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Singapore preview - can the Silver Arrows find a silver bullet?

15 Sep 2016

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff doesn’t accept that his team are the favourites ahead of this weekend’s 2016 Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix - not after last year’s startling flop in which neither Lewis Hamilton nor Nico Rosberg could get their Silver Arrows working properly on Pirelli’s supersoft tyres and started only sixth and fifth respectively, a long way behind Sebastian Vettel’s pole-winning Ferrari. So can they get it right, 12 months on?

Have Mercedes learnt from 2015 mistakes?

"We can't go there with too much confidence because we were miles off last year,” Rosberg admits. "In qualifying it was 1.5 seconds, which is huge. It was our most difficult race of the last two years. So it's going to be a very challenging weekend for us.”

Wolff does, however, believe the team has since got to the bottom of their extraordinary problem, which has never really recurred.

"We drew some conclusions which helped us in the following races and throughout the season, and in Singapore we are going to check whether our assumptions were right. But there is no silver bullet as it's not one thing that's gone wrong. Many things probably merged into each other, and this is why I'm curious and excited to see how Singapore is going to work out.

“After a strong showing in Italy, we go to Singapore with a big challenge ahead of us. No team has ever scored a 1-2 finish there - and with good reason. As we have seen before, it's a race where a single problem can cascade into many more as the weekend progresses. We have to optimise everything to get a solid result. We didn't manage it last year and, although we believe we now understand why, only performance on the racetrack can prove our conclusions right.

“Ferrari were mighty around this circuit last year and it will suit the high-downforce design philosophy followed by Red Bull, so we must not make the mistake of thinking we are favourites this weekend.”

Hamilton, meanwhile, saw his lead over Rosberg reduced to only two points after Monza - but the world champion is up for a fight.

“The race is a challenge with the heat and humidity - but it's a street circuit, which I love. We didn't have the greatest weekend here last year, so hopefully we're on top of that now. I guess we'll find out in a few days' time! Either way, it's not going to be an easy breezy drive. Even when we won here back in 2014, it wasn't straightforward. Ferrari and Red Bull will be on it I'm sure, so we've got a big fight on our hands if we are up at the front. I love a battle, so I'm excited to see how it plays out.”

If the Mercedes are split, or upstaged, by either Ferrari or Red Bull, it could have an impact on the points either Hamilton or Rosberg might score, making their title fight even more intense.

Ferrari and Red Bull upbeat

Bearing in mind the manner in which they ousted Mercedes in Singapore last season, it’s hardly surprising that both Ferrari and Red Bull come here with their tails up, determined to do the same thing this year.

“We’re working very hard,” Sebastian Vettel told the tifosi from the podium in Monza. “They [Mercedes] are doing a very good job, so you have to say ‘Well done’ and show them the respect for what they have achieved in the last couple of years, but we’re fighting. I’m sure Ferrari will come back. I can’t make any promises about when, but I know we will, so keep believing, keep it up, I know that we believe in it and I’m sure we will succeed.”

Nothing would ease the pressure on the red team than a victory this weekend, and it could definitely happen at last.

Though Ferrari were ahead on their home turf, however, it’s Red Bull who seem more likely to have the high-downforce edge on the streets of Singapore, and the team and engine supplier Renault are convinced that Monza showed just how much their power unit has improved this year.

Ricciardo looking for payback

Max Verstappen, of course, will attract a lot of attention as usual, and he’d like nothing better than to make up for his various errors on the Monaco streets, but it’s Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo who’d really like some payback from that race and he’s really determined to get it this weekend.

“I don't believe in much, but if there is a little bit of karma or whatever, I'd like to think I will get my Monaco win back somewhere,” the Australian says. "Singapore is a track which I will look to. I don't expect to be handed a victory, absolutely not, but I feel if I work very well across the weekend then it should provide me with a chance. So Singapore is the one I am looking at.

“It’s great, a real night race. Being able to drive through a massive city at night with all the lights flashing between buildings as you go past is an awesome feeling. It’s weird, I think it actually feels like you are going faster at night.”

McLaren aren’t lifting off

McLaren are still pushing hard on development of the MP4-31, even though the team look likely to retain sixth place overall after recently overtaking troubled Toro Rosso. They believe that their aggressive programme can still pay dividends that in some areas will be of benefit despite the significant technical changes coming for 2017.

"As we begin the final set of flyaways we go to territories where we race at circuits that require a more technical car set-up, with less reliance on pure power," racing director Eric Boullier says. "Despite spending the next few weeks far away from the UK, our development push is still ongoing and we're still working hard on achieving performance improvements right up to the end of the season."

The team struggled a little in both Belgium and Italy, though there were signs of promise on tracks not deemed to suit the McLaren-Honda, but Fernando Alonso expects to be back on form round the streets of Singapore.

“We knew Spa and Monza would be among the two most difficult races on the calendar for us,” the Spaniard says. “Now we’re optimistic that we can continue pushing for more points and more positive results. Singapore is a really fun track, very bumpy and challenging, but it’s a quirky layout with a lot of stop-start sections and really fast straights, so you need a car that works well in high downforce set-up and has good traction out of the slower corners. I’ve won there twice before, and the floodlights and energetic fans give it a really exciting atmosphere.”

"Although we weren't in a points-paying position in Monza, we did see some promising performances throughout the weekend, so we're hopeful of a greater chance to show what our package is truly capable of at the Singapore Grand Prix," Boullier adds.

WATCH: Your guide to the Marina Bay Street Circuit


Haas and Toro Rosso updates

The fight for seventh place in the constructors’ championship is hotting up. Haas may have only 28 points to Toro Rosso’s 45, but the American team are determined to close in as their Italian rivals - celebrating their 200th start in Singapore - have struggled of late. Both have upgrades for this race.

Prior to focusing exclusively on their sophomore design, Haas have a new front wing, floor and brake ducts for their VF-16s, along with the updated Ferrari engine that they used in Monza.

"These changes came from wind tunnel data and it took a little bit of time to develop the parts,” team principal Guenther Steiner explains. "We took our time so we are better prepared for next year. This is the last update for the 2016 car. It's hard to judge in Singapore, but we wanted to bring it to learn.”

Toro Rosso, meanwhile, are desperate to do well here. They believe they have got to the bottom of aberrations evident in their latest aerodynamic configuration, introduced in Germany, and are determined to hit back.

Indeed, Carlos Sainz believes it’s their final real opportunity to shine in 2016.

"If we don't perform in Singapore, then I would be very worried," he says. "This could be our last clear chance of scoring points this season."

Pirelli bring their ultrasofts

If Mercedes struggled on Pirelli’s supersoft tyres in 2015, it’s going to be fascinating to see what happens this year, as the Italian company are bringing their purple-marked ultrasoft compound for the first time since Austria; there’ll be supersofts and softs too.

Singapore’s Marina Bay track has more corners than any other - 23 - and only Monaco’s lap is slower. That places heavy demands on tyres in terms of cornering, braking and traction. It’s bumpy too, and the walls are ever-present. And since the track and ambient temperatures remain high even though it’s a night race, management of tyre degradation is critical.

“Singapore is probably the most spectacular circuit that we visit all season, and this year we hope to make it even more special with the arrival of our rapid ultrasoft compound, in order to maximise the speed and grip available at the Marina Bay track,” says Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery.

“This is one of the most unpredictable races of the year - it’s the only track with a 100 percent safety car record - so all the complex variables inevitably throw up opportunities for teams to do something creative with strategy. In terms of competition, it looks set to be one of the closest races we will see all year, where tyre management will make a big difference.”

Vettel won last year with a two-stop strategy - supersoft-supersoft-soft - under two safety-car periods. The best alternative strategy - supersoft-soft-supersoft - took Max Verstappen to eighth place.

Sunday’s Grand Prix will run over 61 laps of the 5.065 kilometre (3.147 mile) circuit, or 308.828 kilometres (191.896 miles), and starts at 20.00 hours local time, which is eight hours ahead of GMT.