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The original Formula 1 night race is back and, as expected, Saturday’s qualifying did not disappoint.
Red Bull is on the back foot after disastrous qualifying in which Max Verstappen placed 11th and Sergio Pérez 13th. This left AlphaTauri’s Liam Lawson as the current highest Red Bull-backed qualifier, as he was the only driver to advance to Q3 (teammate Yuki Tsunoda qualified P15).
Ferrari and Mercedes remained red-hot as Carlos Sainz took his second consecutive pole position, with George Russell expected to line up alongside him on the front row. Behind them will be McLaren’s Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris, whose car is equipped with the latest upgrades and has shown menacing speed against the top teams.
The Singapore Grand Prix appears to be the best chance this season for a non-Red Bull driver to win due to overtaking difficulties on the narrow and twisty Marina Bay Street circuit, which has few short straights. Before lights-out time at the iconic night race, here’s what we’re watching ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix.
– Formula 1 (@F1) September 16, 2023
No really – Red Bull’s perfect season is in danger
The grid start has rarely ruled Verstappen out of victory over the past 18 months, such has been his and Red Bull’s dominance.
But from 11th on the grid in Singapore, Verstappen faces an incredibly ambitious challenge to extend his record F1 winning streak. And with his teammate Sergio Pérez two places further, 13th, Red Bull is resigned to seeing its perfect season end after 14 consecutive victories.
It wasn’t just because of car set-up difficulties that Red Bull failed to get it right this weekend in Singapore. Changes to Verstappen’s car after practice backfired, leaving him unable to brake late and hard with confidence, an asset you sorely need when trying to fight back. Verstappen also struggled to slide the rear of the Red Bull car, which he can usually manage.
That alone would be enough to make a strong comeback like we saw in Miami (from 9th place) or Spa last year (from 14th place), a big ask. But when you take into account the difficulty of overtaking in Singapore due to the tight limits of the street circuit, it becomes almost impossible.
“You can’t pass,” Verstappen said. “At other circuits you can start last – probably at Spa you can start last and win the race. But not here. Here, you have to be two or three seconds faster (per lap) to have a chance of overtaking. These are only urban circuits.
If you’re tired of seeing Red Bull dominate in F1 this year, Singapore will probably offer a change of tone. And if Red Bull were to win by that far, then there would need to be some real twists and turns that would make it a truly memorable race.
‘Shocking’: How Verstappen and Red Bull qualified in Singapore
Ferrari and Mercedes must not miss this opportunity
There was a time when discussing a winning streak at Red Bull was a very distant thought. Between 2017 and 2019, Mercedes and Ferrari were F1’s leading teams, with their battles often resulting in fireworks under the lights of Singapore.
There was the 2017 race where Ferrari, trying to turn the tide in Sebastian Vettel’s title race against Lewis Hamilton, saw its cars crash into each other at the first corner – and then publicly blame Verstappen. In 2018, one of Hamilton’s greatest pole laps paved the way for a crucial victory in his late-season title march, while the following year gave Vettel the final Grand Prix victory after undermining a frustrated Charles Leclerc.
We are ready for a renewal of this rivalry on Sunday. With Red Bull out of the picture, Ferrari and Mercedes have a huge chance to capitalize and snatch a big result. Pole sitter Carlos Sainz has been in fine form since Monza, where he dominated qualifying and then battled Verstappen in the opening stages. P2 man George Russell was also optimistic about his chances ahead of the race, citing his positive feelings in the Mercedes car throughout this weekend – something that has been sorely lacking in points this year, and was always for his teammate Lewis Hamilton, who finished fifth. on the grid.
This is an opportunity that neither Ferrari nor Mercedes can afford to let slip away. Ferrari are in the best position with Leclerc lining up third, but maintaining the two-to-one advantage from the start will be crucial.
When we return to Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix next week, the familiar scenario of Red Bull domination is likely to return. If they don’t win in Singapore, they probably won’t win anywhere.
Don’t neglect Norris in the battle at the front
Another team that came out of Singapore qualifying very optimistic was McLaren, even after seeing Oscar Piastri retire in Q1, losing out due to the red flag following Lance Stroll’s crash.
Armed with a series of upgrades to his McLaren MCL60, Lando Norris placed his car fourth on the grid after flirting with the front runners throughout qualifying. High downforce has been a strength for the team this year – see its performance in Hungary – but Norris’ effort was still powerful to move within three-tenths of pole position.
While Russell expected Mercedes to battle Ferrari for victory on Sunday, he added: “We can’t rule out Lando either. He has good running pace. (McLaren’s) race pace probably seemed a bit faster than Ferrari’s.
Track position will be decisive, meaning the race could quickly swing to a safety car – which is present at every edition of the Singapore Grand Prix – and tire management will be essential during a hot and cold race. exhausting where excesses pay off. But Norris is in a prime position to challenge for McLaren’s first podium since Hungary – and maybe more.
Haas could score their first points since Austria
For the first time this season, Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hülkenberg qualified for Q3, putting Haas in the best possible scenario to score points for the first time since early July.
The Marina Bay street circuit is narrow and winding, making overtaking quite difficult. Track position is everything, and after qualifying sixth and ninth respectively, at least one Haas driver can be expected to finish in the points, barring chaos. The VF-23s looked surprisingly strong Saturday night, giving Haas fans a glimmer of hope for Sunday night’s race.
“We know it’s difficult to overtake here,” Magnussen said in the team recap. “I would love to still have the little twisty corners in sector three now that I’m here because we know our race pace isn’t quite there to stay where we are, but maybe on this track, there is a chance.”
Haas has been strong on one lap this season but weaker during the race. That said, the one-lap performance was better than they expected, Hülkenberg said. But he remains cautious for Sunday’s race.
“The long run (Friday) didn’t look too encouraging, that’s why I’m a little cautious.”
Sitting 10 points behind Williams and just one point ahead of Alfa Romeo, this is a crucial opportunity for Haas to take a firm hold of eighth place in the constructors’ standings and chase down seventh place.
Lawson targets AlphaTauri’s best result of the year
In the whirlwind of everyone discussing Verstappen’s surprise Q2 knockout, the identity of who beat his lap seemed to go unnoticed.
Lawson’s final lap in Q2 was just 0.007 seconds faster than the two-time world champion’s time. By reaching Q3, the New Zealander became the best qualifier this weekend among the current drivers supported by Red Bull. He qualified 10th but still felt he still had work to do.
He felt they had “missed the window a bit in Q3” in terms of getting the tires up to temperature due to “the way the track was evolving and the temperature was dropping”. And the traffic in the last sector didn’t make things any easier. Lawson said: “I think the car has been pretty strong this week, and we had the potential to be up there, so it’s a bit of a shame, but obviously, for me, I’m still building and to learn, and there is more to come.
Points are the goal, and the highest finishing position of any AlphaTauri driver this season was Tsunoda’s 10th place. However, Verstappen and Pérez are not far behind him, qualifying 11th and 13th respectively.
(Main photo by George Russell and Charles Leclerc: Mark Thompson/Getty Images,)