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ANALYSIS: Lewis Shines Brightest Amidst Marina Bay Madness

ANALYSIS: Lewis Shines Brightest Amidst Marina Bay Madness

The combination of a startline accident that eliminated both Ferraris and brilliantly managed drives by Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas saw the team turn what looked set to be a challenging weekend into a resounding success.

'It looks like our yearly wake-up call'

A 1-3 result with Lewis P1 and Valtteri P3 means the former opens up a 28-point lead at the head of the Drivers' Championship, while the latter closed to within 23 points of Sebastian Vettel's total in P2.

Conventional wisdom suggested that the 23-turn Marina Bay Street Circuit was very much Ferrari territory, with the high downforce demands likely to play to Maranello's strengths in much the same way as Monte Carlo and Budapest. It looked that way after qualifying too. While Ferrari did not manage to lock out the front row as they did in Monaco and Hungary, Vettel did take a convincing pole ahead of the Red Bulls and team mate Kimi Räikkönen, while the Silver Arrows found themselves down on the third row.

"It looks like our yearly wake-up call," Toto Wolff grimaced on Saturday evening, "and it's probably down to the concept of the car."

While the gap to pole was not the 1.42s chasm that shocked the team at Singapore in 2015, there was still a 0.63s margin separating Lewis from Vettel, despite Lewis driving exceptionally well.

"It was a really strong Qualifying session for me, actually," he said, "Just as strong a session as many where I've got pole. We were holding on for dear life in Q1 / Q2 and I got everything out of every lap. We were just lacking a load of grip."

The team did revert to the Friday baseline

Although he joined Lewis on row three, Valtteri was almost 0.7s slower. After struggling with the rear end of the car in Friday practice, the team made wholesale changes overnight. But with half an hour of Saturday's final practice session remaining, Valtteri was still in trouble.

"Do we go back to where we were yesterday or do we develop from here?" he was asked.

"Good question..." Valtteri responded.

The team did revert to the Friday baseline, made additional changes and Valtteri was able to see off the somewhat unexpected potential threats from Renault and McLaren-Honda to secure his place alonsgside Lewis.

Friday afternoon's race runs pointed to the fact that the team may struggle to match the pace of both Ferrari and Red Bull. But rain just before the start played into the team's hands. Lewis is always confident in such conditions and Monza had shown that the W08's performance on the intermediate tyre was highly impressive.

Where in 2016, Red Bull tended to be superior on the green-walled Pirelli, that pattern is not re-emerging this year. Fitting intermediates changes the car's ride height characteristics with the tyre seal region reacting differently, as the sidewalls flex in a different way. It's possible that the W08 is more suited to that characteristic than Red Bull's RB13 and the team suspected that the drivers would be in good shape.

The probability of an early Safety Car is very high

When the tyre covers came off on the grid, however, there was an exact 50 / 50 split between drivers opting for the Intermediate Pirelli and those who selected the blue-walled Extreme Wet. Significantly, though, the top six had all gone for the Intermediate.

While lap times at the start of the race were right on the crossover point between the two tyres, the selection decision was driven not so much by what the weather was doing right at that moment but what it was going to be doing a few minutes later. The team's information was that the rain was passing. In addition, the probability of an early Safety Car in Singapore is very high. So, taking the tyre expected to be right five or six laps later, was logical. The Intermediate was the right call. For those further back, a gamble on the Extreme may have been worthwhile.

The first few seconds of the race did indeed maintain the 100% Safety Car requirement during the decade in which Singapore has established itself as one of F1's iconic events. Vettel, making a reasonably slow start, moved left to close down the faster-starting Verstappen. However, at the same time, an even faster-starting Räikkönen came down the left-hand side of the Red Bull. Verstappen found himself pincered and the resulting contact eliminated all three. Verstappen and Räikkönen were out on the spot, while Vettel's hobbled Ferrari made it around Turns 1 / 2 before spinning on its own oil.

Lewis, meanwhile, had made a fine start, took the outside line at Turn One and found himself leading when he jinked around Vettel's stricken Ferrari, the Safety Car already deployed. Valtteri, meanwhile, had managed to avoid the multi-car shunt occurring just in front of him, but in doing so had lost places to Hülkenberg and Pérez, and so ran fifth.

It proved to be the right call

Suddenly, a race Lewis had gone into intent on damage limitation, was affording him a golden opportunity with his main championship rival non-scoring. When the Safety Car pulled off after four laps, Lewis immediately opened out a 3.5s margin over Ricciardo and had extended that to 5s by the time Daniil Kvyat crashed his Toro Rosso and brought out the Safety Car for the second time on lap 11.

With the track drying slowly, it was too soon to make the move onto slick tyres. But second-placed Ricciardo had a big enough margin over most of the rest of the field to dive into the pits for a fresh set of Pirelli Intermediates. His cause was helped by Hülkenberg, Pérez and Palmer adopting the same approach, so that Ricciardo only briefly surrendered his track position to Palmer but was right back behind Lewis, on fresh tyres, when the Safety Car pulled off at the end of the 14th lap. Valtteri, who like Lewis had not pitted, was now third, ahead of Sainz, Hülkenberg and Pérez.

It was now that Lewis expressed concern over the radio that stopping for fresh tyres would have been the better tactical approach. The team, however, immediately explained the reasoning behind their approach. Firstly, if Lewis, leading the race, had pitted, Red Bull would have left Ricciardo out. Around the Marina Bay, track position is king and you would rather be leading the race on worn Intermediates than running second on new ones. Secondly, on a drying surface, it can sometimes be better to be on worn Intermediates than new ones, which have more gauge and can be more prone to overheating. The team was happy with Lewis' lap times and the condition of his used Intermediates, so left him out.

It proved to be the right call. With the field racing once again, Lewis was able to extend his lead. At the end of lap 16 it was 2.32s and on successive laps grew to 2.79s; 3.05s; 3.41s; 3.96s and 4.96s, in spite of Ricciardo's new rubber. Impressive - and vindication of the strategy.

The answer was no

The next decision that had to be correctly negotiated was the crossover point to go from Intermediates onto slicks. In such circumstances the leading teams don't gamble but, instead, take a cue from the sector times of the first car to stop - in this case Kevin Magnussen's Haas, the Dane pitting for a set of UltraSofts after 24 laps.

At that stage, the team's metrics showed it was slightly too early to make the switch and that the track was still 0.8s off. The other consideration was that, when the first car goes onto dry tyres, there is increased risk. What if there is another Safety Car at that point? If so, not everyone would be on slicks and those who had changed would face a tricky scenario restarting on dry tyres that had lost temperature.

For those reasons, being reactive rather than proactive was the sensible play. Ricciardo headed for the pits four laps later, at the end of lap 28, the same lap on which the team brought in Valtteri before covering the Red Bull with Lewis at the end of lap 29.

Once the pair were back up to speed, Lewis had an 8.6s lead over the Australian. But, now that they were on UltraSofts on a drying track, was Lewis going to be vulnerable to the impressive pace Red Bull had displayed on that tyre in Friday's second practice session?

The answer was no. Lewis was actually able to marginally extend his advantage until Marcus Ericsson spun his Sauber at a narrow part of the circuit and caused the third appearance of the Safety Car. The field closed up once again, before being let off the leash for the final time at the end of the 41st lap, for what would be an additional 17 laps. The race eventually ended three laps before the scheduled 61 thanks to the maximum two-hour time limitation.

'We definitely got lucky!'

Once again, Lewis was able to drop the Red Bull quickly at the restart, 2.2s clear at the end of lap 42 and 4.28s ahead next time around. But, Lewis's 44th lap was almost 2.5s slower and his lead suddenly back down to 1.7s. Some suspected that the team wanted Lewis to slow down and back Ricciardo into Valtteri, so that they could have a chance for a 1-2 finish. The reality though, was more complex.

At the end of the 2016 race, won for the team by Nico Rosberg, Ricciardo had come close to closing down the lead Mercedes on fresher tyres after a late stop, facilitated by having a big enough pit window behind him. The team's concern was that if Lewis set a storming pace at the front, he may pull Ricciardo along with him, creating a gap behind the Red Bull and allowing Daniel to build a stop window if Valtteri and Carlos Sainz were unable to run at a similar pace. A further Safety Car could then prove problematic. The intention, therefore, was that Lewis should back off slightly.

With no further drama, Lewis completed a flawless performance by crossing the line 4.5s clear of Ricciardo's Red Bull to take his 60th Grand Prix win and his seventh of the 2017 season. Valtteri finished 10s further adrift to help the team open up a 102-point advantage over Scuderia Ferrari in the Constructors' Championship.

"We definitely got lucky!" Valtteri admitted, "but I have to say that the car was working better than expected today. I was really waiting for the opportunities. Personally, I struggled in the wet with the pace. But in the dry it was pretty good and from time to time I could put pressure on Daniel."

Where had the pace come from?

Ricciardo later reported that he had a slight gearbox issue that had caused him to short-shift from early in the race, but sportingly acknowledged that it had not made the difference.

Lewis, meanwhile, was jubilant: "I'm loving driving more than ever. I feel like I'm driving better than ever. I feel the most whole as a driver that I've ever been, which is a great feeling."

And, reflecting on a highly unlikely win, Toto said: "I've said before, on a difficult day, you'd like Lewis in the car. And this was another example. There was a high chance of making a mistake. In the morning we were talking about damage limitation and then we go away with a 1-3. From our perspective it's a great result. But once that happens you can kind of feel for Ferrari. I've been in the situation of losing both cars and you can relate to how awful that feels."

And so, where had the pace, missing on Friday / Saturday, come from?

'This is motor racing and you can see how quickly it changes'

"We didn't have the quickest car yesterday but against Daniel, who is a benchmark around Singapore in the Red Bull, we were pulling away in all conditions and on various tyres. Lewis apart, that will be interesting to analyse and understand. I hope the guys in the engineering room know why!

"I think it was probably tyre temperatures. We were running always in a zone where we had the tyre temperatures under control. Yesterday it was hotter. I think today the track was green, the grip was less than in qualifying yesterday and it was cooler."

Despite Singapore representing an important win against the odds, nobody is taking anything for granted, even if the Constructors' Championship position looks rosy.

"This is motor racing and you can see how quickly it changes," Toto pointed out. "Six more races means it can go against us six times in a similar way that it did for Ferrari today. You have to concentrate on every single race. We mustn't drop the ball."

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