The Sordid History Of The Singapore Grand Prix
The lights will go out under the lights of Singapore once again, as Formula One returns to the site of its very first night race. We missed a couple years due to the COVID pandemic. To refresh my memory about this urban street course (and to get an F1 fix after three weeks off), I endeavored to watch some past races. This revealed a number of insights that could signal what to expect for the 2022 running. But I also became aware of a cheating scandal that took place at the inaugural event in 2008.
If you don’t know about this, the best way to appreciate the true magnitude of the scandal is to watch the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix in the F1 TV app (subscription required). If you haven’t seen it, then you probably don’t know who won or lost. So it will be an exciting race to watch on its own. Crucially, you may also not be aware of how the cheating was perpetrated. Though you’ll probably be able to guess after the checkered flag. After seeing the race, you’ll want to read this article on Formula Nerds that offers all the sordid details.
Without giving anything away, this was Lewis Hamilton’s first championship-winning season (his second season in F1). The cheating had a direct impact on how that championship played out. The resulting punishments for this egregious flouting of F1 was all-too light and forgiving. It’s akin to restoring all of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France titles and sponsor dollars after a couple years. It’s disheartening and causes me to view a certain driver in a new light. But that’s just the bad news about Singapore, which likely won’t get brought up by the announcers this weekend because it’s so embarrassing for the sport.
Incidentally, during this era, the pit lane was closed during safety cars. Making a pit stop during a safety car triggered a 10-second penalty. And this was back when cars had to be refueled during the race, so some cars had no choice but to stop (and take the penalty) or run out of gas. This same rule should be applied today to mitigate the luck factor in a sport otherwise dictated by skill.
The good news is that Singapore is the most physically demanding track on the F1 calendar. The oppressive heat and humidity are layered on top of a course that never lets up. There are no long straights to relax the mind or body. The walls of this street course are a constant threat when driving on the limit. And it takes a massive toll from both the tires and brakes. As such, it should be a two- or three-stop race, where engineers advise drivers to “lift and coast” in cooling the brakes. It is a race most often won from pole position, making Saturday almost as crucial here as it is in Monaco, and the track favors the undercut in gaining track position. All of which adds up to a race where a safety car is all-but guaranteed. Again, that shouldn’t offer a randomized advantage for some teams, but it does.
The 2016 Singapore Grand Prix featured all of these qualities. Nico Rosberg qualified on pole for Mercedes alongside Daniel Riccardo, back when he was the number-one driver for Red Bull. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) and Max Verstappen (Red Bull) were on the second row. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) started 20th due to penalties. Hulkenberg got taken out at the start, narrowly missing Verstappen who seemingly found reverse, which triggered a safety car before the second turn.
Rosberg led the entire race and won with a two-stop strategy. Riccardo finished in second with a three-stop that saw him chasing Rosberg in the last 15 laps on fresher tires, closing a gap of some 30 seconds and coming to within a second of Rosberg on the final lap. Hamilton finished third after a battle with Raikkonen, where Mercedes successfully undercut Ferrari with a third stop. Indeed, the Scuderia’s strategy challenges are nothing new. This is what enabled Riccardo to get a free (third) stop and nearly challenge for the win. Verstappen had some great battles with Kvyat on track, notable because they’d traded Red Bull seats during the season, and Vettel charged through the field to finish fifth. Singapore proved to be a pivotal race in the 2016 championship, as Rosberg moved into the lead and stayed there through the end of the season.
Several things have changed for 2022. Although the 2016 race saw plenty of passing, the track is not known for its overtaking ability. This has become more difficult as cars have grown in size; the track has not expanded accordingly. Most of the passing is accomplished by throwing it up the inside in a few key corners. It’s more about out-braking opponents than using outright speed to claim a position. This could get dicey, especially if Verstappen finds himself out of position. Otherwise, a superior team strategy can be an effective tool in gaining (and keeping) track position. If all three tire compounds are effective race tires, it will give strategists a lot to consider.
Again, Saturday’s qualifying session will go a long way toward determining the race outcome. So we’ll look to Friday’s practice sessions to see if the tightness of this track suits Mercedes over Ferrari and Red Bull. That first lap in Q3 will also be crucial, as a crash on the second lap (Leclerc? Perez?) can end qualifying prematurely.
For more Singapore discussion and analysis (along with other F1 nonsense), I join the Dirty Side of the Track podcast this week. In which I also try to defend a couple unpopular F1 opinions e.g. Abu Dhabi 2021 finished as it should have.