Exceptional Hamilton gives a lesson in controlled aggression

The on-board lap from Hamilton during Qualifying is something that harks back to the days of Ayrton Senna, where you see a driver having to really attack and hustle the car. He had the whole car alive and dancing around beneath him.

Race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates in parc ferme at the Singapore Grand Prix.   -  Getty Images

The Singapore Grand Prix is always a brilliant spectacle. The lights around the track and city, the bumpy surface and unforgiving walls, combined with the heat and humidity, makes for an exciting and entertaining weekend.

This also tends to be a weekend where we see big steps and swings in the World Championship battle and the momentum starts to go towards the guy who eventually ends up on top. Right from the first race in 2008 when Felipe Massa’s race win fell apart during the pitstop as he drove off with his fuel hose to last year when Sebastian Vettel crashed into Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen, which began his slide towards losing the title to Lewis.

This year, Seb and Ferrari arrived here in Singapore 30 points down on Lewis. At a track where Mercedes have struggled for the past couple of seasons, and where Red Bull were going to be able to get in the mix, the hope in the red camp was really for a repeat of last year in terms of performance but without the dramatic ending in the race.

READ: Hamilton hails 'monumental' Mercedes performance

Sebastian has always been brilliant around this Singapore circuit, with four wins in the past underlining that. I went to watch track-side on Friday at a couple of corners and Seb, Lewis, Fernando and Max were just that small step above everyone else in terms of their ability to have the car moving around over the bumps and still carry good speed through the corners.

 

Different approach to corners

Sebastian and Max had a slightly different style and approach to all the other 18 cars, one that you can really see up close at a street track like Singapore. They both tend to do a bit of a flick on the initial turn in to the corner, getting the car rotated aggressively when they first turn the wheel, before opening up the steering lock earlier than anyone else. This means that when they get to the apex of the corner and want to accelerate out, they have less steering lock on, which certainly helps the rear tyre wear as they have less lateral load when they’re trying to unleash 950 horsepower. It was fascinating to see at close quarters.

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I’ve said on several occasions this year that the title will be decided and won on marginal gains. Choosing the right amount of the key tyres, making perfect strategy calls which aren’t a lap late or a lap early, getting the tyre temperatures for the crucial Q3 lap right, let alone nailing the lap, and making sure that you have gathered every bit of data you need to achieve success in Qualifying and the Race.

Ferrari’s blunder

This last point is where I think Sebastian let himself and Ferrari down this weekend. Because of the schedule in Singapore, the second free practice session on Friday in the dark is the only one that’s really representative in terms of track temperature. Of course, like any other street track, the surface cleans up more by Saturday, but the Pirellis are super sensitive to temperature and a few degrees can change the feeling from the tyre quite significantly.

Ferrari seemed to blink too early for the pitstop which released Seb out into the traffic. Perhaps they misjudged just how much pace management Lewis was doing at the front because as soon as Seb pitted, Lewis and Max unleashed their real pace and the Ferrari was the loser in that little battle.

Mark Webber was telling us before the session that Seb always flirted with the wall at the exit of turn 21 more than he did and as things transpired he clouted it quite hard, which put an early end to his day’s activity. In terms of confidence, that wouldn’t really have hurt him – he’s too good and with plenty of self-belief, but what it meant was that he didn’t get to do the crucial race prep and get a good understanding of the tyres for the race with a heavy load of fuel.

With the way the parc ferme rules are, the teams can’t really alter the set-up of the car for the race after Qualifying by a huge amount and therefore, Ferrari would have had to guess estimate the set up of the car for Qualifying, with an eye on the race using only a limited amount of data. It is never an ideal thing when you’re trying to go to battle with top quality teams like Mercedes and Red Bull.

Brilliance of Hamilton

This year, with the Hypersoft tyres and the 2018 cars producing more downforce, we were seeing some unbelievably fast laps in Qualifying. When the cars went out for Q3, I was sitting with Mark, and we both thought a 1:36.5 would probably be a pole time. From what I gather, Mercedes also reckoned that would be the sort of benchmark. When their reigning World Champion stormed around in a 1:36.0, everyone’s jaw up and down the pitlane just hit the floor.

The on-board lap from Hamilton is something that harks back to the days of Ayrton Senna, where you see a driver having to really attack and hustle the car. He had the whole car alive and dancing around beneath him with a brilliant lesson in controlled aggression. The fact that Seb, Kimi and Valtteri all delivered times around that 1:36.6 – 1:36.7 underlines that what Lewis did was exceptional.

Impressive Max

Red Bull Racing's Max Verstappen celebrates with his crew after finishing second at Singapore GP.   -  Getty Images

 

However, in amongst all the amazement of Lewis’ lap, it was easy for people to not see what Max did. I had a look at the on board laps from Lewis and Max and actually the Dutchman’s lap was equally impressive, if not more.

The loss of power in the straight line hurts them around here, where about 47% of the lap is spent at full throttle. When you consider it in terms of lap time, Max was losing about 0.4 on the straights and ended up 0.31 off pole which is seriously impressive from him. For the sake of Formula 1, I really hope that the 2019 Honda power unit delivers Red Bull the power it needs to make them a regular championship contender.

The race itself was pretty dull and to be honest, the most disappointing thing was the race pace. The drivers were all going around so slowly early on and nursing the hypersoft tyres, it was slightly ridiculous. Having cars lap 10 or 11 seconds off their Qualifying pace really is disappointing and it was interesting that even some friends of mine, who don’t work in F1 but had come to watch as fans were able to pick up on how slow the cars looked in the race.

Ferrari seemed to blink too early for the pitstop which released Seb out into the traffic. Perhaps they misjudged just how much pace management Lewis was doing at the front because as soon as Seb pitted, Lewis and Max unleashed their real pace and the Ferrari was the loser in that little battle. This, of course, all comes back to not running with a heavy car on Friday evening, where their rivals were able to build that bank of information of just how much they could attack the tyres with a fat load of fuel.

Tough for Vettel

With 40 points separating Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, the Ferrari driver has his work cut out for him.   -  Getty Images

 

With six races to go, if Sebastian wins every one of them and Lewis finishes second every time, the German will win the title by 2 points. That’s a tall order, especially since both in Monza and Singapore the Italian squad has squandered opportunities to claw back points and the momentum is with their rivals. Mercedes and Lewis will be able to back off a little bit in terms of performance on the engine in order to ensure reliability. Their ability to dig deep and bounce back after some shaky races early on this season, when it genuinely looked like Ferrari had the faster car for more races than not, has been mighty impressive and that’s why they deserve to have a 40-point lead today.