Sebastian Vettel has been feeling the heat of late, his last Grand Prix victory coming 392 days ago in Belgium. But the stars aligned under the lights of Singapore’s Marina Bay with the Ferrari driver taking advantage of a fortuitous strategy call to beat team mate and pole-sitter Charles Leclerc.
Vettel looked out of contention in third in the early stages as Leclerc led Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and managed the pace at the head of the field, as all of the frontunners looked after their tyres to enable them to make a one-stop strategy work.
But with Nico Hulkenberg entering their pit window, courtesy of an early pit stop for a puncture after contact with Carlos Sainz, Ferrari opted to box Vettel first to protect him, as he was the most vulnerable. It worked, with the German rejoining just ahead of the Renault.
But such was his pace on the fresh hard tyres, he undercut Leclerc, who pitted the next lap, rejoining behind his team mate, much to the Monegasque’s fury. Leclerc questioned the call several times on team radio and even asked them to give him more power so he could attack Vettel, but the team ultimately told him to hold position.
With the aid of three Safety Cars, called for crashes for George Russell and Kimi Raikkonen, and for a DNF for Sergio Perez, Vettel was able to manage his tyres to cross the line to win his fifth Singapore Grand Prix – the first time he has won five times at any venue. Leclerc came home 2.6s back, with Max Verstappen completing the podium for Red Bull, after he benefitted from an early pit stop to undercut Hamilton, forcing the championship leader into fourth.
The other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas was fifth, having been told to back off the pace to allow Hamilton to pit and rejoin ahead, with Red Bull’s Alexander Albon sixth and Lando Norris seventh in the McLaren.
Pierre Gasly ended up eighth, with Hulkenberg and Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi, who led the race for six laps after running deep, completing the top 10.
But the day belonged to Ferrari, who scored their first one-two of the season – and the first one-two ever in Singapore – with a heavily upgraded car on a circuit where no one expected them to have the pace to contend for victory. Could this be the confidence boost Vettel needs to become a regular winner again?
Leclerc made the perfect getaway from pole position, the Ferrari comfortably heading Hamilton through the opening sequence of corners, with Vettel slotting into third.
Further back Hulkenberg stuck his Renault up the inside of Sainz at Turn 5 and the duo made contact, triggering punctures for both. Elsewhere, George Russell broke his front wing in contact with Daniel Ricciardo, forcing the Williams driver into the pits at the end of the opening tour.
Hulkenberg’s speed on the hard tyres in clear air was impressive, highlighting the benefit of fresh rubber versus the aging softs that the top 10 started on. Nonetheless, the top six continued to manage the pace at the front, trying to stretch the first stint as deep as possible so they could bolt on the hard and run until the end.
Then Vettel got a call at the penultimate corner to pit at the end of lap 19, with Verstappen – who had been complaining about the tyres – following him in. They rejoined either side of Hulkenberg, with Leclerc pitting from the lead the following lap.
The power of the undercut was clear to see, when Vettel swept past Leclerc as he exited the pits to take the lead. Mercedes opted not to react with Hamilton, perhaps deciding to chance waiting for a Safety Car. When one didn’t appear he pitted seven laps later and rejoined fourth, behind Verstappen.
That handed Giovinazzi the Grand Prix lead, with Alfa Romeo leading a race for the first time since the Belgian GP in 1983, with Pierre Gasly second. Meanwhile, Vettel was giving himself a chance to win the race as he efficiently cut through the traffic, including a very aggressive pass on Gasly to take second, before easing by Giovinazzi to take the lead.
The Singapore Grand Prix has always featured at least one Safety Car – and this edition followed suit when it was called into action following a collision between George Russell and Romain Grosjean, culminating in Russell retiring in what is Williams’ first DNF of the season.
Ferrari told both drivers not to take any risks at the re-start, despite Leclerc asking for everything as he wanted to pursue a victory he felt he deserved. The race was neutralised again four laps later, as Racing Point asked Sergio Perez to stop his car out on track.
Then following the resumption, Daniil Kvyat tried an opportunistic move at Turn 1 on Kimi Raikkonen. They made contact, with the Toro Rosso breaking the Alfa Romeo’s front-left suspension, forcing a third Safety Car.
The race resumed, with 10 laps to go – with Vettel making the most of the neutralisations, to help manage his tyres, to cross the line to take a much needed victory. It was Ferrari’s third win in a row, the first time they have achieved that feat since 2008.
Verstappen, who asked for more power in the closing stages but was denied, completed the podium, as Mercedes failed to reach the rostrum for only the second time this year with Hamilton fourth and Bottas fifth.
Albon’s sixth place finish means he has finished in the top six in all three of his Red Bull starts, while Norris finished in the top seven for only the third time this year. Gasly’s eighth was his best finish since returning to Toro Rosso.
Hulkenberg’s recovery earned him a couple of points while Giovinazzi, who is fighting to retain his seat at Alfa Romeo, scored for the second consecutive race.
Kevin Magnussen looked set to score points, but dropped through the field like a stone at the final Safety Car restart on his worn tyres. He pitted for fresh rubber and set the fastest lap of the race, but as he was outside the top 10, he became the first driver to do so but not qualify for the bonus point this season.
The Formula 1 circus barely has time to catch its breath before heading to Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, in what are F1’s penultimate back-to-back races of the season. Will Ferrari be able to make it four on the trot in Sochi?