Between 2010 and 2013, as Sebastian Vettel trounced the opposition on way to his four world titles, his success was predicated upon a few simple steps — putting the car in pole position and setting a blistering pace in the opening laps to get out of the DRS range and control the race from the front.

In the eighth season of the Singapore Grand Prix at the Marina Bay Street Circuit, the German put the clock back as he obliterated the field, first on September 19 by putting his car in pole position after finishing half a second quicker than the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, and then leading from lights out to flag on September 20 to score his third win of the season. Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen, in that order, took the remaining places on the podium.

Ahead of the race weekend, the talk was all about Lewis Hamilton, who was poised to equal F1 legend Ayrton Senna’s record of 41 wins.

However, it was Vettel who added another feather to his cap by notching up his 42nd win and moving to third position in the all-time list of race winners, with just Alain Prost (51 wins) and compatriot Michael Schumacher (91 wins) ahead.

With the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg struggling for pace all weekend and starting from the third row, the only driver expected to challenge Vettel was Ricciardo, who seemed to have lesser tyre degradation over a stint when compared with the other competitors. This meant Ricciardo would either have had to undercut (by pitting earlier and using the fresh tyres to get ahead) or offset (by building a gap, pitting later and coming out ahead) Vettel. However, two safety car periods put paid to those plans as majority of the field pitted on the same lap. This negated the chance of executing different strategies.

Ricciardo said, “It was obvious Seb pushed pretty hard at the beginning to break, let’s say, the DRS and all of that, but then as the laps were ticking down we were starting to come alive, I was able lean on the tyres a bit more and I could see it was working in my hands. So when I saw the safety car come out I was a bit frustrated, but I knew there was one more stop in the race, so I knew there was one more chance to do the same thing but then safety car again.”

While the first safety car period was necessitated by the collision between Felipe Massa and Nico Hulkenberg, who was later found guilty and given a three-grid-place drop at the next race in Japan, the second was because of a strange incident, when a fan managed to get onto the track after Turn 13. Vettel was the first driver to encounter the person, and he was not pleased by the incident. “We approach that corner at around 280-290 klicks, so I don’t know, I wouldn’t cross the track if I was him. It was crazy, obviously, and we had a safety car straight away. Maybe in the next year we need to block the grandstands a bit better,” the German said.

The biggest story, though, of the weekend was the struggles of the Mercedes team as it was the first time since the start of 2014, and in 31 races that a non-Mercedes-engined car was on pole. Both the drivers struggled from September 18, and after qualifying fifth and sixth, the team was clueless about its cars’ loss in performance. On the race day, things went from bad to worse, as Hamilton had to retire the car after he lost power on lap 25.

After climbing to fourth following the first round of pit-stops, Hamilton was managing respectable times on the soft compound — the slower set of tyres — compared to Vettel, Ricciardo and Raikkonen, who were on the faster super-soft tyres, and looked like he was slowly getting into the race before disaster struck. His team-mate Rosberg too struggled and could salvage only a fourth place.

While Rosberg reduced the gap to Hamilton in the drivers’ standings to 41 points, he now has Vettel, who is only eight points behind him with six races remaining, breathing down his neck. Mercedes is hoping that this performance is only an aberration in what has been a dream run for the team since 2014. However, with the team struggling to find the reason for the drop in performance of the cars, its engineers will have sleepless nights ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix (September 27).

Rosberg cut a sombre note saying, “Singapore was a disappointing weekend for my team. We were far off the pace the whole weekend and I really hope that these were unique circumstances and our car didn’t suit the track and the conditions. The problem is that we don’t really understand why Red Bull and Ferrari were so much quicker here.”