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Six key questions ahead of the race in Singapore

18 Sep 2016

Can Lewis Hamilton or Daniel Ricciardo do anything to derail Nico Rosberg’s momentum at Marina Bay? Have Red Bull made an inspired gamble on tyres? And what can Sebastian Vettel, a man with more wins at Singapore than anyone else, muster from the back of the field? We consider the key talking points ahead of undoubtedly one of the toughest races on the calendar - the 2016 Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix…

Can Hamilton stop Rosberg wresting back the points lead?

Nico Rosberg’s pole-winning lap for Mercedes was one of the laps of the season. To be seven-tenths clear of Lewis Hamilton in the same car was a tremendous achievement, and the champion’s acceptance of his team mate’s performance smacked of respect. But that’s not to say the gloves won’t come off tonight when the red lights go out, as the pair fight tooth and nail for the lead of a world championship that has already seen several massive shifts of momentum.

“It wasn’t really a frustrating session, it’s just not been my weekend so far,” said Hamilton, who has seen his lead slashed from 19 to just two points in the last two races. “I just haven’t really got many good laps out there and I’ve not been able to string them together, and that was the case today. Nico did a great job and showed the true potential of the car.

“I’ve kind of been on the back foot all year long so there’s no real difference to me. I’ll do the best job I can and try and fight my way through. It’s a very hard track to overtake on, so you’re usually stuck where you are, but there’s lots of safety cars so lots can happen during the race.”

Interesting, the only men to have triumphed at Singapore since it joined the F1 calendar have been world champions - Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Hamilton.

“It may be time to change that then,” Rosberg says. “I’ll give it everything. But I was surprised to hear that actually only three people have ever won the Singapore Grand Prix in all these years. I’m feeling good - and of course I have a good chance.”

The most pressing question now is no longer whether Mercedes have sorted out last year’s shortfalls - they answered those lingering doubts in emphatic fashion - but whether both Silver Arrows will get off the line cleanly later today…

Can Ricciardo avenge himself for Monaco ‘defeat’?

He might not have been able to get anywhere close to Nico Rosberg’s extraordinary pole time, but Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo heads into the Singapore race determined to grab what might be his best chance of victory in 2016. Desperate to lay to rest the ghost of the lost win in Monaco, the 'Honey Badger' will be on the attack.

“I’m pleased with the front row,” he said with understatement, having separated the two Mercedes drivers. “We set ourselves up well and the lap was clean, but obviously Nico created a big gap and I would have loved for him to not be that far ahead. Even with a perfect lap I don’t think we could have caught that up.

“So I did what I had to do. The last sector was good, I kept the tyres in good condition and that was important. That was a bit of a weakness earlier in the weekend so I was happy to get on top of that.”

Ricciardo and Red Bull have a potential ace up their sleeves of course - they will start on the more durable supersoft tyre (rather than the ultrasofts), which might just play out in their favour (more on that later).

“The supersoft is what we’re going to start the race on and we are the only team in the top ten doing that so hopefully it works for us,” Ricciardo added. “We did that in Monaco, but then we didn’t get to see if it worked because of the rain on Sunday.

“If we can get the start we want I think we can control the situation tomorrow, but it’s not a predictable race. There are normally incidents and safety cars so it won’t be straightforward, but I feel good and ready to go. I’m excited!”

Will Red Bull’s gamble pay off?

Have Red Bull been clever again, qualifying on the more durable supersoft rubber which could give them the advantage of an extra couple of laps before their first pit stops?

The jury is still out, as some believe that such an advantage may be worth much less here than at other tracks - most notably Monza where Mercedes used the same strategy of running the harder rubber, or Monaco and Spa where Red Bull did. The feeling in the Singapore paddock is that Mercedes should have enough to contain Ricciardo, if Rosberg makes a decent start and if the pit work is clean. If…

With at least two pit stops expected, and the likelihood of at least one safety-car intervention and the race going to its two-hour time limit, this could nevertheless be one of the most open races in a long time.

Interestingly, none of Pirelli’s recommended strategies suggest starting on the supersofts. In theory, the quickest is for three 15-lap stints on the ultrasofts, and one 16-lap stint on the supersofts. A two-stopper can also be made to work, with a 27-lap stint on softs followed by an 18-lapper on supersofts and a 16-lapper on ultrasofts. Or, if a driver has sufficient new sets, two final 17-lap stints on ultrasofts.

What can Vettel do from the back of the grid?

Singapore is not the easiest track on which to overtake. Or, to put it another way, there was a very good reason why Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes chose Spa rather than Marina Bay to enact his epic ‘grid penalties in exchange for fresh power units’ strategy. Set to start from the back of the field due to a car failure in Q1, Vettel therefore has his work cut out.

“Already in the first lap, going into Turn 1, something happened,” he reflected on that painful qualifying. “Then in Turn 2, through Turn 5, I felt that the car was not the same.

“I wanted to come into the box, but in the end we decided to stay out, and then we came in because it was hopeless anyway. We were just not quick enough [to react], and there was no time within three or four minutes to fix the problem.”

So what chance does the four-time champion have of scoring any points, given that Hamilton was expected to struggle to make the podium in Belgium? Always keen to put as positive a spin on a problem as possible, the German - a Singapore specialist with four triumphs here - believes points are still possible.

“For tomorrow we have a long race in front of us, with a lot of safety cars. At least we have some new tyres, and even if for sure it is not an ideal situation, we can still have a good race.”

Don’t bet against it, but it’s not going to be easy. The German has a long, sweaty evening’s work ahead of him.

Where did Raikkonen’s speed go?

Clearly both Red Bull drivers found a little bit more speed on their second runs in Q3, as they honed the set-up of the RB12s, but having been ahead of both of the cars from Milton Keynes after the first runs Kimi Raikkonen failed to stage a similar improvement that would have kept him in third place. So what happened to the Finn’s speed - and can he rediscover it on Sunday?

“Today we got more or less what we could from our car,” he said after qualifying. “Obviously it's a bit disappointing given where we finished, but this is a tricky place. The fifth position is not ideal, but I was pretty pleased with my first lap in Q3 and the car was handling well.

“In the last run I knew I had to push a bit over the limit, trying to improve, but it didn't pay out. I made some mistakes, I went wide in Turn 1 and got sideways. There's no issue with the car, we are just lacking overall grip and in Singapore that makes a big difference.

“Tomorrow we have to make a good start and then go from there, there will be different ways of using the tyres between the teams. The race is going to be very long, and usually there's a lot happening, so we have to get the timings right and try to go forward.”

Quite a change from the buoyant mood in which Ferrari went into this race last year…

Can Sainz gain the points Toro Rosso crave so desperately?

A great deal has rightly been written about Max Verstappen this year and last, but his former Toro Rosso team mate Carlos Sainz showed extremely well against him - convincing many that he surely deserves a run in a top team. The Spaniard strengthened his case further in Singapore, with a superb performance in qualifying booking him sixth on the grid.

Having admitted Toro Rosso are desperate to capitalise on such improved competitiveness on the Marina Bay circuit, Sainz is therefore perfectly poised - especially if the five men ahead of him get tangled up with one another…

“A very positive day!” he said. “I think we can be very pleased with this qualifying session. After a few tough races, it was time to get back to where I think we belong and to fight for the top six, half a second clear of the Force India, is something to be proud of.

“It wasn’t as easy as it looked; I had to stop at the FIA scales in Q2, after that the engine didn’t start and I also missed the second run in Q2… So it was very difficult to get into a rhythm, but finally in Q3 I managed to do two consecutive laps on the ultrasofts and the lap came when it counted.

“This is a huge boost for the team and we know that we have the pace for a good race tomorrow, so we can be confident! I’d say this is one of my best qualifying sessions of my career and I will be going to bed with a big smile on my face!”