The Singapore Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Julianne Cerasoli, Brazil’s only travelling F1 journalist.
Ferrari tore up the form book to deliver a one-two finish at the Singapore Grand Prix, but it was Sebastian Vettel and not pole-sitter Charles Leclerc who took the chequered flag.
Vettel was defending against a Max Verstappen undercut when he accidentally and controversially benefitted from the unexpectedly powerful strategy himself, jumping past Charles Leclerc when the Monegasque stopped on the following lap an inheriting the lead.
Leclerc was clearly unhappy to be denied victory, not least because it came about by the team stopping its slower driver first, a break from usual strategy decision.
Was there anything Ferrari could have done in tying up an otherwise perfect result?
Ferrari wasn’t expected to feature in the fight for pole or race victory in Singapore based on the team’s form at similar circuits to date this season. In both Monaco and Hungary the Scuderia was outclassed by both Mercedes and Red Bull Racing — in Budapest both drivers notably finished more than a minute behind race-winner Lewis Hamilton — and Marina Bay was expected to expose those same slow-speed weaknesses.
Even as late as Friday the Italian team appeared to struggle with a lack of downforce despite the application of a bespoke upgrade package, but a stunning turnaround that night — a fine-tuning of the balance, something Vettel in particular has struggled with this season — injected the team right into pole contention.
The dividend paid by these changes was particularly large in Singapore, where keeping the front and rear tyres up to temperature is both difficult and crucial to a fast lap. By contrast, Mercedes struggled to strike that balance. Both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas needed super-fast preparation laps in Q3, and even then Hamilton was slow in the first sector while his Pirelli rubber came up to temperature.
Leclerc stormed to pole ahead of Hamilton, with Vettel, who abandoned his scruffy final qualifying lap, slotting into third.
From there the race was a fascinating prospect. Friday practice data — perhaps irrelevant given Ferrari’s improvements, but a useful guide nonetheless — suggested Ferrari was on average 1.3 seconds slower that Mercedes per lap over a race distance. Would Mercedes be able to take advantage by executing a powerful undercut or by pressuring Leclerc into an early stop and blasting away with an overcut?
The fear of both ironically delivered Ferrari a one-two finish, albeit in reverse order, while Mercedes’s failure to gamble on its pace lost it a podium finish.
The race-winning move
The first phase of the race was run at an extremely slow pace, but whereas last year the pedestrian opening stint was to keep the delicate hypersofts alive, this year the field was held up by Leclerc primarily create congestions and thereby kill Hamilton’s opportunity to pull the undercut. What wasn’t anticipated was how powerful the advantage of fresh rubber would be, as demonstrated by Vettel later slicing past midfield cars after the first pit stops.
But ironically the race-winning move was a third-hand decision from the Ferrari pit wall. It began with Nico Hulkenberg’s first-lap pit stop after a tangle with Carlos Sainz for seventh place. The German switched to new hards and made quick progress from the back of the field until lap 12, when he became caught behind Romain Grosjean’s slowing Haas in what became 13th and 14th place. The pair began drifting off the lead, creating a gap ahead.
Red Bull Racing, with Max Verstappen trailing Vettel from fourth, was monitoring the situation until lap 19, when Hulkenberg finally broke free and began lapping substantially faster. The Dutchman was ordered in to take advantage of the closing window and Ferrari, not wanting to be undercut, had to respond by pitting Vettel ahead of him. Both switched to new hards, and while Vettel slotted perfectly into the gap ahead of Hulkenberg, Verstappen fell behind the Renault and lost time on the half-lap he took to pass him.
Leclerc came in at the end of lap 20. His margin over Vettel at the end of lap 18 had been 3.5 seconds — thought more than enough to cover the German’s early stop — but the German pace was such that he ended up ahead of his teammate when the Monegasque rejoined from his own stop.
Leclerc remonstrated with his pit wall over team radio — he hadn’t been told Vettel had come in first and was an undercut threat. What’s worse, had Verstappen not slipped behind Hulkenberg, the Dutchman may well have followed Vettel into Leclerc’s pit stop window, costing him two positions.
Further, it remains an open question as to when Leclerc was told to pit. Vettel was radioed only two corners from the end of the lap, meaning he had little time to push, yet Leclerc’s in-lap time was almost identical, suggesting he given enough notice on top of not being notified of the threat to his lead.
With Mercedes counting itself out of the running — explained further below — Ferrari only had to manage the tyres to the finish, made amply easier by three safety car interventions. Leclerc requested extra power at the second restart in a bid to correct the order, but he was told by the team to focus on bringing the car home, a tacit command to hold station, securing the one-two finish.
Could Leclerc have maintained the lead by biting the bullet and stopping first? Ferrari was in an invidious position in this regard — it was worried about the undercut, but so too was the overcut — utilising Mercedes’s impressive Friday practice pace — a perceived risk. Leclerc would’ve dropped into the gap ahead of Hulkenberg and close to Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, which would have allowed Hamilton to unleash what was left of his tyres in clear air to potentially jump the Ferrari. In retrospect the undercut was powerful enough to negate this, but the team wasn’t to know at the time.
In any case, once Verstappen stopped, the die was cast. Ferrari had to stop Vettel in response lest it lost a place to the Dutchman, and it also knew it could jump Hamilton in the process. Had it waited and stopped Leclerc without stopping Vettel, it would have lost victory, never mind the one-two finish.
Mercedes too conservative
Ferrari wasn’t the only team to suffer poor communication — Mercedes too was caught in a muddle at the end of the first stint as Ferrari and Red Bull Racing began stopping.
Mercedes wasn’t willing to risk the undercut, not convinced by its effectiveness in the traffic Leclerc had created, but the team recognised when Vettel stopped that Hamilton would lose second place. However, rather than defend third from Verstappen, the team told Hamilton to do the opposite of Leclerc on lap 20, and when Leclerc stopped, Hamilton remained out.
Hamilton assumed he was going for a short overcut attempt and used up his tyres in the two following laps, but Mercedes soon after told him he was to build a tyre offset for a later change. By lap 24 his pace began falling away dramatically and it was clear he would have to stop ahead of schedule, cooking his strategy.
His tyre change came on lap 26, but only after Valtteri Bottas, who’d stopped on lap 22, was ordered to slow down dramatically to build a gap for his teammate to stop into, salvaging the championship leader fourth place. Bottas later confirmed this was a longstanding team policy to not disadvantage the lead driver when the team misapplies strategy decisions.
Hulkenberg saved by the safety car
The Singapore Grand Prix has a 100 per cent safety car record, but the first of three in the 2018 edition nonetheless caught the midfield off-guard, with no fewer than four drivers pitting less than three laps before the first intervention on lap 36.
Nico Hulkenberg was the only driver to keep the faith and go long — admittedly he was on the hard tyre after his first-lap pit stop — and it paid big dividends for the German, catapulting him from what seemed likely to be a non-points finish into eighth ninth place behind Pierre Gasly.
The missed cheap-stop opportunity was particularly painful for Antonio Giovinazzi, who stopped fifth pace on lap 34, though he took advantage of the safety car to make a second change on to the soft, which allowed him to make a fighting finish of his race, moving from 15th to 10th.
Pierre Gasly stopped from third on lap 32, dropping to 16th, before making up four positions through the following midfield stops and racing up to eighth in the final stint.
The winner’s strategy
Sebastian Vettel: soft (used) to lap 19, hard (new) to lap 61.