Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix 2013: 5 Key Storylines to Watch at Marina Bay
Perhaps there is a danger of reading too much into the events that take place in Singapore this weekend, for, whatever the result, it seems inevitable that Sebastian Vettel will be crowned champion at the end of this year.
Returning to a track which should suit Mercedes means, despite Grands Prix at Red Bull Racing's traditionallly weaker circuits of Spa and Monza, Lewis Hamilton will have his best chance to challenge for victory since his Hungarian Grand Prix success before the summer break.
It remains to be seen whether it was merely the back-to-back low-downforce circuits that aided Fernando Alonso to second place in Belgium and Italy, and there are also question marks over Lotus after Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean failed to impress in either Grands Prix after such a promising pre-summer showing.
In the nether regions of the grid, Daniel Ricciardo continues to garner attention, particularly after Vettel—as reported by Autosport—said Red Bull will still be expected to fight for team glory next year. But perhaps the most significant battle at the tail-end is Caterham versus Marussia.
Could this be the weekend Charles Pic or Giedo van der Garde match their rival's 13th-place finish and claim the all-important 10th spot?
Lotus' Off-Track Distractions
If Kimi Raikkonen's move to Ferrari next season upset Lotus, no doubt his comments on Thursday regarding the reasons for the switch will have angered the team's hierarchy.
Autosport reported that the Finn has been paid his basic wage but not received performance-based bonuses, leading him to declare:
The reasons why I left from the team are purely on the money side, and the things I haven't got, my salary. That is an unfortunate thing.
So, could Lotus have done anything to make him stay?
There were a lot of things, I am sure they know what there are.
While this has simmered since the Italian Grand Prix, it has slightly covered up the team's disappointing form at the last two races. They went from challenging for victory in Germany and Hungary to struggling at the low-downforce circuits.
Its long-wheelbase E21 will return in Korea but after ditching the concept on the Friday at Monza, compromising Raikkonen's weekend, the Finn can certainly be forgiven for thinking the Enstone team has lost its way.
With that in mind, and having not received his own bonuses, perhaps the concern over whether the team genuinely had the funds in place to develop the rest of this season's car, focus on the 2014 model, or just one of the two, was justified.
How Lotus and Raikkonen perform this weekend will not define the rest of their campaign. But neither party wants 2013 to fizzle out. Not least Lotus' second driver Romain Grosjean who, being poised to be come team leader in 2014, needs to prove he is up to the task here.
The Battle for 10th
As with last season, Marussia has stolen the initiative in the battle for 10th place after securing a better finish than rival Caterham.
That's despite the latter upping its game in recent races to emerge as comfortably the quicker of the two teams.
Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde are unlikely to trouble the Q2 protagonists this weekend, let alone score points, but they will expect to outperform Marussia rivals Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton.
It was in Singapore last year that Marussia driver Timo Glock gave his team the ascendancy in the fight for the coveted 10th spot in the Constructors' championship. The German finished 12th in a Grand Prix of attrition.
Gone are the days when 10 to 12 cars drop out of races, but street circuits still remain the likeliest chance of a minnow scoring well. Caterham should be well-placed if an opportunity arises this weekend.
Alonso and Massa in the Spotlight
There are two fascinating narratives to follow at Ferrari this weekend.
The first surrounds its lead driver and title hope Alonso. He's rattled the Maranello top brass this season with negative comments about the team's performance, and Luca di Montezemolo has seen fit to publicly show the Spaniard who is boss.
A second on Ferrari's home soil went some way to helping the relationship, as did Alonso's declaration of his love for the team, but there's still a fire burning there, and it will only have been stoked further by the signing of Kimi Raikkonen.
Now, Alonso knows his status as top dog is: 1) Only so far as the drivers are concerned; and 2) Under threat for 2014, when there will be two world champions in the same garage.
Thus, a successful conclusion to 2013 is a necessity. If he can win one or two races before the year's out and delay, if not ultimately stop, Vettel's crowning, Ferrari will be appeased. Not happy, but appeased. But if its Belgium/Italy renaissance proves a low-downforce-aided flash in the pan, and Alonso struggles, then the relationship will only be tested further.
The second narrative is the performance of Felipe Massa, who has declared he will be driving for himself for the rest of 2013.
The Brazilian is determined to find a drive for next year, a competitive one, and by all accounts his dialogue with Lotus is encouraging (even if they should pick Nico Hulkenberg).
So has he been driving shackled? Have his below-par performances been a result of Ferrari rule?
One thing's for certain: There should be a very different Massa on show this weekend.
Can Mercedes Fight for Victory?
The Hungarian Grand Prix must feel an age ago to Hamilton and Mercedes.
Having taken a superb victory in Budapest and approaching Red Bull's traditionally weaker circuits, confidence must have been high of sustaining a genuine title challenge. That, after all, was where Vettel's rivals had been most optimistic of taking chunks out of his points lead.
Of course, we know what happened. Red Bull's improvements over the course of this season, combined with its low-downforce packages, meant that through sheer aerodynamic/traction advantages alone it was untouchable in Belgium and Italy.
Back to the drawing board, then. But there is cause for optimism for the German team and its drivers.
Rosberg and Mercedes triumphed in Monaco, Marina Bay's Mediterranean cousin. Of course, Red Bull has improved since then, and any Hamilton/Rosberg win this weekend is likely to be accompanied by a Vettel rostrum.
But while Hamilton has not ruled out a late charge for the title, he knows he needs some help to do it. The sight of his Silver Arrow pulling away in the Singagpore night is unlikely to anger Vettel into a mistake, but winning is all Hamilton can do.
There's a difference between taking advantage of where your rival is weak and where you are strong. Belgium and Italy were not missed opportunities because Red Bull performed superbly. Fail to challenge for victory at a high-downforce track that suits their car and Hamilton and co will likely be very disappointed.
But Can Anyone Stop Vettel?
Sebastian Vettel is in a truly commanding position at this stage of the season. Such is his advantage that, in the unlikely circumstances that he has an absolute shocker and his rivals fly to victory, it will be but a dent in his title lead.
The trouble is even if you're an optimist, and believe Hamilton will win this weekend as Vettel suffers mechanical misfortune, it will probably make no difference in the long term.
The German is more than two clear wins ahead of second-placed Alonso and more than three clear of Hamilton in third.
The chances are that the Singapore Grand Prix will either slightly extend or decrease a massive championship lead. Best-case scenario in terms of the title fight? Vettel scores zero points and earns a grid penalty for the next race, as Alonso wins to cut the gap to 28 points.
This storyline is dependent on the Grand Prix being more than just a statistic for the season. If we see genuine Ferrari/Mercedes improvement, Red Bull strife, a resurgent Mark Webber not playing the team game, then perhaps the title race is all over.
Either way, bubbling away behind the obvious and aforementioned storylines is the plot of a young man marching relentlessly to an utterly mesmerising fourth straight world title.