso, however, the race couldnt have been progressing better.
Up front and busy building a huge lead, it was now his race to lose. And even though a second safety car on Lap 51 (when Massa span and Sutil crashed) negated his advantage, he calmly reopened the gap to score his first win since Monza 2007. It was a praiseworthy drive, even if hindsight now paints a rather different picture. There was joy for Williams too. Despite his stop-go penalty for pitting under the safety car, Rosberg was fast enough to undo the damage and took a career best second place. Team mate Nakajima completed the scorers in eighth, behind fourth-placed Glock, Vettel, Heidfeld and Coulthard.
The final podium place went to Hamilton, whod been thrown a lifeline when Raikkonen crashed on Lap 58 while fighting with Glock. With six points added to his tally, the Englishman had 84 to the 77 of Massa, who eventually crossed the line 13th. Raikkonen was classified 15th and with neither Ferrari scoring, McLaren took the lead in the constructors championship.
Trulli and Webber failed to finish with mechanical problems, Barrichello ran out of fuel in his Honda, while Sutil and, of course, Piquet both crashed.