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What to Watch for - Singapore

20 Sep 2015

From the prospect of Ferrari and Red Bull pulling away from Mercedes to the likely appearance of the safety car; and from the threat of rain to the welcome return of a US driver to the grid, we outline the key themes to look out for in Sunday’s Grand Prix at Marina Bay…

Ferrari and Red Bull have the pace to keep Mercedes at bay

So far, so brilliant for Ferrari and Red Bull. Locking out the first four grid slots; a healthy advantage over Mercedes; and all on a track on which overtaking is extremely difficult - it’s hard to imagine how things could have gone better. Sunday, however, is where it all counts - and the evidence suggests they’ll be out front once again.

Long-run data from late in FP2 points to both teams once again having the edge over the Silver Arrows - indeed Ferrari were more than half a second faster per lap than Mercedes over similar sample runs, with Red Bull slotting in between.

So while Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will be determined to make progress from the start, they’re unlikely to have things their own way. It may well transpire that Ferrari and Red Bull can actually drive away from the chasing pack, raising the mouth-watering prospect of a four-way fight for victory.

Flexibility the key to strategy

After the events of Monza, where tyre pressures became the major talking point, all the tyre talk in Singapore should revolve around the more typical topics of degradation and strategy, especially as the FIA has clarified the way it will be checking starting pressures with the teams.

That’s good news because Singapore is often one of the most fascinating races of the year when it comes to strategy, thanks to the length of the race, traffic and the high probably of at least one safety-car appearance (see below).

Unlike many other races, these factors mean there’s no clear cut ‘best’ strategy for tackling the 61-lap race. According to Pirelli, three stops is theoretically the quickest option (start on the supersoft, stopping for more supersofts around lap 16, then a further set around lap 31, then finally switching to softs around lap 46), though it could well be that race events dictate that two stops becomes the preferable strategy.

In such circumstances, thinking on your feet and remaining flexible will be key.

Safety car a near certainty

Seven Grands Prix have been held at the Marina Bay Street Circuit to date, and the safety car has been called at least once on every occasion. What’s more, there’s every reason to expect the streak to continue.

There are a number of factors at play. Singapore is firmly established as one of the toughest circuits physically, with the heat and humidity proving a punishing mix even before considering the number of corners and the fact that this is the longest race of the year.

It’s little wonder that drivers’ concentration levels can slip - and on a slippery circuit lined by walls, there’s simply no room for error.

A safety car appears a near certainty then - and that means drivers have to be on their toes throughout. As polesitter Sebastian Vettel put it, it won’t only be speed that determines the winner - reacting to events, and having a dose of good fortune, can be crucial in Singapore.

Can Grosjean hold on?

Lotus have been struggling for pace all weekend, and it was perhaps no surprise that they lost one driver in Q1 as a result. But as Pastor Maldonado languished in 18th, Romain Grosjean was in scintillating form, breaking into Q3 and booking 10th on the grid. It was more than Lotus could have hoped for - and it might prove hard to defend.

That’s not to count Grosjean out: along with track position, his excellent racecraft and pace will stand him in good stead. But when you consider long-run data from FP2, and the fact Lotus were slower than all but Marussia, the size of the task facing Grosjean becomes clear. Can he pull another result from the hat on Sunday evening?

Can McLaren score points?

It looked unlikely that McLaren would book their first Q3 appearance of the season even before late yellow flags, but even so both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button have looked closer to top-10 pace all weekend.

Both men hope for more of course, as do the team - which is why 12th and 15th were greeted with a fairly muted response. But there is still the feeling the team can score points for only the fourth time this season.

“I’ve always felt comfortable and competitive here, and tomorrow we’ll start in a good position from which to score points,” Alonso reflected.” The race here is quite tough and demanding - there’s no room for mistakes, so we have to run a perfect race tomorrow.” Do that, and they might at least come away with something to show for their efforts...

The Stars and Stripes return with Rossi

He may be starting from the back of the field, but there will be plenty of eyes on Marussia’s new race driver Alexander Rossi, who becomes the first American to grace an F1 grid since Scott Speed at the 2007 European Grand Prix. Rossi will almost certainly struggle to match Speed’s own debut - his fellow Californian finished 13th for Toro Rosso in Bahrain, 2006 - but he will at least want to beat team mate Will Stevens.

The pair were pretty evenly matched in practice, despite both having unwanted meetings with the Singapore walls, but Rossi was left disappointed after Stevens went on to out-qualify him by half a second. Nevertheless, his previous experience at Marina Bay - he competed in GP2 here in 2013 - should stand him in good stead, as should his GP2 form this season, the 23-year-old having taken wins at Spa and Monza en route to his current second place in the standings.

Insiders suggest it’s too late for Rossi to gain the experience that Gene Haas says he’s looking for in the drivers he employs for the upcoming 2016 debut of his new team, but after several Friday practice outings with Caterham, plenty of simulator time, and one false dawn at Marussia last year when he’d expected a race outing in Belgium, Rossi will be keen to prove himself as finally make his proper Grand Prix bow.

Could rain affect play?

There has yet to be a wet Grand Prix in Singapore, but 2015 is threatening to be the first, with rain storms forecast for Sunday, albeit ahead of the race. Combined with the expected heat and humidity, it means the weather could play a crucial role as events unfold.

Humidity is a known problem for the drivers in Singapore, and as such they are well prepared for stifling conditions in the cockpit - workout sessions in race suits and saunas are not unheard of - but rain is a different proposition. If it does make an appearance, it is more likely to be a short, sharp shower than a prolonged downpour - making tyre choices crucial.

Certain names on the grid are renowned for getting the necessary split-second decisions right. Only a few races ago Lewis Hamilton prevailed at Silverstone after picking the perfect lap to change to intermediate tyres as the heavens opened.

Other wet-weather masters include Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso, who could well creep up the order if serious rain arrives, though the one unknown everyone might have to contend with is just how much visibility will be affected when racing under floodlights with spray.