Does Ferrari have one big win left in it?
The championship is heading towards an inevitable Max Verstappen-coloured conclusion, but Ferrari can still ensure his title triumph is delayed until Japan with a victory at the Singapore Grand Prix.
It’s a track that ought to suit the fundamental traits of its car, but its fallow run of form in recent months had the Italian team written off before even setting foot in the Lion State.
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But on Friday at Marina Bay the Scuderia led the way on all metrics.
In qualifying pace and on the long runs Carlos Sainz was quickest, teasing a much-needed Ferrari drought-breaker.
Victory, however, won’t be so easy as dominating practice.
The competitive picture is still delicately poised between the Scuderia, Mercedes and Red Bull Racing, and with overtaking difficult around the Singapore streets, it will only take one standout qualifying performance to break the deadlock and potentially steal a victory.
The question is who can make the most of a disrupted and mysterious Friday practice to make the leap in time for the all-important grid-setting hour on Saturday night.
AN INCONCLUSIVE NIGHT LEAVES PADDOCK IN THE DARK
FP2 is a particularly crucial hour of practice in Singapore. It’s the only practice session held in night-time conditions representative of qualifying and the race — FP1 and FP3 are held in the late afternoon — meaning it’s critical for evaluating race pace as well as understanding how to extract single-lap pace from the soft tires .
Unfortunately this weekend it supplied little usable information in divining the competitive order.
There’s a variety of reasons that we’re going into qualifying and the race short on data.
There’s the narrow nature of the track that means slow traffic is unavoidable and seemingly appears at the least convenient times, hampering both single-lap flyers and long-run simulations.
There’s the risk of damage against the walls and over the kerbs, with several cars kissing and scraping the barriers and requiring precautionary checks.
And then there are the difficult conditions and tricky layout themselves, which make setting up the cars difficult, forcing a difficult trade between track time and tweaking.
That fiendish combination means only Carlos Sainz and George Russell among the frontrunners completed anything like a long-run simulation on the medium tyres. Lewis Hamilton opted for the softs, while Charles Leclerc and both Red Bull Racing drivers suffered disrupted hours trying to tune their cars.
But even then their runs were relatively short, notwithstanding the long circuit, limiting their usefulness.
Race-pace simulation (medium tyres)
Ferrari: 1:48.548 (3 laps)
Mercedes: 1:48.940 (4 laps)
Alpine: 1:49.207 (4 laps)
Aston Martin: 1:49.453 (3 laps)
Alfa Romeo: 1:49.897 (3 laps)
Williams: 1:50.102 (5 laps)
Haas: 1:50.457 (5 laps)
AlphaTauri: 1:50.860 (4 laps)
The medium tire looks like the preferred race compound for Sunday, with several drivers reporting that they were struggling to keep the softs competitive for more than a couple of laps.
The hard tire was sampled by only two drivers in the late session.
But the long-run averages aren’t crucial in the way they are at other circuits. The difficulty overtaking at a narrow street track like Singapore means that qualifying pace is disproportionately important to the result, which is why the winners and losers from the day aren’t as clear-cut as it would seem.
RED BULL RACING OPTIMISTIC ON GAMBLE DESPITE THE SETBACKS
Red Bull Racing is going into this race with a markedly different approach to previous races. Whereas for much of this season it’s been happy enough not to take pole position knowing that it had a clearly superior car in race trim, this weekend it’s aiming for Verstappen to take a rare pole position and deal with whatever effects that may have on the car’s race pace.
It was in pursuit of a better one-lap set-up that limited the Dutchman’s running.
“I think it started off quite well in FP1, the car was working quite well,” he said.
“Then for FP2 we wanted to try a few things, but they just took a bit longer to change.
“Then we wanted to try something else, and again that took quite a long time to change again, so we couldn’t really run a lot.
“That’s why I think it’s not really representative, what we showed in FP2.
“Around here it’s most important that you’re quick over one lap. We’ll analyze a lot of things.
“We did a little bit of a long run in FP1. I don’t think it will be the end of the world.”
Verstappen was unperturbed by his 0.339-second deficit to Sainz, putting it down to having only one crack at a fast lap rather than a fundamental lack of pace.
“It was just not really having a reference, and then with the changes we made — were they good, were they bad? — we still need to analyse,” he said.
“Of course there’s still a lot of room for improvement, but it’s not the worst day.”
It’s a bold gamble to sacrifice so much track time at a track like Singapore in pursuit of a perfect set-up. So much lap time comes from confidence at a circuit like this, and every minute on track is valuable.
But it’s a calculated risk based on Verstappen’s sparkling form. The Dutchman has been able to win from practically anywhere on the grid this season, and heading into Saturday qualifying with a lack of track time is only the latest challenge his team is backing him to overcome.
If he and the team can pull it off, it’ll be yet another memorable and well-earnt victory.
MERCEDES FAST BUT IN NEED OF FINE-TUNING
Mercedes is hoping it can string together its best weekend yet and win its first race of the season in Singapore, and hopes were high after Lewis Hamilton made a late charge to top FP1, but FP2 was more lukewarm for the German marque, with George Russell third and Hamilton fifth.
The discrepancy between them — and perhaps the gap to the front, or so Mercedes hopes — is tire usage.
Nailing tire temperature is always key to a good lap, but it was particularly tricky to get the most from the Pirelli rubber around the green and partially resurfaced Singapore street track on Friday evening.
Charles Leclerc demonstrated it well with his final flying lap of the night, improving less than 0.1 seconds switching from mediums to softs when the improvement ought to have been substantially larger.
“The tires are quite sensitive,” Russell said. “I think it’s going to be one of those where if we can absolutely nail it, there’ll be a huge amount of lap time we can find in qualifying, and as we know, it’s normally a qualifying race.
“We’ll stay optimistic and work hard overnight.”
Hamilton sounded positive about his pace despite somewhat overstating the deficit to the front.
“It doesn’t feel like we’re massively off here this weekend,” he said. “We’re still probably a second down, I would say, or something like that.
“The car is as it is and still bouncing around like crazy.
“We’ve just got to keep working on it.”
Mercedes has shown enough on Friday to know it’s in the hunt, but it’s all about nailing qualifying. Tire preparation laps will be key given the W13 has a season-long tendency to underwork its tyres, but there’s clearly an underlying optimism that the team’s learned enough from Friday to go into Saturday confident of a good result.
FINAL UPGRADE BATTLE LOOKING ONE-SIDED
Both Alpine and McLaren have brought major updates to this weekend’s race — potentially the last big upgrades of the year — to try to swing the battle for fourth, but Friday’s evidence suggests things are moving in only one direction.
Alpine has a new floor this weekend that it’s clearly quite pleased with, and by the end of the day it had its cars in sixth and eighth.
“Both cars used the new, upgraded floor, which worked in line with our expectations,” Alpine technical director Matt Harman said. “We have some work to do overnight, and I look forward to seeing how tomorrow pans out.
“Overall we’re pleased with our performance level, and we’re in for a competitive weekend with both cars.”
McLaren, meanwhile, has made significant changes to the forward part of the floor and sidepod inlets.
Only Lando Norris’s car was carrying the update due to a scarcity of parts, with Daniel Ricciardo set to receive his update next weekend in Japan — a standard, non-controversial protocol applied by virtually all teams and unsurprising given Ricciardo is leaving the team at the end of the season.
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But neither car was particularly competitive, with Norris 11th and Ricciardo 18th.
“It’s looking tough,” Norris said. “We’re a long way off Alfa Romeo, a long, long, long way off Alpine, so looking like one of the tougher weekends, which is a shame, but it’s the way it is.
“It’s all we can do for now, so some small things to hopefully find tomorrow and we can still go for it. It’s just not looking as easy as normal.”
Ricciardo was similarly stunned by the car’s lack of pace despite running the old-spec car.
“Well, it’s definitely a difficult day,” he said. “Just very, very tricky to extract some speed out of it today, so certainly got a bit of work to do tonight.”
McLaren’s car has been picky all season about the tracks it likes, but what will be concerning is that Alpine has been expanding the circuits its car performs well at.
Slow-speed street tracks haven’t always been preferred by the French car, but in Singapore it was best of the midfield machines over a single lap and in the race simulations on both the medium and the soft tyres.
McLaren will have to pull something out of the bag to avoid a massive blow in the championship standings.