It started out looking like yet another processional Grand Prix.
The Singapore street circuit, like most of its type, is tight and unforgiving. Mistakes can be very, very costly, which curbs the enthusiasm of all but the bravest or most foolhardy of drivers. The tropical heat, however, plays havoc with even the most calculating human mind.
Mark Webber’s comparatively mediocre qualifying performance didn’t improve after the start—which, incidentally, was much better than his previous two efforts—putting the team in the position to decide on the relatively high-risk strategy of bringing him in during a lap four safety car period.
Ultimately, the move paid off as Webber leap-frogged the two McLaren’s of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button as they left their stops a few laps too late. The McLaren decision would have serious consequences later in the race.
Not that McLaren were alone in the head-scratching pit stop stakes. It is impossible to know what possessed Red Bull to bring Sebastian Vettel in to immediately cover the stop of Ferrari’s, Fernando Alonso. Their data had to tell them that the prime tyre was much slower than the super-softs, and the only real chance of getting past Alonso was for Vettel to put in two or three very fast laps on the older tyre.
Still, neither this, nor any of the dozen or so other incidents in the race, compares with the big story of the day; the coming together of Webber and Hamilton. While it will go down as a racing incident—indeed, the stewards saw no blame in the collision—it will be the subject of discussion for weeks to come, and may well be the pivotal moment of the season.
Trying to be objective, Webber was held up by a Virgin Racing car following a safety car restart. This allowed Hamilton to get a run on him into turn seven and from then on, it was a question of two guys with everything to lose laying everything on the line in pursuit of a championship.
Hamilton probably wasn’t far enough past Webber to slam the door like he did and Webber wasn’t going to be intimidated out of his third place. The resulting collision broke something in the rear of Hamilton’s car—surprisingly, the more fragile front suspension of Webber’s car survived unscathed—and for the second race in succession, an overtaking move ended Hamilton’s race.
This is not the first time this season that these two have come together, with Webber running into the back of Hamilton in Melbourne. There was no doubt who was to blame in that instance.
Logic tells us that to score points, first the driver has to finish the race, however you don’t get to be a Formula One driver by being conservative. Hamilton is the quintessential racer and, while he made a few errors of judgement in his early seasons, he has grown into quite a mature driver. The restart offered a split-second opportunity for him to pass Webber.
It didn’t work, but it was a risk that Hamilton had to take. Of course, had McLaren brought him in earlier, he would have been ahead of Webber anyway, but the world is full of what-ifs.
Despite this, Hamilton is still in third place in the title race; 20 points off the lead and with four races still to come. Amazingly, the five top drivers are all within a race victory of the championship lead, which Webber has now extended to 11 points over Alonso.
Alonso’s drive is the other story of the day. After the dominance at Monza, it was widely expected that Ferrari would falter at the higher downforce tracks, but his resurgence continues and he is sending shockwaves through the paddock—most particularly Red Bull and McLaren.
While most pundits—myself included—had written the Spaniard off, he and his team kept focused on making improvements and they seem to be paying off. The only remaining question mark is that Alonso has no new engines to play with, meaning that any changes from here on will incur penalties.
Amazingly, as the circus heads to Japan, we’re still no closer to picking the likely champion. Who says Formula One racing is boring?