Monday, 28 September 2009

Hamilton leads from pole to the finish line under the floodlights at Singapore, while Alonso dedicates his podium finish to Briatore

After saying farewell to Europe for this season at Monza couple of weeks ago, Formula 1 has went through some major upheavels. The FIA's World Motor Sport Council announced their verdict on the Renault race-fixing allegations, where the team was a given a two year suspended ban but the team's bosses Pat Symonds banned for five years and Flavio Briatore banned for life. The main person at the centre of this controversy, Nelson Piquet Jr., has long been ousted by Renault due to a lack of performance. All this controversy was surrounding the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, because the outcome of that race was fixed by Renault.

One year on, Formula 1 finds itself back in the same place to host the sport's second ever night race. The temporary street circuit, twisting and turning through the Singapore Marina Bay, is a spectacle to behold. The entire temporary race track is lit by floodlights that are four times as powerful as those on a football ground. Around the track, the night-time skyline of Singapore provides a great visual sight. With 23 corners and bumpy road surface on a 3.2 mile track, the Marina Bay street circuit is by no means the fastest in Formula 1 but it surely provides the ultimate test of a car's gearbox and brakes, and a driver's mental and physical fitness. The three men to triumph on the podium on Sunday were McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, followed by Toyota's Timo Glock and Renault's Fernando Alonso.

Throughout the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday morning, McLaren-Mercedes, Renault, BrawnGP and Red Bull Racing were all taking turns to top the timesheets. Coming into the Qualifying session, BrawnGP's Championship leader Jenson Button was struggling to find the right levels of grip with his car. He failed to get past Q2, the second part of Qualifying. The Briton only managed 12th on the grid. The two Ferraris, not surprisingly, were pretty far off the pace throughout the weekend because most of the other teams brought in big upgrade packages for this race, while Maranello has long shifted its focus on to the 2010 car. So Raikkonen qualified in 13th while his team mate Fisichella, still struggling to get fully confident in the Ferrari, only managing 18th.

In the third part of Qualifying Q3, Lewis Hamilton set a fast lap on a fresh set of super-soft (option) tyres early on, that secured him provisional pole position. However, both Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel were on a real charge towards the end of Q3 when Rubens Barrichello had a big crash that caused the session to be red-flagged. That meant disaster for Rosberg and Vettel, as both were on a lighter fuel load than Hamilton and was thus looking to qualify ahead of the McLaren. When the session was re-started, there was only 26 seconds remaining and all of the drivers were already back in the pits choosing to save the fuel rather than go out again unnecessarily. So Hamilton was looking very good for the race, as he got his third pole of the year with a decent amount of fuel on board. Behind him, Vettel, Rosberg, Webber, Barrichello and Alonso all had lighter fuel loads that showed the true pace of the McLaren-Mercedes. Glock, Heidfeld, Kubica and Kovalainen completed the top ten. However, Rubens Barrichello changed his gearbox just before the Qualifying session and as a result had to take a 5 place grid penalty, pushing him back to 10th. He started the race in 9th though, as Nick Heidfeld in 8th place was given a 15-place penalty. Heidfeld's car was found to be below the minimum legal weight at the end of Qualifying. BMW later said that this was down to the wrong set of ballasts put on the car, and was an unintentional mistake. BMW then chose to start Heidfeld from the pitlane. This meant that Alonso moved up to 5th on the grid, ahead of Glock, Kubica, Barrichello, Kovalainen and Nakajima in the top ten.

Most of the cars started the race on the prime (soft) tyres. As soon as the lights went out (the five red lights on the start/finish straight goes out to indicate the start of the race), Hamilton got away with a clean start. Behind him, Rosberg got a good run into turns 1 and 2 and overtook Vettel. Alonso overtook Webber coming out of turn 2, with Toyota's Timo Glock close behind the Red Bull. Mark Webber then went wide into turn 7 and used the run-off area to slingshot past Alonso out of the corner. A mistake by the Spaniard then saw him lose another place to Timo Glock in turn 8. Behind them, Jenson Button was looking very good in terms of strategy as he was going for a long first stint after starting with a heavy fuel load. He overtook Nakajima off the line to move up to 10th place. His team mate Barrichello, who was in 7th at the moment, was running much lighter than him. This was a crucial battle, as Button's main Championship rival coming into this race was his team mate.

Meanwhile we have our first retirement of the race on lap 3, as Renault's Romain Grosjean retires with overheating brakes. Up front, Sebastian Vettel sets the fastest lap of the race on lap 5, before Hamilton responds with a new fastest lap of the race. At this stage, Webber had to let Glock and Alonso go past him because the Australian's overtaking move on Alonso on lap 1 was deemed illegal by the Race Stewards. As Williams' Nico Rosberg sets a new fastest lap of the race on lap 9, he was ahead of Glock, Alonso, Webber, Barrichello and Kubica in the points scoring positions.

The first of the front runners to come into the pits was Sebastian Vettel on lap 17. He came back out in 7th place behind Barrichello and ahead of Kubica. Rosberg, Webber and Glock then all pitted on the next lap. Coming out of the pits, Rosberg went a bit wide over the white line that separates the pit lane from the track, and Race Control was quick to announce that the incident involving car number 16 (Nico Rosberg) was under investigation. On lap 20, race leader Lewis Hamilton came in for his first pit stop as Race Control announced a drive-through penalty for Rosberg.

At the back of the field, Adrian Sutil and Nick Heidfeld had a crash on the apex of turn 14 that prompted the safety car to come out. Kovalainen, Button and Alonso take this chance to make their first pit stop. Heidfeld was immediately out of the race, the German's first retirement in Formula 1 in 42 Grands Prix. Although Sutil changed his front nose cone and resumed the race, he too retired a couple of laps later. Hamilton was now leading the race from Rosberg from Vettel from Glock from Alonso from Barrichello from Kovalainen from Button in the points scoring positions. Later on after the race, Sutil was fined $20,000 and given an official reprimand by the Race Stewards, as the crash was Sutil's fault.

As the safety car came in and the race re-started on lap 25, Rosberg was told to take a drive through penalty for going over the white line on the pit exit. He took this penalty on lap 27 and came out in 14th place, essentially ruining his evening as the German was looking good all weekend for a strong podium finish.

The challenges and the bumpy nature of the Singapore was taking its toll on Vettel's Red Bull, as the German lost his right wing mirror on lap 37. Two laps later, he made his second and last pit stop to rejoin the race in 7th. Now Race Control announced that incident involving car number 15 (Sebastian Vettel) was under investigation for speeding in the pit lane. The young German was then given a drive through penalty for that offence. After taking the drive through on lap 44, Vettel rejoined the race in 9th place ahead of Raikkonen.

Mark Webber, now struggling with overheating brakes, made his second and last pit stop. It lost him a lot of time as the Red Bull mechanics were looking into his brake ducts to see if there were any problems. On lap 45, Toyota's Timo Glock made his second and last pit stop to slot back into 6th place. Red Bull's Australian driver then ended his dismal weekend as he lost his brakes completely and crashed into the tyre barriers between turns 1 and 2. Race leader Hamilton made his second pit stop at this time, just as the yellow flags were being shown. Hamilton rejoined in 2nd behind Alonso, who was still to make his second pit stop.

Rubens Barrichello then made his second pit stop from 3rd place, to come back out in 7th. This is where Jenson Button, now up in 3rd, really put his foot down. He set a string of personal best lap times before making his second pit stop on lap 51. The Briton came out in 5th place, comfortably ahead of his team mate.

At this last stage of the race, most of the front runners were on the option tyres. Although the super-soft option tyres were struggling with degradation most of the weekend, at this late stage on the race, with the track fully rubbered in, these option tyres were coming alive. All the front runners were starting to post some great lap times. 3rd placed Alonso set a personal best on lap 52, before setting the fastest lap of the race on the next lap. Behind him, Sebastian Vettel was struggling with a broken rear diffuser and overheating brakes. Button and Barrichello were also struggling with overheating brakes, and both the BrawnGPs and the Red Bull of Vettel started to back off a little bit to conserve the brakes. Specially after Red Bull's Mark Webber retired just a few laps earlier with a brake failure, it was important that all these cars consolidate their points and cruise to the finish line.

Without any further incident, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton took the Chequered Flag on lap 61 followed by Timo Glock, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, Heikki Kovalainen and Robert Kubica. Hamilton really drove flawlessly all throughout the race, did not make one mistake, and at the end it was an effortless performance from the defending World Champion to get his second win of the season. Toyota's Timo Glock got a crucial first podium of the year for his Cologne-based team. Several uncertainties has been surrouding Toyota's future in Formula 1, as after several seasons and billions of euros in development, they are yet to see that elusive first ever Grand Prix victory. This podium finish, thanks to a flawless drive from Glock, will certainly influence the management in Tokyo to keep Toyota's Formula 1 operation running next year and beyond. Meanwhile Alonso was understandably delighted to get Renault's first podium finish of the year after a very difficult couple of weeks for the team. He had no shame at all to dedicate this podium finish to his former team boss Flavio Briatore, who had a big contribution in building up this Renault team to what it is today.

On top of all that though, the big news is that Button's 5th place finish takes him one step closer to the World Championship. He increased the lead in the Drivers' World Championship by 1 point over his team mate Barrichello, who is his strongest contender for the title. Although Sebastian Vettel in 3rd place in the Drivers' standings is still mathematically in running for the title, realistically it is next to impossible for the German to win the title this year. His team mate Mark Webber is now out of the running of the World Championship.

We now head off to Suzuka in less than a week's time for the Japanese Grand Prix. Jenson Button can potentially sweep up his first ever Driver's World Championship there, all he needs is to finish in at least 4th place. His team BrawnGP are looking to wrap up the Constructors' World Championship, and it all could happen at the Honda Motor Company owned Suzuka race track, the very same Honda from whose ashes BrawnGP was born earlier this year. Until then, drive safely everyone!

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