Sebastian Vettel finally found himself back on the top step of the podium at the Singapore Grand Prix, but it wasn’t without incident, as teammate Charles Leclerc was left feeling aggrieved at the fact his teammate was given a more favourable strategy.
Elsewhere Daniel Ricciardo showed his overtaking prowess hasn’t deserted him, and tyres were once again the focus.
Wide World of Sports takes a look at the key issues from Marina Bay.
Tyre issues again raise their ugly head
The Singapore race is notorious for being the toughest on the calendar. The humidity, the concrete barriers that line the street circuit, and the fact the race usually goes the full two hours all combine to produce a race that’s tough on the drivers.
So when McLaren’s Lando Norris arrived for his post-race interview on Sky Sports looking reasonably refreshed, the panel asked him if he found his first Singapore Grand Prix as tough as expected.
“I’m tired, but because the first 30 laps were so under the limit, literally just driving around, trying not to wheelspin or lock up or understeer, it was fairly relaxed,” the 19-year-old said.
And therein lies the problem. Because the tyres need to be protected to last the distance, the entire field spent the best part of an hour on the F1 equivalent of cruise control.
When 1996 world champion Damon Hill asked if that situation was wrong, Norris didn’t mince words.
“Yeah, it’s not racing. We’re just sitting there doing nothing, it’s boring, it doesn’t look good for anyone, but it’s because the tyres are so bad,” he said.
It’s where Pirelli is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Nobody wants a return to the Bridgestone years, where the tyres never degraded and the driver who reached the first corner first often went on to win the race.
But equally nobody is happy with the current situation which restricts the amount of proper racing.
Race strategy at Ferrari
It would have been fascinating to eavesdrop on the Ferrari post-race debrief.
In one corner you had rising star Charles Leclerc, who took pole position and held the lead of the race until the strategy went against him, costing him what would have been his third consecutive win.
In the other corner, four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, who benefitted from the strategy call and recorded his first victory in 13 months.
Normally the race leader is given priority by his team in terms of strategy. In this instance, Ferrari pitted Vettel first, and the extra pace from his fresh tyres allowed him to take the lead when Leclerc pitted just a lap later.
“We’ll talk about this one after the race,” Leclerc told Ferrari.
“It’s not fair.”
This was not a race Ferrari was expected to win. To come away with a 1-2 finish is a sign that FINALLY they’re starting to unlock the potential the car has had all along, albeit far too late to win either championship this season.
And yet the 1-2 finish has been overshadowed by controversy. Did the team favour Vettel? Closer examination would suggest they didn’t, but certainly that’s not going to lessen the blow for Leclerc, who appears to have simply been a victim of circumstances.
“The undercut was effectively more powerful than expected — it was 3.9 seconds and we were not expecting such a big number,” team boss Mattia Binotto said.
“As a matter of fact, when we stopped Sebastian, we thought when Charles stopped the lap after, he would come out ahead of Sebastian. Sebastian drove well, got the undercut of 3.9 seconds, that’s the difference.”
Leclerc’s problem was the front-runners were so bunched up, as the drivers protected their tyres. Had they been spread out a little more, the undercut wouldn’t have been an issue and the 21-year-old would have matched Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen as the only drivers in the history of F1 to record their first three wins in consecutive races.
Mercedes finish off the podium
For just the second time in the last 17 races neither Mercedes driver finished in the top three, and the result means Mercedes have won just two of the last seven races. Is it panic stations? Not yet. But the balance of power has shifted slightly, with Ferrari and Red Bull able to challenge on a more consistent basis. Certainly the fact Ferrari have won at Monza and Singapore, two totally different circuits, would suggest that Mercedes will have a battle on their hands for the rest of 2019.
But the fact remains that Hamilton once again extended his championship lead, despite finishing fourth. He’s now 65 points clear of Valtteri Bottas, and with six races left, Hamilton has one hand on the trophy.
Likewise Mercedes enjoys a 133 point advantage in the Constructor’s Championship, so even finishing third and fourth behind the two Ferrari’s would be enough for Mercedes to claim the title again.
Promising signs for Renault
On the face of it ninth place for Nico Hulkenberg and 14th for Daniel Ricciardo is a poor return for Renault. But both races were compromised, Riccardo by a penalty after qualifying and a puncture, while Hulkenberg had to pit on the opening lap after making contact.
But 8th and 9th on the grid, and solid race pace from both at a track that wasn’t expected to suit, is at least a step in the right direction heading into the closing stages of the season.
The race for 2020 seats heats up
In recent weeks we’ve had confirmation that both Nico Hulkenberg and Robert Kubica are moving on in 2020. Hulkenberg appears to have few options remaining to stay in F1, with Alfa Romeo appearing his best chance.
It will be a shame if the German is lost to the sport without ever having had the chance to drive a front running car, and more than 170 starts without a single podium finish would not be a fair reflection of his talent.
Kubica though will leave with a sense of what might have been. Tipped as a future world champion early in his career, his biggest achievement was simply getting the drive with Williams in 2019, eight years after the rally accident that nearly claimed his life.
Physically F1 was too much for him after his accident, but the grit and determination he showed to get back on the grid should be applauded.