The received wisdom ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix weekend was that the race — and the championship — was Sebastian Vettel’s to lose. The season’s results up to that point suggested Ferrari would have the better car at the Marina Bay street circuit and that Lewis Hamilton’s 30-point lead in the championship was more fragile than it looked. The theory went that the pace of Sebastian Vettel’s superior car would allow him to do what he does best: lead from the front and break the resolve of his rival.
The reality at the end of the weekend couldn’t have been more different.
Pinpointing exactly when Vettel’s race weekend went wrong is difficult. Several small errors culminated towards the final result as Ferrari’s weekend unravelled from session to session.
- There was the collision with the wall at Turn 21 on Friday night that cost him valuable setup time and tyre data.
- There was the ongoing debate over the team radio between Vettel and his engineer about how best to prepare the tyres ahead of a single lap in qualifying.
- There were the little lock ups at Turns 13 and 14 on his qualifying lap — possibly linked to the tyre preparation — that leaked crucial tenths of a second in the middle sector of his Q3 qualifying lap.
- There was the timing of his first pit stop in the race that saw him exit behind a Force India just as he needed to push to fend off Max Verstappen.
- There was the decision to put him on the ultra-soft compound tyre instead of softs, which forced him to nurse his tyres for the vast majority of the race.
- And there was the simple fact that Ferrari didn’t hold the pace advantage over Mercedes that everybody thought it would.
As the dust settled on Sunday evening, it was the race strategy that stood out as the most glaring error. After gaining a place over Max Verstappen at the start, Ferrari was looking to attack Hamilton for the lead and attempted to undercut the Mercedes driver by pitting Sebastian relatively early on lap 14. The thinking behind the strategy was simple: a fresh set of ultra-soft tyres, while not ideal for the 57-lap stint that would follow, would offer a performance advantage over Hamilton’s aging hyper-softs and potentially get Vettel ahead.
But Scuderia Ferrari had underestimated how much performance was left in Hamilton’s tyres — ostensibly because it misheard a radio message in which Hamilton said he had “lots” of life left in tyres, believing that he said “no life” — and as Vettel set a quick pace on his outlap on new ultra-softs, Hamilton was able to match his sector times on his in-lap. The Mercedes driver retained the lead after his pit stop, and by pitting second Mercedes had the flexibility of taking the safer option of fitting the more durable soft tyres to his car.