Singapore Grand Prix conclusions: Sainz’s day of days, Red Bull’s shock, AlphaTauri’s dilemma

Oliver Harden
Singapore Grand Prix conclusions.

Singapore Grand Prix conclusions.

Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz ended Red Bull and Max Verstappen’s F1 2023 winning runs in stunning fashion at the Singapore Grand Prix.

The Spaniard claimed his second F1 victory with the most complete performance of his career to date and was joined on the podium by his former McLaren team-mate Lando Norris and Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton.

Here are our conclusions from Marina Bay…

Underestimate Carlos Sainz at your peril

If these are the greatest days of Sainz’s Formula 1 career, Singapore 2023 will come to be remembered as his day of days.

For much of his Ferrari career there has been a temptation – perhaps even within Maranello itself at times – to pigeonhole Sainz as the trusty, reliable wingman to the explosive talent of Charles Leclerc.

But with Leclerc experiencing a sort of strange mid-career crisis in 2023, in recent weeks Sainz has come to the fore to remind us that – even having turned 29 earlier this month – he still has the potential to be so much more than that.

Pipping Leclerc to pole position at Monza, before fighting with all his might to keep him behind and secure the final place on the podium, was one thing.

But outpacing his Singapore specialist team-mate to take pole here? Keeping calm under pressure, smartly exploiting DRS to keep Norris’s McLaren between him and the charging Mercedes and pacing himself to perfection, just for long enough to nurse his old hard tyres across the finish line?

These are new heights for a driver with a knack of rising to every challenge he faces.

In this glow, Sainz is rapidly emerging as the Daniel to Leclerc’s Max, or the Jenson/Nico to Charles’s Lewis – not quite as prodigiously gifted as his team-mate but with a certain set of strengths, skills Leclerc has yet to (and maybe never will) fully develop, to allow him to thrive in the same space.

There have been hints of it before – recall how Sainz would take a moment to consider the wisdom of Ferrari’s strategy calls in 2022 as Leclerc invariably did whatever he was told, no questions asked – but never in his three seasons at Ferrari has it been applied so consistently and effectively.

Sainz’s second career victory comes at a key time in the context of his F1 future, with a decision set to be made before the start of next season on whether he will extend his Ferrari contract beyond 2024.

Rumours have persisted for some time about a potential switch to Sauber in anticipation of Audi’s 2026 arrival, yet walking away from Ferrari for a project that is purely potential and will no doubt take some time to establish itself would be today’s equivalent of Ricciardo walking away from a race-winning Red Bull to drive a Renault he regularly lapped in 2018.

Like Ricciardo back then, there is still very much a place at Ferrari for Sainz – mature, intelligent and industrious – to keep cramping Leclerc’s style.

After all, only one non-Red Bull driver has won a grand prix 2023 and it’s not Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc, George Russell, Lando Norris or Fernando Alonso – it’s Carlos Sainz.

There is something to be said for that. Underestimate him at your peril.

A shock to the system for Red Bull and Max Verstappen

Winning? That’s the easy bit. It’s the moments of defeat – and the response they engender – that reveal the true mark of the man.

Toto Wolff would often remark during Mercedes’ years of dominance that the team were at their most dangerous on their bad days, for these allowed considerably more scope for understanding, self-awareness and improvement.

After 10 whole months of near-constant, record-breaking triumph, losing is a language with which Red Bull and Verstappen will be reacquainting themselves today. Who knows? This shock to the system might even benefit them over the long term.

Maybe it just had to happen this way. Maybe, after winning every single one of the 15 races since Abu Dhabi 2022, it had to take not just an off weekend but a weekend of disastrous, calamitous proportions – taking Red Bull out of victory contention before we reached race day, even if none of their rivals were quite bold enough to say it after qualifying – to finally unbalance and destabilise this team.

With teams setting out at the start of each season to build the fastest car possible for the widest selection of circuits on the calendar, it is inevitable that it will end up suiting some more than others.

There were reasons to believe from Monaco that Red Bull’s usual 2023 advantage would be significantly reduced in Singapore, but not like this. Not with the team totally unable to find a workable setup on a non-sprint weekend. Not with both cars out in Q2 and making only minor progress from their midfield grid positions on race day.

Not with the team’s normally impeccable organisation crumbling, so much so that it left Verstappen with three impeding investigations hanging over him in qualifying. As he somehow escaped a penalty, it was almost as though the stewards agreed he had already suffered enough after a “shocking experience” on track.

And all this just as the prospect of a historic unbeaten season was just starting to appear on the horizon, the team confident enough to target it openly for the first time following Verstappen’s victory at Monza two weeks ago.

The nature of Red Bull’s weekend brought to mind the words of Manel Estiarte, the Olympic gold medal-winning water polo player who works today as an integral member of football coach Pep Guardiola’s backroom staff. Few people on this planet have a fuller understanding of the psychological and emotional challenges of sport.

“For a long time a worrying theme has been gnawing away at me when I analyse the patterns of elite sport,” he is quoted in Marti Perarnau’s book, Pep Guardiola: The Evolution.

“When you look at the top teams, it seems to me that their own greatness can actually become an Achilles heel. Not everyone will agree but I reckon that, having achieved so much, they can no longer even conceive of being beaten.

“I’m not saying it applies to every single great team, nor will it happen all the time, but if you look at any sport elite teams can become so unused to defeat that if the opposition goes ahead unexpectedly, they can be so taken aback that they fail to react. As if the idea of losing is a completely alien concept.”

Estiarte continued: “This is my theory. Successful teams are so used to winning that it becomes a habit. They go out expecting victory and don’t even consider the prospect of defeat.

“Teams nowadays have reached such an elite level that they cannot countenance failure.

“Great teams these days are probably the best of all time, that’s why there have been so many records set in recent years. But the ‘greater’ our teams get, the less able to imagine or deal with a shock setback they become. So that when things do go wrong, they don’t always have the resources to claw and fight their way back into a contest.”

That was the story of Red Bull at the 2023 Singapore Grand Prix. Expect a whole different story at Suzuka next weekend.

George Russell’s attacking style is intoxicating, but…

George Russell must have been very grateful for the existence of Sergio Perez over the summer months.

As Perez’s Red Bull seat came under intense scrutiny during his run of five races without a Q3 appearance, Russell’s sudden struggles alongside Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes went largely unnoticed.

Having held the upper hand over Hamilton in the dying days of the zero-pod at the start of the season, Russell found himself slipping alarmingly behind his illustrious team-mate after the W14 finally sprouted sidepods.

Only once in the seven races between Monaco and the summer break did Russell qualify as the lead Mercedes, suffering embarrassing Q1/Q2 exits in Spain, Austria and Hungary along the way.

Also in that sequence came those strange (dodgy?) blocks on Hamilton in qualifying in Barcelona and Belgium, as well as that inelegant crash in Canada as he desperately tried to keep up with Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. recommends

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With the pendulum swinging back Russell’s way since Zandvoort – notwithstanding another costly mistake late in the race there – at Singapore he was back to something close to his best, his commitment and precision rewarded handsomely at this street circuit over a single lap.

His Q3 lap for second on the grid put Hamilton – half a second back – to shame, yet it wasn’t so much his pace but his leadership that stood out this weekend.

With Red Bull out of the equation for once, Russell was as eager as anyone to seize the day.

If there was an overtake to be made he was going to go for it. If there was an opportunity to do something – anything – strategically to turn a safe second place into a victory, he was going to try it.

Constantly he reminded Mercedes to keep their eyes on the prize, to be wise and alert to anything that could help bring the trophy back to Brackley and it was no surprise when good ol’ George was the first down the pit lane for mediums at the first sight of the VSC.

For so long in those closing laps it seemed that call would take him, not Sainz, to a second grand prix victory, yet there was something Leclerc-like about the way his race ended in typically all-or-nothing, hero-to-zero fashion, clipping the barrier on entry as he tracked Norris and failing to see the chequered flag for the third time in eight races.

At its best Russell’s attacking approach – his preparedness to go all out at all times – is utterly intoxicating to behold.

A little like Leclerc, however, there have been one too many times recently when he has failed to strike the right balance.

Teamwork makes the dream work for Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz

Be nice to people on your way up, because you’ll need them when there’s a good result on the line in the Singapore Grand Prix.

The bogus bromances that make up modern F1 can be on the nauseating side at times, yet there was something quite touching about the way Sainz and Norris – the old McLaren team-mates who bonded over a shared love of golf in 2019/20 – scratched each other’s backs to contain the Mercedes threat with DRS in the closing laps.

For his part, Sainz had the benefit of keeping a car between him and Russell; Norris, meanwhile, would almost certainly have lost second place long before the final lap without the extra straight-line boost offered up by the Ferrari ahead.

“Carlos was very generous, trying to help me out in my race and I also helped his race,” Norris commented with a smile in parc ferme.

Yet might there have been an opportunity for Norris to do what Russell and Hamilton did under VSC? Esteban Ocon’s stranded Alpine created a gap of 24 seconds behind Leclerc and it was obvious that someone was going to find it too inviting.

Sainz, as the race leader, wasn’t going to take the gamble and Leclerc wasn’t going to either unless Ferrari were in the mood for civil war – which left only Russell, Norris and Hamilton.

Even if it worked out well in the end, McLaren’s strategic passiveness compared to Mercedes – who, to their credit, had saved an extra set of mediums for the race – was slightly reminiscent of Norris’s only previous shot at victory in Russia two years ago.

McLaren arrived in Singapore armed with an update described as their biggest since Austria and may regard fourth on the grid as a missed opportunity on a rare weekend when both Red Bulls fell in Q2, but perhaps this circuit wasn’t the best to judge the effectiveness of the upgrade.

The MCL60 has performed at its peak in 2023 on the harder tyre compounds, which were used at Silverstone and Zandvoort since McLaren’s mid-season resurgence and are set to return next weekend at Suzuka.

Trust Norris to get by without a little help from his friends – and potentially emerge as Verstappen’s closest threat – in Japan.

AlphaTauri’s 2024 lineup must include Liam Lawson

As signature moments go, the climax of Q2 in Singapore was simply irresistible as Liam Lawson, the Red Bull driver making just his third F1 start, knocked Red Bull’s soon-to-be three-time World Champion and the winner of the last 10 races out of qualifying.

At least someone emerged from Red Bull’s worst day of the season smelling of roses.

Having entered this weekend insistent that he won’t settle for anything less than a full-time F1 drive next year, Lawson’s place in AlphaTauri’s 2024 lineup should now be assured after a maiden Q3 appearance – only the team’s third of 2023 – and a P9 finish at a circuit where he had never previously raced.

He may yet vacate the seat to make way for the returning Daniel Ricciardo – allowing him to complete the Super Formula season in Japan on the same weekend F1 races in Mexico next month in an arrangement similar to Pierre Gasly’s in 2017 – but as each races passes Helmut Marko’s hesitation in promoting Lawson to a permanent seat already seems a gross underestimation of his talent.

In just three race weekends Lawson has made himself indispensable and any AlphaTauri driver lineup going forward – if this team remains serious about training future Red Bull Racing drivers – must include him.

Which would leave Red Bull with a difficult choice between Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda for the second seat. Or is it so hard? Read between the lines and the decision becomes disarmingly simple.

When Ricciardo walked away from his practice crash at Zandvoort clutching his hand in agony, it was hard to ignore the possibility that it risked being a sad end to a good guy’s career – yet Red Bull/AlphaTauri have shown impressive loyalty in standing by him during his recovery, reintegrating Ricciardo into the garage environment in Singapore.

Like Ricciardo in Hungary prior to the summer break, Lawson has jumped into an unfamiliar car and been too close to comfort for Tsunoda, who – with backers Honda switching to Aston Martin, albeit not until 2026 – has lost any reason Red Bull had to keep persevering with him.

Any AlphaTauri decision surely has to be made in the context of the struggles of Perez who, astonishingly, has now failed to reach Q3 at seven of the 15 races this season in the dominant Red Bull RB19.

As much as Norris may flutter his eyelashes whenever he is asked about becoming Verstappen’s team-mate, Red Bull’s history suggests they would much prefer to promote from within when the time comes to replace Perez. And when that time comes it would pay to have a selection of viable options to choose from.

It would be cruel to discard Tsunoda at the end of his strongest season to date, but the hard truth is that Lawson has been more impressive in three races than Yuki has been in three years. At no stage has Tsunoda demonstrated that he has the requisite skill nor the temperament to survive in the same environment as Verstappen.

Lawson, from what we have seen so far, just might at some point down the line.

First impressions count a lot in this sport and, as Lawson keeps shining, Tsunoda may ultimately pay the price for the misdemeanours of his own early days.

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