An off weekend in Singapore left Max Verstappen whingeing like a toddler as Carlos Sainz’s win reminded us what fun this sport can be
September 17, 2023 4:28 pm(Updated 4:33 pm)
This is what happens when Red Bull take a weekend off. A race breaks out. The final four laps of the Singapore Grand Prix were as good as anything we have seen since Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were at each other’s throats in 2021.
George Russell might disagree, of course, screaming “no, no” after he buried the nose of his Mercedes in the wall on the final lap as he pushed for an unlikely victory from third. For Carlos Sainz, winning for the first time in a Ferrari from pole, Lando Norris, hanging on for a stunning second, and Hamilton, the fastest car on the track en route to third, the closing stages around Marina Bay were an unexpected delight.
“This is how it should be,” Hamilton said reflecting on the chaotic finish. Why Red Bull were so thoroughly off the pace is a Netflix episode all its own. There is no sport on earth more vulnerable to a conspiracy theory than Formula One. You can imagine, therefore, the nodding and winking going on around Singapore at the performance of a Red Bull car, unbeaten all year, that went from thoroughbred to mule here.
Had the pre-race clampdown on bendy wings, flexible floors and other rubbery accoutrements that teams may or may not have been using before Singapore impacted Red Bull adversely? Or was it a co-incidence that runaway championship leader Verstappen, winner of the previous 10 grands prix, should come home in fifth after starting 11th.
Verstappen complained like a toddler all weekend about the lack of performance in his car. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, who was strident in his view that the team had nothing to fear in Singapore from the new FIA directive concerning moveable aerodynamic body parts, blamed the nosedive in performance on the alchemy of tyre performance. For some reason, he said, the most brilliantly efficient team in F1 could not get their tyres to work.
To which the not unreasonable reaction is to link the FIA directive against flexible aerodynamic parts to Red Bull’s emasculation. Alternatively, as Mercedes team principal generously suggested, Singapore might just be an anomaly and Red Bull will be back in tune next Sunday in Japan.
As ever here the appearance of a safety car ignited the frantic finale. Esteban Ocon parked his Alpine with 18 laps to go to bring out the virtual variety. Though they missed the pit entry first time around, Mercedes brought in Russell and Hamilton from second and fourth respectively for fresh mediums. It was a bold move. Second for Russell was nailed on without the intervention of further random variables. To get the win, Mercedes had to gamble.
It looked worth the risk when Russell and Hamilton reeled in Leclerc within six laps of the restart, giving them, eight laps to catch the leading pair. This they did with four to go. It took the brilliant manipulation of DRS by Sainz and Norris to frustrate the Mercedes drivers. As the laps ticked down Russell’s rear was bent frequently out of shape as he pushed the limit. On the final lap he finally went over the edge, carrying too much speed into turn 10.
“No words,” said an emotional Russell fighting back tears. “A millisecond lack of concentration. Heartbreaking after such a great weekend. We were half a car’s length from winning the race had I passed Lando when I had the opportunity. I think I could have caught Carlos, but, yeah, game over.”
If Russell was on the ragged edge so too was Sainz in front. The return of a red car to the top step of the podium is a mighty fillip for the sport. Sainz was required to manage two safety car periods that threatened to spike his evening. The first on lap 22 temporarily dragged Verstappen up to second and Sergio Perez up to fourth, both of whom stayed out on the hard compound. The exposure to thin air was all too brief for the Red Bulls.
Russell and Norris enjoyed the rare joy of slapping Verstappen as they passed him on new rubber immediately after the restart. Hamilton took advantage of Verstappen’s lost weekend with a neat overtake two laps later. The real excitement was still to come, proving just how compelling F1 can be when the stars align.