Thomas Maher: Will Mercedes be caught out again in Singapore?

The F1 calendar moves to a track where the strongest constructor struggled last season

BY Thomas Maher 15:45 Friday 16 September 2016, 15:45 16 Sep 2016

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain steers his car during the first practice session for the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix on the Marina Bay City Circuit Singapore, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim)

Two hours of racing under the bright lights of Singapore’s night race is tough. Very tough. Add in ingredients like the glamorous visual spectacle of the Marina Bay circuit, the challenge of street racing, and the unique characteristics of racing in the high temperatures and humidity of South-East Asia, and you’ve got a weekend of thrilling action to look forward to.

F1 heads into the final run of seven races to decide a World Championship by jetting off to Singapore. The city made its debut on the F1 calendar in 2008 and immediately made its mark by playing a pivotal role in deciding the championship that year when "Crashgate" occurred - the controversial intentional crash by Nelson Piquet Junior, under Renault orders, to help Fernando Alonso to the victory. This led to Felipe Massa's infamous pitstop, where he was incorrectly signalled to leave the pits with a fuel hose still attached - a moment the Brazilian claims to this day cost him the world title.

Since then, Singapore has continued to make its mark by providing memorable moments. It was the scene of one of Massa and Lewis Hamilton's many collisions in 2011, a moment of madness from Michael Schumacher in 2012 that suggested the German driver wasn't the force he once was, and the location of Mercedes' weakest race of the last three seasons. 2015 saw the dominant Mercs struggle for any sort of meaningful pace against Ferrari and Red Bull Racing, trailing both teams even before the power unit problem that forced Lewis Hamilton to retire from the race last year. There were all sorts of rumours that day - Had Mercedes been given dodgy tyres? Had the recent tyre pressure ruling hampered their competitiveness? Did the heat and humidity cause unforeseen problems in terms of cooling that resulted in a potential weakness being made apparent?

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain steers his car out of his pit lane garage during the first practice session for the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix on the Marina Bay City Circuit Singapore, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The simple answer, of course, is simply that Mercedes dropped the ball in Singapore last year. The 5 kilometre track is an anachronism in that the race is held at night-time. Held under the glow of massively powerful floodlights, the Marina Bay circuit is simply breathtakingly beautiful to look at. The hot, muggy conditions hang like a warm, wet blanket over everybody - conditions that don't really change once day turns to night. What does change is the way the tyres react to the track surface. Two of three practice sessions are held earlier in the evening, effectively discounting their effectiveness as preparation for the race due to the vastly differing track conditions to the ones in which qualifying and the race are held. This means an element of guesswork is involved, with no chance for on-track correlation. This is why Mercedes were caught out last year; they simply went the wrong direction with setup. Team boss Toto Wolff, speaking ahead of Singapore, spoke of the need to stay on the ball this season with so few races remaining: "We didn't manage it last year and, although we believe we now understand why, only performance on the racetrack can prove our conclusions right. We are curious and excited to see how it goes. Ferrari were mighty around this circuit last year and it will suit the high downforce design philosophy followed by Red Bull, so we must not make the mistake of thinking we are favourites this weekend."

Indeed, opening practice has confirmed Merc's thinking that this race will be tough for them, regardless of whether they manage to get the setup right. Singapore is similar in nature to Monaco, albeit not quite as tortuously twisty and slow, and that was a race that Red Bull threw away after a great performance from Daniel Ricciardo. It's no surprise to see that the Red Bulls have been immediately competitive in FP1, with Max Verstappen leading the pack ahead of Ricciardo. Sebastian Vettel finished P3 for Ferrari. The German driver is a Singapore specialist, having won four of the eight races held here so far. His performance in 2011 was staggering, seemingly able to pull away several seconds a lap at will over the rest of the pack. If the Ferrari is in any way capable of winning a race this year, Vettel at Singapore is the best chance they have on merit.

Speaking ahead of the race, Vettel spoke of his enjoyment of this particular circuit, saying: "I like this track, it’s a place that I have always enjoyed. I was lucky to be very successful in the last couple of years. The race here is always very long, you can be lucky or unlucky with the safety-cars, obviously that’s not what you’re hope for as a driver because you want it to be fair and square. For sure if it plays in your favour you take it, if it works against you it can be annoying, but that’s the way it is, that’s the nature of the street circuits. This track was has been good for us last year, in general we improved the car, then it should be a good track for us again. I’m full of optimism."

Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia arrives at the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix on the Marina Bay City Circuit Singapore, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim)

It hasn't been a good track for Nico Rosberg in recent years. 2014 saw him suffer a wiring loom issue that forced him to struggle around for 13 laps before retirement, a massive blow to his title chances, while 2015 was a lukewarm run to P4. Momentum has been with him since the resumption of racing after summer and, despite a relatively minor FP1 crash, he looks capable of fighting with Hamilton on equal terms at this circuit.

There's plenty of off-track news for this weekend, too. Liberty Media, a massive US company, have announced that they have begun the process of buying the sport from current owners CVC Capital, and the deal will be completed ahead of the 2017 season. While Bernie Ecclestone remains in charge for now, changes are coming. The deal is worth around 3.5 billion dollars and seems set to be aimed at increasing the US interest in F1. Former FOX CEO and current 21st Century FOX vice-chairman Chase Carey has been named as the new F1 Chairman, and the immediate interest of the company appears to lie in bringing down the cost of hosting F1 for circuits, passing on the lower costs of attendance to fans. Digital media and online presence has been a major weakness of Formula 1, particularly compared to US series like IndyCar and NASCAR, and ownership by a media company is likely to target this. With Formula 1 out of favour with younger audiences, a seismic shift in how F1 is marketed is coming, and it's very likely to take the sport to greater heights than have ever been seen before.

Thomas Maher is the co-founder of Irish motorsport website Formula Spy.com.

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