Red Bull on top, Ferrari feeling the heat in Friday practice

Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull Racing have emerged as the force to beat at the Singapore Grand Prix while pre-weekend favourite Ferrari struggled for pace.

Ricciardo topped the first practice session, run in unrepresentative afternoon conditions, and extended his advantage over the field after sunset in practice two, lapping more than half a second faster than teammate Max Verstappen.

Red Bull Racing was expected to excel here, as the team did at the last low-speed circuit at the Hungarian Grand Prix, but surprising was that Ferrari, ordinarily very strong on street circuits in 2017, did not feature in the top eight.

Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel finished ninth and 11th respectively, 1.9 and 2.2 seconds off the pace, though a slower car impeded Vettel’s fastest lap.

Lewis Hamilton, the drivers championship leader after victory at the Italian Grand Prix two weeks ago, finished the day third fastest for Mercedes by 0.7 seconds off Ricciardo’s pace.

Valtteri Bottas finished a further half-second back in the sister Mercedes.

Red Bull Racing likewise looked strong during the long-run simulations, placing the race firmly within the team’s grasp if it has the pace to overcome Mercedes’s qualifying engine mode tomorrow evening in the fight for pole position.

Ferrari will take solace in its own long-run pace looking marginally faster than that of Mercedes, though if its single-lap performance persists through to qualifying, it will be forced to overcome a midfield comprising McLaren, Renault and Force India on this difficult-to-pass circuit to fight for the podium.

Noteworthy is that Ferrari also struggled on Friday at the Italian Grand Prix, which triggered its weekend for failure when final practice on Saturday was cancelled, depriving it of an opportunity to fix its setup problems.

Because Marina Bay is a street circuit, performance will improve throughout the weekend, making the single hour of practice on Saturday crucial before qualifying.

But Friday practice proved something of a sideshow to a raft of announcements from McLaren, Honda, Renault and Toro Rosso.

As foreshadowed by The Phuket News earlier this week, McLaren and Toro Rosso ended their engine supply agreements with Honda and Renault respectively.

McLaren, after enduring three years of underperformance with Honda, will switch to Renault in 2018, while Toro Rosso will throw its lot in with Honda from next season.

Renault also announced Carlos Sainz as Jolyon Palmer’s replacement at the Renault works team for 2018.

Singapore Grand Prix organisers together with F1 CEO Chase Carey announced on Friday that the race would stay on the streets of Marina Bay until at least 2021.

The contract for the sport’s first night grand prix was due to expire after this year’s 10th anniversary event, but Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry, S Iswaran, said the race’s contribution to the economy was too great to give up.

“The race has reinforced Singapore’s image as a vibrant and innovative city to a wide international audience,” he said. “It has also created good opportunities for Singaporeans and the local business community.”

Minister Iswaran said the net cost of the race was S$135 million, with the state absorbing 60 per cent of the cost and the private Singapore GP company shouldering the balance.

However, he added that the race has raised approximately S$1.4 billion in tourism receipts from an estimated 450,000 international visitors to the country over the race’s history.

Chase Carey praised the grand prix organisers, calling the event “a signature Formula One race”.

“The first ever night race in this sport is one of the most thrilling events of the year,” he said. “We are very pleased that it will continue to feature on the calendar for a further four years.”