Conclusions from a rollercoaster of a Singapore Grand Prix

Oliver Harden
Singapore Grand Prix conclusions. Oct 2022

Max Verstappen needed team-mate Sergio Perez and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to hit trouble to clinch the 2022 Formula 1 title at the Singapore Grand Prix, but both were outstanding as the reigning World Champion endured his worst weekend of the season to delay his coronation.

Here are our conclusions from Marina Bay…

The real Sergio Perez finally stands up

After celebrating his Red Bull contract extension with victory in Monaco back in May, Perez has spent the last few months on the missing list.

Having recorded four podiums – including that emotional win in Monte Carlo – in the first seven races, he was limited to just three in the following nine as his pace deficit to Verstappen ballooned to an alarming degree.

Complaining that the development of the RB18 car had swung away from him, Perez had seemed to have inherited Valtteri Bottas’s position as the weak link of the leading teams.

Surely, some even asked, Red Bull were beginning to regret committing to him until the end of 2024?

Yet the normal rules do not apply to Red Bull’s number two, not when Verstappen is the point around which this team’s world revolves.

Perez’s underperformance was not ideal, of course, but his very presence at Red Bull – supporting the team leader but never threatening him, doing the same job for Max that Bottas did for Lewis Hamilton – is part of the reason why Verstappen stands on the brink of his second title.

In truth, Red Bull really only need Perez to turn up a couple of times each season, namely on the days Verstappen runs into trouble. That was the beauty of Baku 2021, of Monaco ’22, and it was there once again in Singapore.

Another street circuit made up of slow corners and traction zones, Singapore was the perfect place for Perez to finally wake from his mid-season slumber even before the heavens opened and put an even greater value on his feather-light touch of the throttle.

That skill won him the lead at the start and – in sweltering conditions on a track treacherously wet in places yet close to dry in others, negotiating multiple Safety Car interruptions and managing an engine driveability issue – was his greatest strength in keeping Leclerc far enough behind.

It added up to by far the most accomplished of Perez’s four F1 victories to date and, potentially, the most impressive drive of his whole career.

Not bad, once again, for a number two driver…

A weekend to learn from, not forget, for Verstappen

When a competitor starts to relax or sees no further room for improvement, they put themselves on the path towards failure.

Go easy, then, on Verstappen for his harsh – some might argue misguided – reaction to Red Bull’s fuel misjudgement at the end of qualifying in Singapore.

As he berated his own team both over the radio in the media pen – describing the mistake as “never acceptable” and repeating that it simply “shouldn’t happen” – there was a temptation to grab Max by the shoulder and remind him of his lead in the Championship.

With his second title an inevitability at the end of a season in which he has already recorded 11 victories – including the last five in a row – starting eighth in Singapore was not exactly the end of the world.

Or was it?

When his team have set a certain standard in recent months, winning anywhere and anytime from any position on the grid, it sure felt like it.

Verstappen has been hard on Red Bull all season long and he was particularly vociferous about their early-season troubles following his DNF in Australia and even after his victory in Miami.

Yet rather than a sign of tension, as it may be interpreted at other teams, it is a reflection of the open and direct communication between team and driver and their shared demand for excellence.

Max himself was not exactly blameless for the way his weekend unravelled in Singapore, with Helmut Marko quoted as saying his poor start was a result of Verstappen using the wrong engine setting.

His lockup while attacking Lando Norris in the closing stages, meanwhile, was the only time all year that the Verstappen of old – that little-on-the-wild side of his – has reared his head and capped off what he described as an “incredibly messy” weekend.

No doubt that, behind closed doors, Max will be as critical of himself as he was of the team.

That, after all, is what great Champions do.

Hamilton’s 2022 frustrations are increasingly evident on track

Hamilton keeps smiling through the pain and keeps saying all the right things as he nears the end of the most difficult season of his F1 career.

He sees 2022 not as a disaster from start to finish, but a valuable lesson for both him and Mercedes. He’s really proud of the progress the team has made, he tells us, and he’s certain they will get there in the end.

But since F1’s summer break, have the frustrations of this season – or, possibly, his desperation to force a breakthrough result with the temperamental W13 – started to manifest themselves on track?

Rewind to Spa and Hamilton’s race-ending collision with Fernando Alonso was a poor mistake for a driver of his calibre and his explanation that Alonso had been in his blind spot did not wash given that he was almost fully alongside the Alpine as they entered the corner.

A week later at Zandvoort came a subtle swipe to the right as team-mate George Russell – on newer tyres after pitting behind the Safety Car – lined up the inevitable pass, Hamilton telegraphing his unhappiness with his rapidly fading victory chances in the heat of the moment.

With the W13 at its best at high-downforce circuits, Singapore was said to represent one of the last remaining opportunities for Mercedes to win a grand prix in 2022 and for Hamilton to maintain his incredible record of winning at least one race in every season of his career.

Yet even on a weekend the W13, at least in his hands, looked more reminiscent of a racing car, Hamilton was so close (five hundredths of a second) yet still so far from pole position.

He began the race in a bad mood after Mercedes started him on intermediates and did not improve as he became stuck behind Carlos Sainz.

It was while trying to pressure Sainz that Hamilton made his first error, sliding nose-first into the barrier at Turn 7, before he compounded it with another while racing Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel towards the end.

For a driver whose greatest victories in similar conditions (think Turkey 2020) have emphasised the importance of playing the long game and staying in the hunt, these errors, though easily done, were yet more uncharacteristic mistakes by Hamilton.

With Verstappen also enduring a difficult day, perhaps this was proof that even the best can sometimes get it badly wrong.

Maybe, though, it was more evidence of Hamilton’s frustrations finally coming to the surface.

Unreliability risks costing Alpine P4 to McLaren

Without a point for two races, having scored in each of the previous 11, is Alpine’s season in danger of falling apart at the final hurdle?

Things looked so promising after Zandvoort, where Alonso finished ahead of Norris on a ‘McLaren track’ and extended Alpine’s lead in the fight for fourth to 24 points, but two rounds later they find themselves four behind and facing a nervous final five rounds.

With the fight intensifying both teams brought new parts to Singapore but with Norris still talking in riddles about the MCL36 – it’s not an upgrade, he claimed, but a “different car that performs at a very similar level” – Alpine’s revised floor seemed more effective.

Despite losing Esteban Ocon to a brake issue in Q1, Alpine again outpaced their rivals on a circuit theoretically better suited to their nearest rivals as Alonso beat Norris to P5 on the grid by more than half a second.

In the heat of Singapore, however, Alpine’s biggest weakness struck again as both Alonso and Ocon retired with similar engine issues in the space of six laps.

To make matters worse, McLaren cashed in during a late Safety Car to take their biggest points haul since Melbourne as Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth and fifth respectively, the latter seemingly sleepwalking towards semi-retirement but securing his best finish since Jeddah 2021.

With five races left, the fight for fourth is almost too close to call but it is increasingly clear where this battle will be won and lost.

In the blue corner, Alpine have the advantage of an ever-improving car and two reliable drivers performing at a consistently high level.

Meanwhile, McLaren – with only two mechanical-related DNFs all season compared to Alpine’s five, including three in the last two race weekends – have a clear edge in terms of reliability.

Game on.

F1’s inflexibility is infuriating

It never sits well when a race delayed by an hour due to heavy rain starts with all drivers on intermediate tyres and already mulling over the crossover point to slicks.

Welcome to where motor racing meets cricket, where sport becomes a hostage to procedure and leaves itself little room for manoeuvre.

There were shades of that wasted weekend at Spa last August as a storm struck Marina Bay around an hour before the scheduled start, forcing a delay of 65 minutes.

The only saving grace was that the dreaded three-hour window in which the grand prix must take place – a regulatory straightjacket if ever there was one – moved with it.

If there was a lesson F1 could take from Spa 2021 – and, to take a more recent example, Monaco 2022 – it is that it must be more flexible in the event of extreme weather conditions with more freedom and a single clear aim to get a motor race up and running at the earliest opportunity.

On this occasion, the delay to the entire race start procedure ensured 40 minutes had to be put aside for the rigmarole of the reconnaissance laps, grid walks and the national anthem before anyone could dare to think of actually racing.

Few, of course, were still complaining two hours later as F1 – after a three-year absence from this part of the world – made a return to Singapore so triumphant it was as though it had never been away.

Formula 1 had got away with it. It very often does.