Feature F1 Unlocked
MONDAY MORNING DEBRIEF: The two crucial Singapore Grand Prix moments that stopped Russell and Mercedes claiming victory
Although Carlos Sainz delivered a perfect performance to win the Singapore Grand Prix for Ferrari, it could so easily have been Mercedes’ George Russell who took the honour of the first non-Red Bull win of the season. Instead, he ended the race in the barriers on the final lap.
There were two crucial moments where the possible win got away from Russell’s grasp, one in qualifying, the other in the race. He lost out to Sainz for pole by the margin of seven hundredths of a second. All weekend the Mercedes had lost out to the Ferrari in the first sector of the lap as it took a little longer to get its tyres fully up to temperature, but it would then claw back that time through the middle and final sectors.
In the crucial final Q3 laps, Russell was marginally ahead until very late in the lap. He’d been 0.068s slower than Sainz through the first sector and 0.093s faster in the second. As they exited through the tight right-left of Turns 16-17 under the flyover, Russell was ahead by 0.043s.
But Sainz got the power down slightly better and the Ferrari’s lower drag saw it travelling 3km/h quicker at the end of the short straight which follows just before turning in to the fast double-apex Turns 18-19 leading onto the pit straight. It was enough to put Sainz 0.03s ahead as they entered that turn, and Sainz’s big commitment as he took that extra speed in extended his advantage through the corner and onto the start/finish line.
Sainz’s brave commitment through that last fast turn was decisive, and part of the confidence he had in doing that may well have been derived from having done his first Q3 run also on a brand new set of softs. Russell, by contrast, did his first Q3 run on a set of used softs, which were reckoned to be around 0.7s slower than a fresh set. Doing the final lap with the same grip as on the banker lap is often a significant advantage. But trying to gauge how much extra grip there is if your first run was on a used set can be tricky.
The reason Russell had only one set of softs for Q3 was that Mercedes had opted to retain two sets of mediums for the race and so had used up an extra set of softs in FP3. This was a crucial part of their strategy.
Knowing Ferrari would likely have worse tyre degradation, Mercedes wanted to have two sets of the favoured medium tyre so as to be able to help them undercut in a two-stop race in the expectation that Ferrari would set pole, as the practice sessions had suggested.
Mercedes based their tyre strategy on maximising their expected race day strength and accepting the compromise this might bring in qualifying, where they felt they would be unlikely to out-qualify Ferrari anyway. As it turned out, Russell came close enough to pole that he may have been able to clinch it had he had two sets of softs available for Q3. Hindsight is always 20-20.
Sainz’s strategy once he was in the lead from pole was to run the race as slowly as possible, bunching the field so as not to allow any gaps for Russell to drop into, thereby thwarting any Mercedes attempt at undercutting. Had Russell taken that pole, he would likely not have been in this situation. Even the early pit stops triggered by the Lap 20 Safety Car did not force Sainz onto a two-stop – thanks to the gentle pace, he was able to maintain his advantage thanks to his track position and smart strategy.
But a Virtual Safety Car for Esteban Ocon’s broken-down Alpine 17 laps from the end created an opportunity for Russell and Mercedes. Running second and fourth with Russell and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes surrendered those positions to make second stops to have those spare fresh mediums fitted. They rejoined fourth and fifth, with Russell 16s off the lead but both cars lapping around 2s faster than the three cars ahead of them – all of whom were on old tyres.
They quickly caught and passed Charles Leclerc, who was nursing an overheating power unit and Russell was upon Lando Norris’s second-place McLaren by Lap 59, with three laps to go. This was the second critical point of Russell’s weekend.
He forced Norris to defend the inside into the tight Turn 14 onto the back straight, causing the McLaren to slide out wide on the exit on its worn rear tyres. Russell got the power down more cleanly and had the momentum on Norris, and as they accelerated up the straight it looked like the Mercedes would be able to pass. Had it done so, only Sainz would have been ahead, lapping 2s slower and with no DRS available.
But as they raced up that straight towards the flat-out left-handed kink, Norris placed his car in such a way as to force Russell to take the longer outside line and with that moment of crisis having passed, he was able to retain the place. As leader Sainz then allowed Norris to get within DRS range to help keep the Mercedes cars off his back, so Russell’s challenge was over.
That Russell lost concentration on the last lap and clipped the Turn 10 barrier on entry, sending him into the barriers, was just the final straw. He’d come so close. Twice. “I had half a chance with Lando, half a car's length difference and I think we would've won the race,” he rued, “because I would've got ahead of Lando and then Carlos would've been stuck with no DRS and we'd have flew by him. Instead, we end the race in the wall.”