Lewis Hamilton's Singapore podium bid ended up very nearly sabotaging his teammate Nico Rosberg's victory. Adam Cooper analyzes the chain reaction.
The first lap crash aside, the Singapore GP was unusually free of incident. After that early Safety Car intervention, the race ran unhindered to the flag.
For too long it was a lacklustre race at the front – but then Lewis Hamiltontriggered a late round of pit stops that saw a fascinating strategic contest unfold, one that that ultimately saw Nico Rosberg just scrape home in front of Daniel Ricciardo, while Hamilton himself beat Kimi Raikkonen to fourth.
Both of these battles had moments of high drama. Mercedes came out on top, although it could easily have been very different.
“On both sides of the garage we had some very close calls, some good strategic calls, and also some very good luck,” Paddy Lowe told Motorsport.com.
“We could easily be talking here about a second and a fourth, rather than a first and a third. It was very close with both of them.”
Strategic options and genuine competition
Singapore was always going to be a challenging race for the World Champions, relative to other venues.
Although Mercedes was confident that it had solved the problems that afflicted it last year, the team knew it was not likely to have a big advantage, and that Red Bull and Ferrari had a real opportunity to get into the mix on race day.
What was more surprising perhaps was that Ricciardo got in between the silver cars in qualifying, while an extra twist was provided by the fact that both the Aussie and teammate Max Verstappen in fourth were committed to the supersoft rather than ultrasoft tires for the start, after using them in Q2.
In addition, the varied tire selections made several weeks ago and usage over the weekend meant that the top teams had different numbers of fresh tires left over for Sunday.
“It was interesting,” said Lowe. “Because, not just Red Bull, we had Ferrari as well, all the top three teams were looking to be running different tire combinations for the race, as a consequence of how we qualified and the stock we had in the garage. We were pretty pleased with our situation.
“It was always going to be tough to make the two-stop work, although as we saw Nico actually won the race on a two-stop, not by much of a margin!
"The softer compounds were always going to make it a stretch for people to do two stops, and we were going to exploit that advantage – our strategy was to exploit that strength, pushing early stops, forcing the other teams to take risks on tire life.”
Starts have been a bit of a saga for Mercedes recently, but this time all went pretty much to plan and the top three slotted into qualifying order, while a bad getaway dropped Verstappen out of contention and put Kimi Raikkonen onto Hamilton’s tail.
The first stint saw Rosberg gradually pulling away from Ricciardo, and Hamilton in turn dropping back from the Australian. Just a few laps into the race both Mercedes drivers were being given urgent messages about their brakes, and at one stage Rosberg was even told “this is serious, we do need that brake management.”
Brake management, not brake issue
It sounded pretty desperate, especially given that we were so early in the race, but in fact it was something that the team and drivers knew perfectly well would be a matter of routine on Sunday evening.
“They didn’t have any problems with brakes, it’s a question of management,” Lowe explained.
“The quickest race car we can build doesn’t allow the driver to brake flat out every lap, so they have to manage their brakes the same way they manage tires and manage fuel. So you can’t do qualifying laps every lap.
“But you can’t do that anyway, from a tire point of view. At some circuits like this one the brake issue becomes more dominant. It’s lift and coast, the same thing you do for tires, fuel, and brakes, just lift at the end of the straight a little bit.”
Hamilton asking questions
Among the frontrunners, the first pit stops were triggered when Ricciardo and Hamilton came in together on Lap 15, with the Red Bull going for another set of supersofts, and then Mercedes switching from ultrasofts to softs.
A lap later Rosberg did the same as his teammate, and a lap after that Raikkonen went from ultrasofts to softs, all of which meant that Ricciardo was again out-of-sync relative to his main rivals.
Almost immediately after he followed Ricciardo in and out of the pits, we heard a frustrated Hamilton say “come on guys, I needed a strategy that would get me past,” as not for the first time this year he queried a strategy call. As ever, the pit wall had a better view of the bigger picture.
“He was disappointed that he felt we had thrown away one of his overtaking opportunities,” said Lowe. “But the reality was he just wasn’t close enough, there was no undercut possible at that point because he was too far behind Ricciardo anyway.
"The plan was to exploit the fact that Hamilton would be on the softs, Ricciardo on the supersofts, and we would push him. Because he couldn’t stop too early, as we saw. Then in the second half of Hamilton’s stint you could see he was closing in on Ricciardo, which was that exact strategy coming into play.”
Initially, though, Hamilton fell away from Ricciardo, and came under strong pressure from Raikkonen. There was no way past for the Ferrari driver until Hamilton locked up and ran wide, and Raikkonen nipped through.
The second round of stops was triggered just before that when Ricciardo came in on Lap 32, taking on softs. Everyone else immediately followed suit, with Rosberg and Raikkonen (now ahead of Hamilton in third) pitting on Lap 33, and finally Hamilton on Lap 34. During this sequence the World Champion lost more time to Raikkonen, and his situation looked dire, given that Rosberg looked likely to bag 25 points.
All went to softs, and all could now run to the flag on two-stoppers. Given that they had similar stint lengths to run, identical tires, and that there were gaps of around five seconds, six seconds, and six seconds separating them, the likelihood was that the rest of the race would not see very much action.
However, there was a twist… and it came courtesy of the man in fourth place.
Hamilton opens up the options
An irresistible opportunity opened up for Hamilton. The cars behind him made third stops and dropped back, and the gap to fifth was such that Hamilton could make a third stop for free, take on new tires, and run flat to the finish as others were nursing older tires.
In this situation, it’s a double whammy for the teams ahead. First, there’s the question of the guy on new tires having the pace to catch you fair and square. Secondly, if you stay out and try to hold on there’s the risk that a Safety Car will allow the chaser to catch you for free, and then he’s sitting on your gearbox on fresher rubber, waiting for a restart and a sprint to the flag. As indeed are others behind him.
Mercedes showed its hand when Hamilton came in on Lap 45 for a used set of supersofts. Ferrari now had to decide what to do, and an anxious Raikkonen asked “are we boxing?” to be told that the team was still working on it.
The Singapore lap is a long one and that gave the Maranello strategists a little extra margin to do their calculations, but it also gave Hamilton an opportunity to claw back some crucial time on his out-lap. And when Raikkonen pitted and emerged on ultrasofts, he found himself behind Hamilton.
“We actually initiated the conversion to three-stop, because we had nothing to lose,” said Lowe. “We had a free stop for Hamilton. He wasn’t going to get the podium sticking around on the two-stop, so we kicked it off.
"We actually thought that with Kimi they would sweat that one out. They should have stayed out because they just gave the place up.”
Inevitably, the Ferrari guys looked like chumps for getting it wrong, but we’ll never know what would have happened had Raikkonen stayed out and tried to hold on.
“If we were having a huge degradation and Mercedes overtakes us, we are crazy,” noted Maurizio Arrivabene. “We took a decision based on our data, and now the exercise to do is verify if our data was right.”
A domino effect was unfolding, for just as Ferrari reacted to Hamilton pitting, so Red Bull reacted to the Ferrari stop, bringing in Ricciardo on Lap 47.
“As Ferrari pitted we decided, okay, we’ll cover this,” said Christian Horner. “Because what it was telling us was that strategically a three-stop at that point was the quickest way to get to the end of the race, but it would have meant you conceded track position. With our straightline speed we didn’t want to do that, so were keen to maintain track position at all times.”
Now it was Rosberg’s turn, and sure enough the Mercedes crew stepped into the pitlane ready to receive him on Lap 48. Except that he didn’t stop.
The Brackley team’s strategists had followed Ricciardo’s progress corner-by-corner on what was an impressive out-lap, and they saw the small window that would allow Rosberg to pit and resume in front disappear.
They didn’t want a repeat of what Hamilton had just done to Raikkonen.
“It was a very tight call,” said Lowe. “In retrospect we allowed Nico to consume too much of the gap to Ricciardo, giving Daniel that opportunity of making that stop, which we then had to cover.
"Nico had some bad traffic on Ricciardo’s out-lap. And that traffic just tipped it the wrong way, and if we’d boxed at that point we would have lost the position. So we had to sweat it out.”
“The thing that triggered, really, the end of the race was that Lewis had a free pit stop,” added Horner. “He chose to take that, Kimi covered, we then chose to cover both of them.
“I think the intention was for Nico to cover us, but they aborted at the last minute, because Daniel’s out-lap was so stonkingly strong, together with a fast pitstop. We were within the undercut, so they then had to stay out. Which meant a 26-27 second gap, and having run the maths quickly it looked like we’d catch within a lap or two of the end.”
Ricciardo springs another surprise
Initially, Mercedes thought Rosberg would still have enough in hand to stay safely in front over those final 14 laps, but Ricciardo’s pace was a surprise. The gap came down at an astonishing rate, from 25.4s to 21.8s and then 19.0, 16.4s, 13.8s, 11.8s, 9.4s, 7.0 and then, with just five laps to go, 5.2s. You didn’t need a super computer to work out that he was soon going to be right with Rosberg.
But then on Lap 57 his progress was halted and he actually lost a tenth – he was coming up to lap Esteban Gutierrez, and he lost a crucial bit of momentum - although, to be fair, Rosberg had just done so as well. Rosberg had also saved his brakes, tires and so on for those last few laps, and he was able to find just enough extra speed to frustrate Ricciardo.
The gap went 4.6s, 3.4s and, heading into the final lap, 2.0s. There was no need for the Mercedes pitwall to talk to the leader.
“He could see the guy in his mirrors,” said Lowe. “So we didn’t need to give him too much data. He was very busy.
“Both drivers at times told us to leave them alone. It’s a busy lap here, and at a point where they know what they’ve got to do, they don’t need the information. Sometimes they want more information, sometimes they want less. it’s a difficult judgement to get right all the time.”
FOM’s detailed sector timing showed Ricciardo’s amazing progress over that final lap as he gained time at every corner, and the gap went 1.8s, 1.6s, 1.4s, 1.3, 1.2s, 1.1s, 1.0s, 0.9, 0.8s… And then finally as they crossed the line, 0.4s.
It was that close.
As noted earlier on, of the major concerns was that a Safety Car would allow Ricciardo – and indeed Hamilton, Raikkonen, Vettel, and co. – to close up and then slip Rosberg past at the restart on their newer tires, but in the end everything fell Rosberg’s way.
“There were certain windows where a Safety Car would have been fantastic for us,” Lowe explained. “But then as it got later the Safety Car was exactly what we didn’t need. If there had been a Safety Car in the last five laps Nico would have come fourth, probably.
“This race is a very interesting one, because it’s all about managing a whole bunch of different risks, and you can’t cover them all. You just have to hope you’ve covered the right ones, and we did today, fortunately. I think one more lap, we would have been done.”
It was a great effort from Ricciardo, who continues to show his class. Will he get a chance to log a win in 2016? It will probably take special circumstances.
“We got pretty close today,” said Horner. “We got within half a second and beat one of the Mercedes fair and square.
“Hopefully opportunities will present themselves over the remaining six races, but Mercedes have been so strong at every venue. It’s going to rely on something different happening – weather conditions, tire degradation, something on those lines.”
It was a good Sunday evening for Mercedes, of course, albeit not quite a perfect one, as Lowe acknowledged: “We need to go and analyse the performance, particularly on Hamilton’s side.
"For various reasons he didn’t have the grip that Nico had, and we really would have hoped he’d be on the front row. We need to understand that and see if we can learn from it for the future.
“We always felt coming into this weekend that solving last year’s problems would only get us back to having a very tough race that would be very close between all three top teams. And so it proved to be.”