Leclerc stuns with Singapore pole

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SINGAPORE STREET CIRCUIT, SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 21: Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF90 during the Singapore GP at Singapore Street Circuit on September 21, 2019 in Singapore Street Circuit, Singapore. (Photo by Glenn Dunbar / LAT Images)

If you’d have guessed on the running order and likely outcome of the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix weekend, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mercedes and Red Bull would most likely be flattered at this twisty, complex and slightly uninspiring 23-corner track.

The reality was shaken a bit in FP3 when the Ferrari’s looked competitive and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull slightly off pace. Truth is difficult to discern as you never know how much Mercedes may have been holding back. All of the would be revealed during qualifying under the lights of F1’s first night race.

Q1

The session started in poor form for Carlos Sainz who’s initial out lap experienced a loss of power but he backed up to give himself some space and hit the throttle for a hot lap and slotted 5th on his initial run.

The Mercedes duo jumped to the top of the time sheet with Bottas leading Hamilton but it was Ferrari’s Leclerc who overhauled them both and Verstappen slotting in second. However, both Mercedes drivers were on the Medium compound versus the other runners using Soft’s and that’s possibly 1.2s difference in tire performance.

Vettel was languishing down in 6th and took another lap to launch himself up to 2nd behind his teammate by .360s and ahead of the Mercedes duo. With 3:30 left, both Mercs came back out on soft compounds which was a bit unusual as their times seem good enough to get through to Q2 with their Medium compound runs.

What we learned was that on Soft compounds, the Mercedes duo indeed had the pace to jump to the top of the time sheets with Bottas leading Hamilton. It changed to narrative of the weekend which was quibbling back and forth about Ferrari’s upgrades and challenge on a Mercedes-flattering track.

Haas F1’s Kevin Magnussen narrowly made it out of Q1 while his teammate Romain Grosjean, cherishing a new contract extension for 2020, glanced the wall and was out in Q1.

Out in Q1- Kubica, Russell, Stroll, Grosjean, Kvyat

Q2

The Merc were the first out on Soft compounds in Q2 followed but he rest of the field. The risk of a street circuit is that there is limited run-off area and in order to make sure you aren’t caught out, getting a hot lap in early is just being prudent.

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas jumped to the top respectively but it was Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc who leapt over them for 1st while his teammate, Sebastian Vettel, only managed 4th.

Most believed that this race would be a battle between Mercedes and Red Bull and Max Verstappen managed to split the Merc for 3rd but it was Leclerc’s pace that suggested Ferrari isn’t intent on simply resigning themselves to also-rans but actually mixing it up with Red Bull and Merc in Marina Bay. The gaps between Leclerc, Hamilton and Verstappen was just .15s or a tenth and a half.

Vettel jumped to the top of the time sheet but Leclerc pipped him by.070s leaving Hamilton 3rd and Verstappen 4th. Q2 was furthering the notion that the three tenths gap Leclerc had on Mercedes may actually mean they could be in this to win it but were Mercedes holding something back? We’d find out in a few minutes in Q3.

Out in Q2- Magnussen, Raikkonen, Gasly, Giovinazzi, Perez

Q3

Ferrari have had the straight-line speed all season long but their medium and slow-speed cornering performance was their achilles heel. Mercedes has dominated on the high downforce, twisty tracks but Ferrari brought a serious upgrade to Singapore and coupled with their straight-line pace, they may have turned a corner. Only Q3 would reveal just how competitive Ferrari would be as Mercedes and Red Bull weren’t counting on this.

It was Ferrari out ahead of Mercedes for the provisional laps. The McLaren duo of Sainz and Norris had gotten out ahead of the leaders but Vettel got around Norris and out in front in clean air.

Vettel set a 1:36.437s lap for provisional pole with the Merc a full second off the pace and Leclerc just .354s off Vettel’s pace in 2nd. Verstappen jumped ahead of the Mercs for 3rd. It was a message sent and it knocked the form books off the table.

On provisional runs, the McLaren duo bested the Renault duo in a strong answer to the question of protecting their best-of-the-rest status.

For their final laps, Vettel came out ahead of Leclerc while Mercedes left it to the very last moment. Vettel passed Hulkenberg to get out ahead of the field in clean air just as he did in the first attempt.

Vettel was slower than his previous first two sectors and aborted his lap. Leclerc managed to jump to the top of the time sheets for pole position with Lewis Hamilton second quickest and Vettel in third. Leclerc radioing that he lost control three times on the lap that gave him pole. It was the conventional narrative that this was a race that Mercedes would return to form and normal service would resume but Ferrari and Leclerc had other things in mind.

Results:

POS DRIVER CAR GAP
1 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1m36.217s
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 0.191s
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 0.220s
4 Max Verstappen Red Bull/Honda 0.596s
5 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 0.929s
6 Alexander Albon Red Bull/Honda 1.194s
7 Carlos Sainz Jr. McLaren/Renault 1.601s
8 Daniel Ricciardo Renault 1.878s
9 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 2.047s
10 Lando Norris McLaren/Renault 2.112s
11 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo/Ferrari 2.480s
12 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso/Honda 2.482s
13 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo/Ferrari 2.641s
14 Kevin Magnussen Haas/Ferrari 3.433s
15 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso/Honda 3.740s
16 Sergio Perez Racing Point/Mercedes 2.403s
17 Lance Stroll Racing Point/Mercedes 3.762s
18 Romain Grosjean Haas/Ferrari 4.060s
19 George Russell Williams/Mercedes 4.650s
20 Robert Kubica Williams/Mercedes 4.969s

 

Race Strategies:

The theoretically fastest strategy for the 61-lap Singapore Grand Prix, which is likely to go to the full two hours, is a one-stopper – but with 18 safety cars since the first race was held here in 2008, anything can happen.

In a perfect world, the best way is to start on the soft for 16 to 20 laps and then switch to the medium. An alternative strategy (for those starting outside the top 10), which is very closely matched on time, is to start on the medium tyre for 28 to 32 laps, and then go to hard. The slowest one-stopper is soft to hard, changing after 14 to 18 laps.

On paper, a two-stopper is definitely slower, but the way to do it would be two stints on the soft of 12 to 14 laps each, and a final run to the flag on medium.

In reality, the race circumstances often tend to be dictated by opportunities presented by the safety car. With a long and unpredictable grand prix, this is one of the hardest races of the year to predict a strategy for.

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