The Singapore two-step

It’s fair to say that Singapore is one of our happiest hunting grounds. Since the introduction of F1’s original night race back in 2008 the Team has racked up an astonishing 12 podium finishes at the Marina Bay Street Circuit, a total matched only by our top-three record at another Asian race – the Japanese Grand Prix.

Those 12 top-three finishes in Singapore also mean we have double the number of any other team at the event. However, despite the impressive record, just three of those 12 podium appearances have been for victories. Now, in itself, that’s not a bad tally and only exceeded by our win record at Monaco, Brazil and Japan (four each) and curiously Malaysia, where we won five times between 2010 and 2017.

When it comes to second places in the Lion City, however, we’ve got it nailed with a total of six, more than at any other grand prix. The first arrived in 2010 and we have had a driver on the second step of the Singapore podium for the last five years. It’s a peculiarly consistent run and here’s how they unfolded. 

2014 – Sebastian Vettel

After three straight wins in Singapore courtesy of Marina Bay specialist Sebastian Vettel, F1’s new hybrid era brought a sea-change in the pecking order on the grid. Mercedes were now the sport’s main force and the Silver Arrows won the opening six rounds. 

In our neck of the woods, the campaign got off to a difficult start and troubles in pre-season testing with the new package carried over into the early part of the season. By mid-season though things were on the up and in Canada new Red Bull recruit Daniel Ricciardo scored his first win. He repeated the feat either side of the summer break, in Hungary and Belgium, and after another Mercedes triumph at high-speed Monza there was great hope for Singapore, a street circuit that would negate power concerns and at which theTeam had been a dominant force in previous years.

And early in the weekend the omens were good as Ricciardo was third quickest and Vettel fifth. On Saturday Daniel was again third quickest, just 0.173 behind pole position man Lewis Hamilton, while Seb was just five hundredths of a second slower in P4. 

Any hope of taking the fight to Mercedes evaporated in the race, however. Despite being gifted a place when an electrical problem forced P2 man Nico Rosberg to start from the pit lane, there was no catching Hamilton. 

When the lights went out, the Mercedes maintained his advantage and began to build a healthy lead. Behind him, Sebastian passed Daniel who suffered a power issue off the line, and the German attempted to stay with the lead Mercedes over the first two stints. But despite the circuit leaning towards the RB10’s strengths, the power deficit still had an effect and Hamilton steadily extended his lead.

Tyre wear also compromised Seb’s charge and he was later caught by Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. However, during a mid-race safety car period Ferrari elected to stop both its drivers for fresh tyres. The Team elected to keep the Bulls on track and thereafter Seb delivered his best drive of the season, keeping his tyres alive to the finish and holding of Daniel and a late tyre charge from Alonso. Hamilton though was comfortable and won by 13 seconds.

 

2015 – Daniel Ricciardo

If 2014 had been a difficult transition year for the Team, 2015 was perhaps even tougher. Across the 19-race campaign the Team failed to record a single win and in the end scored just three podium finishes. And while the battling double podium in Hungary garnered plenty of headlines, the best of the three was perhaps Daniel’s second place in Singapore, where pace and performance alone dictated the result.

That year Mercedes slumped in Singapore, hampered by tyre issues that prevented either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg mounting an effective challenge. That left he way open for the Red Bulls and for Ferrari.

As with 2014 the Team was toughing out a continuing power deficit, however, and it meant that Vettel, now with Ferrari, grabbed pole half a second ahead of Daniel, who would start on the front row for the third time in his career. 

And in the race Vettel maintained his advantage, but only just. After an early phase in which Vettel seemed to have the upper hand, Daniel then began to pressure his former teammate especially in the latter part of the first stint as it became apparent that the Ferrari was being more demanding of its tyres. Vettel learned the lesson and in his second stint he managed his tyres carefully early on. That invited more pressure from Daniel but despite the Aussie setting a blistering fastest lap of the race on lap 52, he couldn’t quite reel in the Ferrari and was forced to settle for the Team’s third second place in Singapore. “It was our best chance of a win and we got close, so we can be proud of what we did. We have made the most of our opportunities here,” said the Honey Badger afterwards. 

2016 – Daniel Ricciardo 

It isn’t often the case that the gap at the flag is smaller than the gap in qualifying – but that’s what happened at the 2016 Singapore Grand Prix. Nico Rosberg, heading towards the title, took pole position with an advantage of 0.531s over Daniel. After 61 laps of the Marina Bay Street Circuit, Daniel had reduced that advantage to 0.488s. A lot of effort went into those four-hundredths of a second.

Never in a position to attempt a passing manoeuvre, much of the excitement in the battle for the lead was played out on the strategists’ laptops – until the very end of the race at least. Daniel began the race with the supersoft tyre, which should have conferred an advantage to the ultrasoft-shod Rosberg. The ultrasoft, however, had proved durable in practice and Rosberg used its extra pace to pull out a sizeable lead, increasing his advantage by around half a second per lap.

By lap 14 Rosberg had constructed a lead of seven seconds and was safe from the undercut. Red Bull nevertheless stopped Ricciardo first, attempting to reduce the deficit. He pitted on lap 15 with Rosberg following a lap later to cover. Rosberg went for the safe option of the soft tyre, Ricciardo took on another set of super-softs. Now with the tyre advantage, he set about reducing Rosberg’s lead – but he didn’t take a big enough bite. Daniel pitted again on lap 32 and Rosberg, again, covered on lap 33. Both cars were running the soft tyre with just under half the race distance to complete and with every likelihood of holding position all the way to the flag. Then the race went nuts.

On Lap 45, Mercedes took a gamble. Not with Rosberg, who was coasting towards his eighth win of the year, but with Lewis Hamilton. Having started third, Hamilton lost position to Kimi Räikkönen in a rare on-track moment of drama towards the end of the second stint. With no pressure behind he decided to roll the dice and convert to a three-stopper on lap 45. That began the cascade: Räikkönen pitted to cover on lap 46, which in turn opened a large gap behind Daniel, who pitted on lap 47.

What should have happened next was Rosberg pitting on Lap 48. The race leader got the call to box early in the lap – but two things prevented him from taking the pit entry as planned. First, he encountered backmarkers and lost valuable time; second, Daniel put in an absolute animal of a lap, one second quicker than Hamilton’s out-lap and 1.7s quicker than Räikkönen’s. Face with almost certainly losing his lead, Rosberg stayed out. That gave Daniel a huge tyre advantage and 13 long laps to close the gap. He did that before the flag, but Rosberg knew his craft, kept his cool and held his lead over the line. Daniel had the consolation of taking fastest lap – but once again the top step of the podium eluded him. 

 

2017 – Daniel Ricciardo

Singapore is one of the wettest places on the planet – but in September the rain is an almost metronomic afternoon phenomenon. We’ve never had a wet grand prix – until the start of the 2017 race. Light rain just before the start caused a fair amount of chaos on the grid. The conditions were probably correct for the intermediate tyre – but the 2017 edition was providing very difficult to keep warm, and so many drivers were considering the full wet. It wouldn't last long on the drying track – but then Singapore dries fast, so it wouldn’t have to. It was a dramatic prelude to the race – though by turn one pretty much everyone in the grandstands had forgotten the tyres.

That particular news was wiped off the front pages by the huge crash on the run down to the first corner between Sebastian Vettel, his Ferrari teammate Kimi Räikkönen and Max Verstappen. Vettel, on the outside from the pole position slot, didn’t start as well as Max from P2 who, in turn, didn’t start as well as Kimi in P4. Seb, as is his style, made a last ditch attempt to hold his lead by chopping brutally across the track. It all went horribly wrong, with Max and Kimi duly smeared and all three cars out of the race. The stewards decided racing incident, the court of paddock opinion had no hesitation in blaming Seb – but that didn’t prevent Ferrari putting out a derisory press release claiming it was all Max’s fault. 

Back on track, a poor start from P3 for Daniel had been a blessing, given that it offered him a good view of the carnage ahead, allowed him to back off and kept him clear of the debris field. Lewis Hamilton starting P5 didn’t have quite that field of vision – but it worked out well for him, as he swept around the outside and into what became the lead, somehow without tripping over anything. 

The Safety Car came out while the carnage was cleared but it was a busy evening for Bernd Mayländer as the Safety Car driver was back in action a few laps later when Dany Kvyat crunched into a wall on lap 11. Hamilton, with Daniel in tow, had already pulled out a significant lead on the following pack – which presented Mercedes with a dilemma: Ricciardo would certainly do whatever Hamilton didn’t – so did they want track position or fresh tyres?

Hamilton elected to stay out, Ricciardo dived into the pits and – such was their gap over the field – retained P2. When the Safety Car came in, however, Hamilton easily had enough in reserve to pull away. When the track dried and they pitted for slicks on laps 28 and 29 respectively, Lewis had a lead of 8.6s. He maintained a comfortable gap to the flag. 

Despite the disappointment for Red Bull, P2 in 2017 was something of a triumph. From the start of the race Daniel had been managing an oil leak in the gearbox. The reason Hamilton had found it so easy to pull away was found in the various engine modes and shift patterns Daniel had needed to employ just to keep the car going. The Team were surprised he made it to half-distance – and stunned that he finished the race on the podium. 

2018 – Max Verstappen

Is 2018 the one that got away? It might just be. While the Red Bulls are usually good in Singapore, consensus leaving Italy was that this would be a Ferrari circuit. It certainly looked that way, with the Scuderia on top in FP2 and FP3. Somehow they contrived to blow it in qualifying, which let Max slip ahead of them – but behind Lewis Hamilton. 

Max had to settle for P2 on the grid after a misfire approaching the final corner of his final qualifying lap left him well off the pace of the Mercedes driver. Worryingly, whatever the gremlin was, it still hadn’t been caught by the time the race came around. At other events, Max might have taken the hit, swapped the engine and started from the back. At Singapore, where track position is everything, he took the risk. 

Initially, it didn’t look like a good call. With the engine spluttering on the first lap, Max had to defend hard into the first sequence of corners, holding off Vettel by the narrowest of margins. Vettel, however, was able to make a beautiful move stick into turn seven, relegating Max to third. 

Fortunately for Max, second place really wasn’t good enough for Seb’s championship aspirations, and so the Ferrari driver had to attempt a very aggressive undercut on Hamilton to gain the lead. That gamble failed when Vettel became mired in the midfield. It also allowed Max to squeak out ahead at his one and only pitstop. He came out side-by-side with Vettel but had the inside line from the pit exit – which was enough to get the job done. 

After that, Max gamely set about chasing Hamilton but never really looked like getting close. Vettel, meanwhile, knowing he didn’t have another card to play, turned his engine right down to save it for another day. Max finished the race nine seconds behind Lewis but half a minute ahead of Sebastian. As races go, it wasn’t particularly thrilling.