In just two years Singapore’s Formula 1 GP has established itself as a must-see race, an event right up there in the prestige stakes with Monaco, Monza and Montreal – and way ahead of Malaysia, despite that Asian country’s circuit, tellingly situated just 300km away, being F1’s first “new world” venue.
ANCIENT AND MODERN: Robert Kubica swoops through old Singapore on the floodlit track.
The entire Singapore experience is pure magic: easy visa procedures; the country is Asia’s air hub so there exists an abundance of flights, hotels to suit all pockets, the city state a gourmet’s treat, the weather generally (did) plays ball and, above all, F1’s only night race is a simply enchanting affair that offers drama and spectacle on a superb street circuit cutting through one of the most picturesque cities on earth.
Simply put, no self-respecting F1 fan can afford to miss it.
Any wonder the race is one of only two to be sold out this season? Where high-rollers can no longer afford to be seen enjoying the glitz and glamour of Monaco, in Singapore (make that Asia) anyone who is anybody cannot afford to NOT be seen at this race.
That means, though, that Friday’s practice runs on the 5.073km Marina Bay Street Circuit – to give the course its official name - are sparsely attended, particularly the 90-minute first practice session from six to.7.30pm local time. Thereafter the place fills up to a degree but it is a far cry from Montreal, where the world’s best drivers entertain packed stands on all three days.
Ahead of the race there were, though, dark clouds – literally and figuratively– for long-term weather forecasts predicted rain at some stage on all three days. They weren’t wrong, for upon a arrival at the circuit at noon on Thursday F1 personnel were greeted by rain drops bigger than sewing thimbles.
CITY SPECTACULAR: The Singapore track outshines all else this weekend.
True, the showers were intermittent, so come sunset it soon became apparent that a night racing circuit suffers from a variety of peculiar problems: a lack of direct sunshine means the surface dries slower than at traditional (day) venues. Then, the wet surface reflects the glare of the 1500 projector floodlights powered by 12 twin-generator motors of the type more usually found under the bonnet of mammoth earthmoving machinery.
In total, the level of lighting required to enable drivers to safely negotiate the 23 corners of the anti-clockwise circuit at an average speed of 170km/h is 3000 lux levels – four times brighter than a World Cup football stadium.
Another set of predicaments soon manifested itself: since last year the circuit had been resurfaced in various places, particularly turns five and seven, while remedial work was undertaken on turn 10 (the kerb on exit was moved slightly to prevent cars mounting it), and the wall at the exit of turn 21 was moved closer to the track to cover a host of manhole covers.
No problem when dry but on the wet surface the transition from original surface to new asphalt was extremely tricky, causing various wall-touching incidents. None too serious, causing more damage to egos than suspension, but that could be subject to change in the heat of qualifying or battle...
SCHUMIE'S CREW: The Mercedes pit in action under the floodlights.
These changes found little favour with drivers, principally the work done to turn 10 – dubbed ‘Singapore Sling’ after a seriously potent local cocktail. Lewis Hamilton, in particular, slammed the chicane-like turn, calling it “ridiculous”.
“I think they made the track worse,” said the winner of last year’s race. “The chicane is probably the worst corner I've ever driven in F1. I mean, it's just ridiculous. Last year was already small, but now it's just more dangerous. We saw one car take off already - Adrian Sutil, I think.”
Indeed it was, the 2008 champion’s former F3 team mate – who was more than a match for the Briton on pace in that series – taking off like a rocket when his Force India car mounted the chicane during FP2, thereafter completing the lap on three wheels with suspension bits flapping about. The German, third-fastest in FP1, was fined $10 000 (R80 000) for this indiscretion, officials finding that after “having experienced serious mechanical difficulties, (he) did not leave the track as soon as it was safe to do so, and this was also potentially dangerous to spectators, marshals and other drivers”.
The track changes and weather certainly affected tyre evaluation, as admitted to by Hirohide Hamashima, Bridgestone’s director of motorsport tyre development, when asked to summarise the day.
“Not only did we have a wet track today but also around 40% of the track has been resurfaced,” he said. “As with any street course, we see a lot of track evolution over the duration of the weekend so we are unsure exactly how much grip the surface will provide.
“In addition, there could be further rain before Saturday’s sessions so the drivers and teams certainly have plenty of work in front of them.”
'THIS WAY, MATE!': Red Bull's Mark Webber tails Renault's Robert Kubica.
If Bridgestone had a challenging day, Red Bull could certainly look back with satisfaction. Points leader Mark Webber topped the times in the first session but only after a last-minute switch to slicks on a track by then virtually dry. Thus the Australian denied Michael Schumacher the opportunity of topping the times for the first time since his return to F1.
The German, dogged by retirement rumours after a less than stellar comeback with Mercedes, was second on his first visit to Marina Bay, 0.119sec behind the Red Bull driver, with Vettel ending behind Sutil, A surprise fifth went to Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari; reigning champion Jenson Button was sixth.
It was all-change in the second session, though, with Vettel setting a series of blistering laps on what was a predominantly dry circuit; the young German, fifth in the hunt and the final man with a realistic chance of the title with five rounds of 19 remaining, heading the time charts from Webber by a comparatively large 0,62sec. Vettel’s car control was something to behold, the blue car sliding to within millimetres of the unforgiving walls which line the circuit.
“It was tricky in the first practice. The circuit was still a bit damp from earlier rain then, in P2, it didn’t really dry up and some corners were like a sponge where you couldn’t get rid of the water,” was the 23-year-old’s assessment of his day’s work.
“I think it could be interesting on Saturday or Sunday if we get rain. It doesn’t mean so much to be P1 today, as it’s only practice and there are no points available, but it’s still good to be on top and we have good pace. The weather may bring a surprise though.”
'Pretty good first day'
Webber, too, was pretty pleased, even if his day was more about consolidating his title lead. After all, why risk all for a few banzai laps on a day when there is little to gain and all to lose?
“A pretty good first day, the first session was wet, pretty happy with how today went. I need to work on my short-run performance a bit, but overall it’s good,” said the witty Queanbeayan Kid before aiming a shot at all who suggested new tests introduced to regulate (allegedly) flexing front wings would blunt the RB6’s speed.
“We knew nothing would change with our car before we came here; we’ve passed all the new FIA tests and we weren’t coming here expecting to be slower than we were in Budapest,” he said in pointed reference to the race the Red Bulls dominated in 2010 like no other.
Button was third, his silky-smooth driving ideally suited to the slippery conditions. The Briton had no particular “moments” as he sought to reacquaint himself with one the most physically demanding tracks on the F1 trail.
“We saw today that, after it rains, the track doesn’t dry very quickly, and a lot of water comes up through the circuit,” he complained. “It’s pretty tricky – it’s difficult to see which parts of the track are wet because of the glare. I hope we won’t have any more rain this weekend because wet conditions aren’t the nicest.
“Our long-run pace looks good but it’s so tough around here on high fuel (load) – we’ve never run this level of fuel around here before,” added Jens in obvious reference to the exertion required by heaving a McLaren filled to capacity with fuel after replenishment was banned for this year.
'I braked a bit late'
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso was next up. The Spaniard, World champion in 2005/6 while with Renault, matching the Red Bulls for speed in track sectors one and two before sliding off after out-braking himself. The incident put a stop to his FP2, costing him an unproductive 20 minutes, but still he smiled during the media scrum.
“I braked a bit late at turn 18 and ended up in the escape road. I selected reverse but then when I selected first to get going again the car stopped”’ explained the Monza winner. “It’s a shame, because I lost the final 20 minutes of the session, the part when I was due to run with a heavy fuel load. In the debrief the engineers told me an experimental part in the gearbox had broken.”
Fifth was Hamilton after a solid day. “We’re reasonably close, we’re competitive, there’s more time for us to find tomorrow,” he said with a level optimism. “In fact I think we’ll be able to compete with the guys who were at the front today. The Red Bulls definitely aren’t unbeatable here.
“OK, they’re very quick in the second and third sectors, so we’ll have to work hard to try to make up time there, but I’m pretty confident we can do it.” “It” being a repeat of the fine 2009 win with a KERS-aided McLaren.
Thus the top five in the championship, with five rounds to go, occupied the top five places after Friday, with Felipe Massa, sixth, just missing out on making it six out of half a dozen. The Brazilian had an OK-ish day with his Ferrari, identifying no particular problems after FP2, but still he was unable to beat his on-form compatriot Rubens Barrichello (Williams).
'We learned a few things'
“We’ve brought some new parts to the car this weekend and they are working well; the factory’s done a good job. Today has been pretty good but there is work to be done on Saturday, both in the car and out of it, but we should be up to the job here,” explained Rubinho ahead starting his 302nd GP.
Eighth behind Massa was Nico Rosberg, the German again out-performing team mate Schumacher at Mercedes.
“The track improved significantly during the later session so we were able to learn a few things and made some good set-up changes,” said the son of 1982 World champion Keke. “Our long runs were OK but the main issue was that we didn't get the grip I was expecting from the soft tyre - that's something we need to look at overnight. All in all, it was a reasonable start to the weekend.”
Ninth, sandwiched between two silver cars, was Robert Kubica, the Pole suffering hydraulics problems in FP2, allowing only five clean laps. Tipped by many as a podium finisher in Singapore due to his street-fighting style – remember Monaco, where he finished a fighting third behind the Red Bulls after qualifying second? – chief race engineer Alan Permane downplayed Renault’s situation, stating no further problems were expected on Saturday, and that the team would stick to its work programme.
Tenth was Schumacher, buoyed by his early performances during his first experience of F1 at night. “It’s been a lot of fun driving this track today, even in the dark. It’s the first time driving here in Singapore for me and I was curious to experience how it.
“I have to say I liked it,” he said after FP2 as he reflected on his Friday morning performance: “When it was mixed conditions, we looked quite strong. It didn’t go as well as I would have liked in the second session, but it was good in the initial one.”
There were no surprises further back save that Nick Heidfeld, making his return to active cockpit duty with Sauber as replacement for Pedro de la Rosa after spells as Mercedes third driver and Pirelli tyre tester, was just a one-hundredth off team mate Kamui Kobayashi’s in 12th and 11th places respectively despite having no experience with 2010 tyres or the current fuel-heavy cars.
Saturday’s FP3 will start at 1pm CAT, the white-knuckle qualifying hour at 4pm CAT. The race was due for 2pm CAT on Sunday.