Charles Leclerc and Ferrari defied expectations by beating better-fancied Mercedes and Red Bull Racing rivals to pole at the Singapore Grand Prix, but their prospects for a third victory in a row remain unclear.
The twists and turns of the Marina Bay Street Circuit should never have suited the SF90, which lacks the downforce required to excel through the track’s 23 corners, and Friday practice appeared to confirm as much, with both Leclerc and teammate Sebastian Vettel off the pace.
But overnight the time refined its bespoke Singapore aero kit — designed specifically to address the car’s slow speed weaknesses — to storm back into qualifying contention and ultimately take pole.
Lewis Hamilton qualified second to split Leclerc from Vettel in third, while the best Max Verstappen could do for Red Bull Racing was fourth and more than half a second adrift.
The substantial change in the competitive picture reframes race-day expectations based on Friday practice, though both Hamilton and Vettel hinted after qualifying that one-lap pace wouldn’t necessarily translate over a race distance on the demanding Singapore streets.
|2019 SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX GRID|
Distance: 5.063 kilometres
Lap record: 1:41.905 (Kevin Magnussen, Haas, 2018)
Tyre stress: Very low
Lateral load: Low
Asphalt grip: Very low
Asphalt abrasion: Medium
Downforce: Very High
Safety car probability: 100 per cent
Pit lane speed: 60 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 402.3 kilometres
Pit lane time loss: 24.138 seconds
Fuel use: 1.9 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C3 (hard), C4 (medium), C5 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: Hard–0.8 seconds–Medium–1.3 seconds–Soft
The streets of Marina Bay may be wider and more conducive to overtaking than their Monte Carlo counterparts, but passing still couldn’t be classified as easy, making the pit wall a key component of the race result.
The lack of high-speed, rubber-stressing corners combined with the difficulty in overtaking means Singapore is generally a one-stop race, and Friday data suggests that without the opportunity to get creative, Ferrari will be under race-long attack by Mercedes.
|Soft (C3), 5 laps|
|Red Bull Racing||1:45.869|
|Williams (2 laps)||1:47.458|
The numbers make for grim reading among the Ferrari faithful. Not only was Mercedes comfortably ahead on long-run pace, but Ferrari wasn’t even next-best — the Scuderia was on average 1.3 seconds slower than Mercedes during long-run simulations and half a second behind even Red Bull Racing.
But unlike at most races, whereby a well-timed undercut is a favoured method to jump a rival, Mercedes may be unlikely to do the same at Singapore given its problems with tyre warm-up.
Singapore has always been a bit of a bogey track for Mercedes in this regard despite its successes here. Track temperatures aren’t as high as you might think owing to the night-time hour of the race, and most corners a traction-dependent, making it difficult to balance temperatures in the front and rears.
Qualifying demonstrated as much. Mercedes requires full-speed out-laps to prepare the tyres, and both drivers suffered when denied it by traffic during the first runs in Q3.
An attempt to undercut Leclerc would therefore be a risky prospect. Ferrari has none of Mercedes’s warm-up problems and would be able to comfortably cover with a stop on the following lap.
However, Charles Leclerc would appear extremely susceptible to a long Lewis Hamilton overcut, who should have more than enough life in his soft tyres to survive Ferrari attempting to force the issue early. Similar to Hamilton’s strategy against Valtteri Bottas at Silverstone, where he pushed into overusing his tyres before the first stop, the Briton could harry Leclerc into overheating his softs early, forcing him into pit lane early and then unleashing his superior pace.
Such a strategy would also have the double benefit of potentially robbing Leclerc of the opportunity to run long in anticipation of a cheap stop behind a safety car. All 11 editions of the Singapore Grand Prix to date have featured a safety car intervention, which means expectations for a caution period are built into strategy models.
In this respect expect an early game of cat and mouse at a slow pace as drivers attempt to eke out extra life from their tyres — as per last year, albeit then it was about keeping the delicate hypersoft alive — until the first driver tries to attract first-mover advantage.
But this all comes with a substantial caveat: Ferrari’s pace on Saturday was so far removed from that demonstrated on Friday that assumptions about its race pace must be questions. While it’s fair to say the team’s tyre use will probably be higher than Mercedes given how quickly the SF90 heated up its tyres during qualifying, the race-pace deficit may not be so dramatic come Sunday night.