There was a very encouraging moment during free practice on Saturday when it looked like Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari were about to get their championship back on course.
The on-board image from the SF71H was a reminder of 2015 (and the the Red Bull in 2013) when driver and machine were totally at one on this demanding track. Seb had such confidence in the car beneath him in FP3 that he had gone straight out and skimmed the same wall that had snared the Ferrari’s right-rear the previous day.
The loss of vital track time in FP2 had prompted speculation that the pressure of more than 50 points tossed away in recent races was getting to Vettel. Saturday’s confident FP3 performance proved that wasn’t necessarily true but, significantly, his enforced absence from the track in FP2 came when track conditions would be replicated during qualifying. And that’s when the rest of Ferrari’s weekend would begin to show it was the team rather than the driver that seemed hell-bent on giving this championship away – on the understanding that such an oversimplification last weekend would do Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton a massive disservice.
Singapore was supposed to be Mercedes’ ‘bogey track’. That assumption would turn out to be like saying Bernie Ecclestone gets irritated by loose change in his pocket. The combined forces in Brackley and Brixworth had worked tirelessly at overcoming the performance shortfall in the type of slow corner that abounds at Marina Bay. Technical chief James Allison said they had quietly begun to see evidence of their endeavours through the final corner in Hungary back in July.
Sure enough, seven weeks later, the Mercedes would prove to be much better than before. But it would actually take 96.015 seconds of Sennaesque genius on Saturday evening to put Hamilton on the front row (never mind pole) for the first time in Singapore since 2014.
Even if Ferrari had got their tyre warming and track position act together, we’ll never know if Vettel could have matched such perfection and precision. More likely, in fact, would have been an equally brilliant pole for Max Verstappen had the Red Bull not been hampered by the modern-day equivalent of a misfire. As it was, the presence of the dark blue car on the front row was another reason for Vettel’s drooping shoulders as he walked towards post-qualifying media interviews he could have done without.
Being in exactly the same position 24 hours later must have been even harder to bear, particularly after avoiding contact at the first corner (with images of this race last year somewhere deep in his subconscious) and then pulling off a brave move on Verstappen not long after – only for an arguably necessary bold strategy to instantly have the feet cut from under it thanks to Hamilton’s fast lap on carefully preserved tyres and a Force India finding itself legitimately but unhelpfully in the mix.
If this was bad for the bigger picture covering Vettel’s title hopes, it was worse for race fans in the short term. Spectators and TV viewers craved action after watching supposedly the fastest cars in the world (blame the breathless headlines after Kimi Raikkonen’s record at Monza) tool round and round 10 seconds off the qualifying pace.
Not only are today’s F1 cars incapable of racing closely when heavily loaded with invisible downforce, they can barely get out of their own way when nursing tyres that seemingly start losing performance as soon as they’re rolled out of the Pirelli truck.
This may have been another disappointing and fumbled attempt by Ferrari and Vettel to win a championship, but it was also no way to present a so-called motor race.