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It took the multiple F1 World Champion more than 12 months, but Sebastian Vettel has finally returned the top of the podium with victory at the Singapore Grand Prix. An effective use of the undercut by his Ferrari team engineers enabled the German to effectively trade places with teammate and early leader, Charles Leclerc which he was able to maintain to the end of the race, for a first time 1-2 victory for Ferrari at the Marina Bay Circuit.
The race was one of strategy, perhaps more so than any other Grand Prix on the calendar as drivers sought to preserve tyre life during the opening stint of the race and move forward during the multiple Safety Car interventions and re-starts that seem to go hand in hand with the Singapore Grand Prix. There were 3 Safety Car periods in an intense 14 lap period of the race from lap 36 to 50 and Vettel controlled each start to ensure that there was no opportunity for Leclerc to regain the race lead.
Charles Leclerc led Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian into turn 1 at the start of the race. He drove out to a 1 second lead by the end of the opening lap and then maintained the gap as those on the softer compound looked to maximise the life of their tyres. The from half of the field remained tightly bunched with less than 8 seconds between Leclerc in 1st and 8th placed Lando Norris after 12 laps had been completed.
Leclerc was told by his engineer to push on lap 16 as the pit window approached. The decisive moment of the race came on lap 19 when Vettel and Verstappen both made their stops. Leclerc stopped on the following lap, but it was Vettel who gained track position as his teammate and early leader exited the pitlane.
The move to stop Vettel first did not go down well with the race leader and he made his feeling known to his race engineer. “What the hell?” Leclerc said over the radio as Vettel peeled off into the pitlane. His engineer replied: “It was the best we could do.”
“I just wanted to let you know my feelings. To be completely honest, I don’t understand the undercut at all. But we discuss it later,” Leclerc responded.
Mercedes kept Hamilton out for a longer opening stint, which ultimately cost the World Championship leader a podium position when he dropped behind both Vettel and Verstappen when he finally stopped on lap 26 and took on the harder compound tyres.
Vettel looked to pick off those drivers ahead who had not yet stopped and almost crashed out on lap 30 when he passed Pierre Gasly for 2nd and made contact with the Torro Rosso. Vettel escaped without damage and continued to lead. He had no such issue when he passed Antonio Giovinazzi for lead on lap 31. It took Leclerc another 2 laps to clear the Alfa Romeo driver, by which time Vettel had moved 6 seconds ahead.
The lead evaporated with the 3 Safety Car periods, but Vettel remained composed for each restart and held on to take the race win from Leclerc and Max Verstappen. Verstappen had made some challenges for Leclerc’s portion and Hamilton in 4th did likewise to Verstappen in the latter stages of the race, though the overall positions remained unchanged throughout the second phase of the race.
George Russell caused the first appearance of the Safety Car after he collided with Romain Grosjean on lap 36 and ended in the wall. Sergio Perez’s Racing Point brought out the second Safety Car when it stopped on the circuit, while the final caution period arose after Daniil Kvyat knocked Kimi Raikkonen into retirement in a clash at turn 1 on lap 50.
At the final restart, Leclerc asked for “everything” from the car to his engineers so he could attack Vettel, but he was told he needed to manage the engine and bring the car home – code for him to hold position behind his team-mate.
Kvyat was also involved in an incident with Daniel Ricciardo at the second restart. Ricciardo had worked his way forward from the rear of the grid and mounted a challenge on Kvyat for 12th at the restart. Riccardo was forced wide as the Russian fought to keep the place and lost 3 places in the process. There was also some contact between the pair which left Ricciardo with a flat tyre that was changed at the end of the lap. Ricciardo recovered somewhat to be classified 14th at the end of the race.
“It was a long one today and it’s a shame it ended up like that,” Ricciardo told Renault Media. “The start was fun with some good overtakes and getting into a decent position. I gained some confidence there and got into a rhythm. We were ticking every box and really made the most of everyone being bunched up. Then it all came undone with the incident and the puncture meant our race was more or less over. We deserved a better outcome today.”
Vettel won from Leclerc, Verstappen, Hamilton, Bottas, Albon, Norris, Gasly, Hulkenberg and Giovinazzi. The result perhaps brought some consolation for Vettel’s somewhat controversial penalty and subsequent loss at the Canadian Grand Prix.
“First of all, big congratulations to the team – the start of the season has been difficult for us then we started to come alive and I’m really proud of everyone’s work back home,” Vettel said. “I really want to thank the fans over the last couple of weeks. We haven’t been the best and it’s happy to get so many letters and nice messages, and it gives me lots of strength and belief and I put it all into the car today.”
Leclerc was more composed during a post race interview, but nonetheless still showed his disappointment at the pit stop strategies.
“Obviously it is always difficult to lose a win like that but at the end it’s a one-two for the team so I’m happy for that, our first of the season. I’m disappointed for me but I will come back stronger. It looks a lot more positive than expected, they’ve [the mechanics] done an amazing job,” Leclerc said.
The Formula 1 circus go back to back with the next round this Sunday at Sochi Autodrom in Russia.
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