🇸🇬 F1'23: R15 - Formula Chasedown

Singapore showed that even though the Red Bull streak is over, the next storyline is never too far away

The last five laps of the Singapore Grand Prix made the previous 50+ tours of Marina Bay worth it.

Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris, George Russell and Lewis Hamilton put on a brilliant attack vs defence drill with the former two trying to hold off the charging Mercedes pair who had put on fresh medium tyres under a Virtual Safety Car in an attempt to chase down and take their first win since Brazil 2021.

Yes, that’s a long sentence.

And it seemed to be working with Charles Leclerc unable to provide any form of defence against the silver machines as they got closer, and closer, and closer again to a potential 1-2.

But in the last couple of laps, things got screwy.

Sainz showed some superb levels of maturity the whole race by managing his lap times, holding up the pack on a track that is difficult to overtake on. Early on, he did this with his current teammate Leclerc (who was on softs). Later, he did the same thing with his former teammate, allowing Lando Norris to get the benefit of DRS - not to be exposed and be subsequently passed, but to allow the British driver to defend against his countrymen and stay just ahead of the Mercedes pair.

And while nothing was said over the team radio, and both Hamilton and Russell are drivers who can see the bigger picture, I wondered whether Hamilton felt he may have been quicker than Russell AND Norris and push for second. Ultimately, on that last lap, the decision was taken out of his hands with Russell going straight on, into the wall and scoring 0 points where 15 were relatively safely in the bank. Those 15 points would have put him ahead of Leclerc in the Drivers’ Championship.

It was an undeserved end for him and meant that he extended his streak to three races in Singapore without scoring a point. His frustration over the radio while beached into the wall summing it all up, squandering his team’s best chance to win. Even worse was his post-race interview, where the emotion was overflowing and close to tears, said that he had let himself down, as well as his team.

This is a good time to mention that breaking Red Bull’s streak wasn’t solely due to the championship leaders not being on the pace this weekend. To beat the best, everything has to go right for you and a few things have to go wrong for the people at the top. Logan Sargeant put his beautiful Gulf liveried Williams into the wall, forcing a real safety car, allowing people to make a round of stops, and negating the advantage that Red Bull would have enjoyed from going long, switching to medium tyres with 20-ish laps to go and slicing their way through the field.

Then, a second retirement, this time the Alpine of Esteban Ocon outside the pit lane on lap 46, meant decisions had to be made under a virtual safety car. Mercedes executed a perfect double-stack and the stage was set for the chasedown.

Compare that double stack to a couple of other stops during the night race. Fernando Alonso was carrying a 5-second penalty, so the team took that and then botched his tyre change, meaning Aston Martin - already down a driver after Lance Stroll’s crash in qualifying - suffered their first non-points finish of 2023. 

What the fancy graphic from Aston Martin doesn’t tell you is that he called the car “undriveable” - is this the return of angry Alonso, with the veteran unhappy at how his team have fallen behind in the development race, or is this just part of the uniqueness of Singapore?

Mercedes weren’t the only team to try the double-stack either. Ferrari did it during that first round of stops, and it didn’t work out for them, as they had to hold back Leclerc’s release due to incoming traffic.

As I said before, everything has to go right for you to beat the best, especially when the best is currently the true final boss of the sport. And even when it does, perhaps no one will be talking about you. This is Carlos Sainz’s second victory, after taking the top step at Silverstone 2022. At that race, the narrative was largely about Zhou’s spectacular crash and Hamilton’s daring overtaking, and Sainz was largely an afterthought when the spotlight was on him. 

Now, under the floodlights in Singapore, the narrative will be about George Russell’s late mistake and the Red Bull streak being over, and even when he drives a near-perfect race, Sainz is again going to be something of a pub quiz question, rather than collecting the plaudits he deserves for a spectacular drive. 

And that’s before we even mention Liam Lawson. In his third race, he finished ninth, giving him two points and 40% of Alpha Tauri’s seasonal total.

Interestingly, it also makes the Ferrari victory score 3-2 to Leclerc vs Sainz in equal machinery. Sainz has more podiums than his team mate over the seasons they’ve been together but I think if you asked most F1 journalists which one of the Ferrari drivers makes for the more likely world champion, they’ll reply with Leclerc. 

So where does this leave the teams as they head into the short week and Suzuka? The jewel in the crown of Asian circuits, a drivers’ favourite and a 6am wake up call for UK fans. For all their success, Red Bull will be looking to prove they can bounce back. The perfect season has never been achieved in F1, but the track where Max Verstappen won his second world title will provide a good test for both Verstappen and Perez.

Ferrari are on a high, but there are still questions to be answered on how they handle these chaotic situations for both drivers, rather than sacrificing Leclerc, as Mercedes put it. And speaking of Mercedes, Russell has to shake this result off, and not carry that emotion into a track that rewards level-headedness (when mixed with a little bit of ambition too.)

For now the Red Bull streak is over, but it showed that F1 - for all the complaints that the season is “boring” somehow - that the next big storyline is literally just around the corner, even if the driver doesn’t make it.

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