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Singapore preview - spotlight on Mercedes as Red Bull threaten

18 Sep 2014

Theoretically, Singapore's Marina Bay Street Circuit will offer Red Bull the opportunity to take the fight to Mercedes.

But that won't be the only source of pressure for the Silver Arrows: whatever happens, we can expect Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton to continue their intense battle for the 2014 drivers' crown - and in doing so light up the Singapore night.

"Singapore is a race that I'm sure the whole paddock looks forward to," says Paddy Lowe, Mercedes' executive director (technical). "It's a glamorous event with a fantastic atmosphere - standing on the starting grid under the thousands of spotlights feels much like being on stage, waiting for the theatre to begin.

"We were incredibly happy with the result in Monza - they were fantastic drives from both Lewis and Nico and it was a welcome return to winning ways. [Singapore] could not stand as more of a contrast to Monza, with a lot of low-speed corner content. It's also a long race - often running to the full two-hour limit and frequently characterised by safety cars.

"It's a tricky one to manage no matter what position you might be in, with fortune playing a part depending on the nature and timing of any issues which may arise. It's always an action-packed, incident-filled race, with the nature of the track and the heat playing a role in retirements - both mechanical and by human error. We'll be aiming to steer clear of any drama and come away with another strong result as the season enters its final third."

This will not be the first time Rosberg and Hamilton have duelled in Singapore - Rosberg held off Hamilton to secure second in the maiden edition of the race in 2008, when they were racing for Williams and McLaren respectively.

"Singapore is definitely one of the highlights of the year," Rosberg says. "There's an amazing atmosphere and the whole city really comes to life for the race weekend. It's just unreal - I would really recommend anybody to come here if they can as it's a fantastic experience.

"I got my second-ever podium here with P2 in 2008 and I generally enjoy street circuits, so I'm looking to go one better this time around."

Hamilton, however, might just have the psychological edge this weekend after his crucial victory in Italy, which moved him to within 22 points of Rosberg in the title hunt.

"This is a great place to begin the final flyaway phase of the season. The city is buzzing and the track is mega," the Briton says. "I love street circuits. I won here in 2009 which was a really special experience, plus I had a podium - which should really have been a win - at the first race in 2008. My luck hasn't been great at this circuit since then, but hopefully that will change this weekend."

Singapore is undoubtedly one of the toughest races on the calendar: high ambient temperatures and 23 corners - more than any other Grand Prix circuit - make for a punishing combination. Traction and braking on the bumpy surface are crucial, while drivers have to constantly be on the alert for street furniture like manhole covers and painted white lines, which can catch them out and send them into the walls.

This year, the field will also be racing on Pirelli's two fastest tyre compounds - the yellow-marked softs and the red-marked supersofts. That might at least help the track to ‘rubber in' faster over the course of the weekend - grip levels should improve gradually across the three days, meaning there is a continuous need to reset the cars for optimum performance.

Like Monaco, Singapore is also a maximum downforce track, which is why Red Bull - winners of the last three Grands Prix on the Marina Bay circuit - hope it will give them a strong chance to defeat Mercedes.

"We've always gone well here in the last few years," team boss Christian Horner acknowledges. "But there are no guarantees in this business, and we expect the Mercedes to be incredibly quick here.

"We also expect Williams to be a factor because they have been at most of the races through the summer. It's going to be as tight as ever, but hopefully we should be a lot closer to ultimate pace than we were at Monza."

Williams are less optimistic, believing that Marina Bay won't suit their FW36 as well as Spa or Monza did. And head of performance Rob Smedley makes it clear that their focus will be on scoring points rather than tilting for victory: "The main focus for us is the constructors' championship now and we have to establish ourselves in third position, which we regained from Ferrari in Monza. The track has a few issues that we have to work around, such as the lack of grip that on a normal track would improve, but here doesn't. This results in a lot of wheelspin and oversteer which affects the balance of the car."

Across at Ferrari, Singapore will represent the team's first race since 1991 without the background presence of departed chairman Luca di Montezemolo, and it is fair to say there isn't a huge amount of expectation in the camp - particularly as the circuit could, like Monza and Spa, expose the F14 T's shortcomings.

McLaren, however, are moving in the opposite direction, growing increasingly confident as their technical changes keep coming on stream.

"We had a positive showing at Spa and Monza, and we're continuing to develop and improve the car," Jenson Button says. "As we move back to higher-downforce circuits, it'll be interesting to see how the pack reshuffles itself - I think we'll still be able to maintain our forward momentum."

Momentum has, conversely, been in short supply this year for Sauber and Caterham, with both teams heading into Singapore still chasing their first points of 2014. Sauber can at least draw upon the fact they scored points in last year's Grand Prix, while Caterham have undergone further changes since Monza, with Manfredi Ravetto acting as team chief for the first time this weekend following Christijan Albers' resignation.

There have been changes away from the circuit too, with governing body the FIA ushering in new restrictions on pit-to-car radio messages. The move, which follows recent media scrutiny about the amount of information being given to drivers by their race engineers, applies to both radios and pit boards. Messages now outlawed include information about a competitor's sector times and fuel saving advice.

Just how significant the new regulation will prove, in terms of the dynamics between team mates and during the sessions, will be fascinating to observe as the weekend progresses.

Whatever transpires, it adds a new dimension to a race already bristling with complexity, as Pirelli - who are anticipating two-stop strategies to be the norm - outline. "It's always a great pleasure for us to come to Singapore, which has consistently proved itself to be one of the most spectacular races of the year," says motorsport director Paul Hembery. "Racing under the lights in such a vibrant city provides an amazing atmosphere that showcases Formula One at its very best.

"The unique nature of the race at night obviously has an impact on the tyres, and we've selected the two softest tyres in the range for their rapid warm-up and high levels of mechanical grip: vital characteristics on a street circuit. This is actually a step softer than last year, when we nominated the medium and supersoft, so we should see some interesting tyre strategies with teams taking full advantage of the performance on offer.

"There's traditionally quite a high incidence of safety cars, so every strategy has to be flexible enough to bear this eventuality in mind as well. With the championship seemingly getting closer, all the signs suggest that we're in for an exciting and unpredictable race."

The weather could also add to the spectacle: while temperatures are expected to hit highs of between 29 and 30 degrees Celsius across the weekend, there is also a strong chance of showers on all four days.

The track itself has been resurfaced in various places, although a track jet sweeper will be used to ensure that the new sections have the same grip levels as the older asphalt. As was the case last year, there will be two DRS zones. The first will be activated 48m after Turn 5, with the detection point at Turn 4, while the second will be activated before the start/finish line, with the detection 80m before Turn 22.

The race will run over 61 laps of the 5.065-kilometre (3.147-mile) circuit, or or 308.828 kms (191.905 miles), and starts at 20.00 hours local time, 12.00 GMT.