Nico Rosberg has won a high-risk Singapore Grand Prix from a fast-finishing Daniel Ricciardo.
The Mercedes driver led easily from pole, surviving a first-lap safety car, and controlled the race until the last stint, when a chasing trio of cars switched to an aggressive three-stop strategy and put his lead under pressure.
Ironically the chain reaction that threatened to snatch Rosberg of what was shaping up to be a straightforward victory was triggered by his own team as it sought help teammate Hamilton finish on the podium after falling to fourth.
Mercedes decided to switch Hamilton to a set of supersoft tyres on lap 46 after failing to make an impression on Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari, which had gotten ahead at the end of the previous stint.
Hamilton, who had pleaded with his team for novel strategy, forced Räikkönen to stop one lap later after much deliberation on the Ferrari pit wall, which fit the Finn with a set of ultrasofts.
The Mercedes gamble worked — Hamilton’s out-lap was fast enough to promote him up to third when Räikkönen left the pits, and the Finn couldn’t recover the position.
Ricciardo had settled behind Rosberg, but the Australian was forced to stop on lap 48 after the team assessed his second place to be under threat by the softer-shod Hamitlon and Räikkönen.
Rosberg was due to follow suit and stop, but Ricciardo’s blistering in-lap combined with the German encountering traffic on what would have been his in-lap forced him to stay out and defend his lead.
Ricciardo, Hamilton, and Räikkönen bore down on Rosberg, and Ricciardo was closing at such a rate that his team predicted he would be within striking distance with four laps remaining — but lapped traffic hindered his pace, and he only made it to within one second of the lead on the final lap.
In the end the order finished as it had begun — with Rosberg on the front foot and with Ricciardo and Hamilton falling short.
“It’s been an awesome weekend in Singapore for me,” Rosberg agreed.
The win was particularly meaningful, returning Rosberg to the championship lead with an eight-point margin.
“I’m not focussed on points, as I always say,” he insisted. “I’m just happy with the win today.”
Ricciardo, second for the second consecutive year at a circuit that suits both him and his car, said he wouldn’t let himself feel let down for running out of laps to pass for the lead.
“We’ve come very close this year on numerous occasions,” he said on the podium. “But I’m not going to stand up here and be disappointed.
“We tried something in the end with the strategy. At least we got close and made it exciting.”
Hamilton wrote his third place and lost championship lead to beginning the weekend with car troubles interrupting his practice sessions and brake management marring the early parts of his race.
“A very tough day,” he said. “This weekend’s been a tricky one for me, but I’m glad I could get up on the podium and get some points for the team.”
Kimi Räikkönen was disappointed to finish off the podium after making the move for third place on the track and losing it in the surprise last pit stops.
Though the Finn looked at home all weekend around the claustrophobic confines of the Marina Bay streets, it was teammate Sebastian Vettel who impressed most in the race.
Vettel started from last on the grid after suffering a suspension failure at the beginning of qualifying, but a daring two-stop strategy that leant heavily on the delicate ultrasoft tyre had him finish fifth and less than 20 seconds off the podium.
The German was up to sixth at his first pit stop, albeit aided by most of the midfield stopping earlier than him; consolidated his position on his first ultrasoft stint; and brought the car home with a 19-lap stint on the softest compound.
Max Verstappen could manage only sixth after losing four places off the line and enduring a race characterised by a ferocious battle with Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso.
Kvyat later said he thought the team had applied too conservative a strategy — two stops compared to Verstappen’s three — perhaps in response of Carlos Sainz’s compromised race start leaving just one STR in points contention.
The Russian was split from Verstappen by Fernando Alonso’s McLaren and Sergio Perez’s Force India.
Spaniard Alonso improved on his grid spot by two places, whereas Mexican Perez recovered impressively from his P17 start brought about by an eight-place grid penalty.
Perez executed the sort of classic tyre management race for which he has made a name for himself, switching his Q2 set of ultrasofts under the first-lap safety car to run two stints of 24 and 36 laps on the soft tyre.
The four points elevated Force India back above Williams in the constructors championship fight for fourth.
The safety car, which neutralised the race halfway through the opening lap, was triggered when Carlos Sainz and Nico Hülkenberg collided on the starting grid as they attempted to navigate slow-starting cars.
Hülkenberg retired on the spot, an though Sainz continued, he could make only limited progress with his damaged car and finished out of the points in P14.
Kevin Magnussen finished tenth to claim the last point of the race — his and his team’s second score of the year, bringing their respective totals to seven points.