The 2019 Singapore Grand Prix on Sunday (Sept. 22) was a battle of strategy on a track where overtaking is difficult. Ferrari surprised the field with Charles Leclerc stealing the pole position and leading most of the beginning of this race. However, strategy made the difference as Sebastian Vettel benefitted from getting the tap to pit first for Ferrari. His stop put him out ahead of Leclerc and in position to hold off the field, finally scoring his first win of 2019. It’s Vettel’s first victory since Belgium 392 days ago, his 53rd career win and fifth in Singapore.
“The start of the season was difficult for us,” Vettel said. “But the last couple of weeks, we’ve really come alive.”
Leclerc reluctantly came home in second place after getting the short end of the stick in strategy which, to some fans, would say robbed him of a third straight victory. Leclerc definitely made his opinion of that decision known, stating it was “not fair” over the radio. However, the Ferrari one-two finish in Singapore is the first one-two by a Formula One team ever in the race’s decade-long history.
“It’s always difficult to lose a win like that – but it’s a 1-2 for the team and I’m happy about that,” Leclerc said, trying to keep a positive outlook. “We arrived looking for maybe a podium here but we leave with a 1-2, so that’s fantastic for us.”
Max Verstappen slotted his Red Bull into third place, slotted in the middle when it came to strategy between Ferrari and Mercedes.
Next came Lewis Hamilton, who earned his first non-podium finish of the season in a race that he did not crash (Germany). Hamliton’s fourth-place finish came after a furious battle with Verstappen at the end of the race.
“It was always going to be a tough race, but going flat out the end with Lewis… it was a good workout!” Verstappen said after getting his sixth podium of the season.
Valtteri “it’s James,” Bottas wound up fifth after playing nothing more than support to Hamilton in this race. Alex Albon held on to the back of the top three teams with a sixth-place result for Red Bull.
Lando Norris snatched up best of the rest in an uneventful but quick seventh place. Pierre Gasly was eighth ahead of Nico Hulkenberg in ninth. Antonio Giovanazzi, who actually led the race at one point, rounded out the top-10 finishers.
Major drama went down in Singapore just before the start of the event. A few hours after qualifying, Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo was found to have “exceeded the MGU-K power limit of 120 kW” during Q1 at the Marina Bay Circuit. A tactical move, as Renault described, resulted in a grid penalty that moved Ricciardo from his eighth place starting spot to 20th.
Leclerc’s Ferrari team was also shuffling around his car on the grid, investigating the engine for a potential issue. After a while, there were thumbs up and Leclerc was able to roll off just fine.
At lights out, Leclerc got a great start and cleared Hamilton into the first chicane. Vettel got a great start as well and challenged Hamilton through the first few turns. But Vettel could not get around the reigning World Champ on the outside. He settled in second and third as Leclerc sped away to a one-second lead after one lap.
George Russell limped around the track at the start after damaging his front wing when he was squeezed by his teammate Robert Kubica and making contact with Ricciardo. Carlos Sainz was hit by Hulkenberg in turn 5, puncturing both car’s tires. Each driver had to stop for fixes in the first two laps. Sainz struggled with aero damage for the rest of the long, grueling race and was never a factor to score points.
As DRS opened, the top six settled in the positions they started in. Leclerc held a lead of just over a second on Hamilton driving a track that it is difficult to overtake.
Leclerc was severely holding back from unleashing his true pace as he tried to lengthen this stint as much as he could. Track position was crucial at Singapore and he knew it would be near impossible to pass the leader. At the same time, if Hamilton got too close, then it would hurt his tires. A battle up front would force him to pit earlier and have to go much longer on the tire that would have to make it to the end of the race. It was clear Singapore was going to be dominated by strategy, as the main chance for Hamilton to get past Leclerc was either an under or overcut when it was time to pit for new tires.
Further back, Ricciardo was on the hunt after the penalty he said ruined his weekend. On lap 11, he made a great move on Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat to move up from 20th to 12th on a track that, again, is hard to pass on despite the extra DRS zone after the bridge.
As the pit window opened on lap 15, Leclerc was given the message “Back to Mode: Race.” As a result, Leclerc stretched his lead to two seconds on Hamilton in two laps. Vettel was the first of the top 3 to pit on lap 20. Hamilton then picked up the pace, looking to maybe cut off the undercut try from Vettel. Leclerc then pitted on lap 21 and surprisingly came out behind him. Now, Vettel was the one who could take the lead of the race on any type of undercut of Hamilton.
Leclerc was very upset after he came out of the pits behind Vettel. He was told to push as much as he can and the young Ferrari driver said, “Yeah, but, what the hell!?” Since this track is so hard to overtake on, it appears Ferrari gave Vettel the favorable strategy over the man in Leclerc who has gotten them their wins on the season and was actually ahead of his teammate Vettel in the standings.
Vettel’s pace was much faster than Hamilton now as the German busted out a fastest lap. The two Ferraris pulled to within a pit stop’s length of Hamilton. Mercedes pitted Bottas first and then he heard the dreaded words, “Valtteri, it’s James.” The Mercedes team told Bottas to slow down, allowing Hamilton to come out of the pits ahead of Bottas so as to not hold Hamilton up.
When he eventually pitted on lap 26, Bottas came out behind Verstappen, dropping from second to fourth in the net race positioning.
On lap 28, four midfield cars of Giovanazzi, Gasly, Ricciardo, and Lance Stroll held the first, second, third, and fifth places ahead of the top runners. Leclerc had to use his hard tires to get by Stroll as he lost more and more time to Vettel who would end up in the lead once Giovanazzi and Gasly pitted. The tires should be fine to make it about 50 laps, as Pirrelli reports, but battling with slower cars for position definitely puts wear on the rubbers.
As Ferraris finally took the top two spots, the question arose if they should make Vettel let Leclerc by again for the lead like they did in Spa. Ferrari tends to pull this maneuvering for a car who is higher in the standings. Leclerc is about 20 points up on Vettel, but Vettel had seniority, a five-second lead and the two Ferrari drivers aren’t really in the championship hunt. It was getting interesting in Singapore.
Ferrari was off trying to build a safety car gap when Russell was crashed by Romain Grosjean, bringing out a safety car. But Ferrari did not build a big enough gap to pit and stayed out as track position is most important on a track that you cannot overtake.
Leclerc sounded off on the radio he was not happy with the strategy call that gave Vettel the lead. He was then told that he was allowed to fight for the top spot. That would make the restart very interesting.
When the safety car came in, Vettel got off to a good restart and a kept a lead of just about a second over Leclerc for about four laps. That’s when Sergio Perez pulled over on the track with a problem, bringing out another safety car. As the laps wound down, the race looked better for Vettel as clean air kept the second place car from getting too close to try and overtake. It appeared that a great restart from Leclerc and/or a mistake from Vettel would be the only chance for a change at the front.
Finally, the safety car came in on lap 48 of 61. Leclerc got off to a better start but Vettel was able to keep a solid gap over his teammate.
Then, on lap 50, Kvyat made a lunge on Kimi Raikkonen for 12th place. Kimi did not expect the move from Kvyat and the two came together, breaking Raikkonen’s suspension and ending his day. The car was parked just by the runoff area in turn 1, bringing out another safety car.
Now, the concerns shifted to time. F1 is held to a two-hour race time limit. The race started around 8:10 p.m. local time and the safety car for Raikkonen came out at 9:53 p.m. There were 11 laps to go when the safety car came back in and there were just about 15 minutes left in the race.
But there were no more safety cars and there was nothing Leclerc could do with his teammate Vettel. The four-time champion led the rest of the way with a lead hovering around a second.
Vettel’s first victory of the season was also his first at Singapore since 2015. But it was a somewhat controversial win for Leclerc as the strategy of pitting Vettel first was the deciding factor in the Singapore Grand Prix.