Sunday, 28 September 2008

Singapore Grand Prix: Alonso back where he belongs as Ferrari hit the self-destruct button

Formula One's first ever night race was won in fine style by Fernando Alonso, as Ferrari and Felipe Massa saw their championship chances take a massive hit under the spectacular setting of central Singapore. Lewis Hamilton was able to increase his championship lead with a third place finish in the safety car affected race, and Williams' Nico Rosberg scored his best ever result with an excellent second place finish.

From the start both Massa and Hamilton made good starts, with Raikkonen breathing down the neck of the pair of them. The only way Hamilton would have braved a move into turn 1 would be if they were alongside going into the corner. However, he wasn't close enough so slotted in behind him. It was all fairly smooth, event-free running for the front three cars in the opening lap. The same couldn't be said for the rest of the field, as there was some great wheel to wheel action throughout the first half of the lap.

Robert Kubica bumped across the turn 1 kerb and nudged the side of Kovalainen. The McLaren driver did well to stay pointing in the right direction, but he lost places to Kubica, Vettel and Glock. The Finn made a move past Glock, but the Toyota driver regained the position almost immediately with a fine move.

Cars were running three and four abreast through the opening few corners, and it was a testament to the skill of the drivers that nobody came into serious contact with either each other or the walls. From then on the race settled into a race of two halfs. The front half of the field were out racing hard, setting a pretty hot pace. The back half of the field were well and truly stuck behind Trulli. The veteran Italian was clearly on a very long first stint with a full tank of fuel, and was lapping an incredible FIVE seconds behind the pace of the front runners. The two Williams cars, Alonso, the two Red Bulls, Button and Bourdais were all queued up nose-to-tail behind the Toyota. This would be the first real test of the Singapore circuit in terms of ease of overtaking.

Rosberg took a first bite at Trulli into turn 1 but was WAY too hot and ran wide. It took another half a dozen laps before Rosberg was eventually able to launch his Williams up the inside and get past. That opened the floodgates, and Nakajima, Alonso and others all flew by Trulli in a short space of time.

Meanwhile at the front of the field Massa was holding a steady advantage to Hamilton, and Raikkonen was suddenly the fastest man on track gaining on Lewis rapidly. Hamilton's team mate Kovalainen was in P7 and clearly struggling to keep pace with Vettel and Glock. It seemed clear that the McLaren just wasn't as competitive as the Ferrari out front.

Then the race was turned completely on its head. Nelson Piquet had yet another of his trademark embarrassing crashes, losing the back end and spinning off heavily into the wall. He was OK, but it was a big impact leaving debris all over the track and the stewards had no choice but to send out the safety car. This was bad news for those running low on fuel and needing a pit stop, most notably Rosberg and Kubica who had no choice but to come in when the pitlane was closed and take stop and go penalties. However, it was great news for the likes of Alonso and the two Red Bulls who had pitted just before Piquet's accident. From being way down in the field and fighting for the odd point, suddenly they all looked in strong positions for podium finishes.

All of the big hitters were able to save enough fuel to make it to the opening of the pit lane, and they all came in ASAP. This is where Massa's dream weekend so far took a massive turn for the worse. As he was refuelling the Ferrari team were looking for a spot in the traffic to release him while the back markers streamed past him in the pit lane. Somebody hit the green light on Ferrari's controversial pit release system and Massa hit the gas. Disaster struck for Massa as the fuel hose was still lodged in the side of his car. It ripped it out of the bowser and injured one of the mechanics in the process. Massa had to stop at the end of the pitlane and wait for his pit crew to sprint the length of the pits to come and free the hose. This put him dead last on the circuit, and worse was to come. It was clear that Massa had been released straight into the path of the Force India of Sutil, bringing back memories of Valencia. Massa wasn't able to escape with just a fine this time however, and he was rightly punished with a drive-through penalty, effectively ruining his race completely.

So with Massa's race in tatters, and Raikkonen being held up and dropped down out of the points, could Lewis Hamilton take full advantage and extend his lead in the championship to the full eleven points? As things settled down after all the drama he was stuck in behind the Red Bulls and Alonso who had pitted before the safety car, and also Nico Rosberg who was due to serve a penalty. It was certainly going to be a mammoth task.

The mammoth soon became a mere elephant as Mark Webber was forced to retire with a mechanical failure. A real sickener for Webber, whose Red Bull career has been blighted by reliability issues from day one. Hamilton was bottled up behind Coulthard who was driving well and using all his experience to fend off his fellow Brit, and his chances of 10 points were diminishing with each lap. Nico Rosberg spent a good half a dozen laps out front setting a blistering pace before the stewards decided he needed to come in for his penalty. It was baffling really, as there was absolutely no doubt about his penalty. This time spent out in the lead put him in a great position for a podium finish.

However, it was at this point of the race that Fernando Alonso really came alive with the prospect of his first race victory in a year very much in his sights. He had been the fastest man in the final two practice sessions of the weekend, and was clearly distraught to see his race seemingly ruined by a fuel line problem in qualifying. He was driving superbly now though, and was getting close to matching the pace of the Ferrari and McLaren from the early stages of the race. Only a problem or a safety car could potentially take the victory away from him...

Hamilton had already made his way past Coulthard and things looked set for an Alonso-Rosberg-Hamilton finish. That was until Felipe Massa and Adrian Sutil again conspired to cause some great drama. Massa spun off going into the short tunnel and bumped the safety barriers. He was able to get away, but Sutil was clearly put off by the slow moving Massa and ended up ploughing straight into the barriers. The front end of his car was buckled, and the safety car was required to clear the Force India out of a dangerous area.

Alonso's lead was cut instantly, and there would have been some white knuckles and chewed fingernails on the Renault pitwall for the restart. However, they needn't have worried though. The Spaniard used all his experience on the restart to gain himself a huge lead and effectively guarantee his race victory. There were no real changes in the positions throughout the field, as Hamilton had clearly settled for the 6 points of third place. Kimi Raikkonen still managed to ruin yet another points finish with an awful mistake putting him into the wall at turn 10, but that was the final action of the day as Alonso was able to clinch a hard fought and well deserved 20th victory and 50th podium of his career.

Going into the final few races of the season Lewis Hamilton now leads the championship by 7 points when just a couple of hours ago it looked unlikely that he'd be leading at all. Ferrari really only have themselves to blame. They got plenty of warning as to the unreliability of their pit release mechanism from the Valencia race. They weren't lucky enough to get away with it this time though, and it may well end up costing them and Felipe Massa the World Driver's Championship.
Race Result

1. Alonso
2. Rosberg
3. Hamilton
4. Glock
5. Vettel
6. Heidfeld
7. Coulthard
8. Nakajima
9. Button
10. Kovalainen
11. Kubica
12. Bourdais
13. Massa
14. Fisichella
ret Raikkonen
ret Trulli
ret Sutil
ret Webber
ret Barrichello
ret Piquet

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