Formula 1 heads to its hottest race and the heat is firmly on Ferrari to deliver in Singapore, after being humbled in their home race by Mercedes last time out.
The Scuderia were no match for the Silver Arrows at Monza, finishing over 36 seconds behind race-winner Lewis Hamilton – a deficit Ferrari boss Sergio Marchionne described as “embarrassing”.
However, Ferrari have held the edge on high downforce circuits so far this season and Sebastian Vettel will arrive at Marina Bay as the man to beat. The German is the master of Singapore, having claimed four wins, most recently in 2015, while last year he came from last to finish fifth. And after leading Ferrari one-twos at both Monaco and Hungary this year, he will be confident of reclaiming the championship lead at the first attempt.
But Ferrari need to prove they are not, once again, slipping back following the summer break. While Vettel remained within touching distance of Hamilton at Spa, Kimi Raikkonen was unable to catch Daniel Ricciardo after being passed while the Australian was closing on Vettel by a second a lap in the final laps at Monza.
Vettel’s 2015 win in Singapore remains Ferrari’s only victory after July since 2010. Having slipped 62 points behind Mercedes in the Constructors’ Championship and with only one race win since May, another one-two is much needed.
The added pressure on Ferrari comes as Mercedes arrive at the circuit they fear most already expecting to play second fiddle. “We’re going to lose for sure,” non-executive chairman Niki Lauda told Sky F1.
Singapore has proven an enigma for the Silver Arrows the past two years. In 2015, they started on the third row and finished outside of the podium positions, nearly 25 seconds behind Vettel. While they improved to take victory 12 months ago, Nico Rosberg’s winning margin was less than half a second and Hamilton again struggled for pace on his way to third.
Toto Wolff has conceded this weekend is again set to pose them a “big challenge”, although Mercedes have taken heart from the improved performance they showed relative to Ferrari on the twists of the Hungaroring in July. That was certainly a step up from Monaco, but another leap forward will be required this weekend to get the better of Ferrari.
Red Bull may not have had a chance of victory in Monza, but their grid penalties for power unit changes almost certainly cost them a podium finish. Christian Horner confirmed to Sky F1 the strategic decision was to try and ensure Ricciardo and Max Verstappen started “on the front foot” in Singapore. Now they must make it count.
While Ferrari arrive as favourites, Marina Bay is most certainly a ‘Red Bull track’. They have finished second the past three years having been victorious the three years before.
“[It’s] one of our best chances of a win in the second half of the season,” Ricciardo said. Given the Australian’s love of street circuits and recent Sunday form, it would be no surprise to see Ricciardo claim his second victory of the season.
Nico Hulkenberg will make his 129th Grand Prix start on Sunday and should he fail to finish in the top three, he will set a new record for most starts without a podium.
While he was a race-winner at the first attempt in the Le Mans 24 Hour in 2016, Hulkenberg has had few opportunities in F1 to break his podium duck, although it could be argued that he has thrown them away when they have been presented.
He led the 2012 Brazilian GP before colliding with Hamilton and ultimately finishing fifth, while he hit the barriers in this year’s Azerbaijan GP when a podium may have been in the offering with everything else that was going on. And while at Force India, team-mate Sergio Perez managed four podiums in the same machinery.
While Renault are hopeful of a better weekend after a dire Italian GP, it will likely take something out of the ordinary for Hulkenberg to avoid unwanted history.
Meanwhile across the garage, Jolyon Palmer finds himself in which appears to be an increasingly precarious position at Renault with reports in the build-up to Singapore suggesting he’s going to lose his seat to Sainz for 2018 – at the latest.
Palmer’s season has been the stuff of nightmares and his hopes for an improved second half of the season have so far been undermined by reliability issues in Belgium and Italy. If the speculation is to be believed, Marina Bay’s windy streets could be his last opportunity to put himself in the shop window for a 2018 drive.
F1 2017 has served up one of the tightest midfield battles in recent seasons with just 21 points separating Williams in fifth and Renault in eighth in the Constructors’ Championship.
And in a season dominated by Mercedes and Ferrari, Singapore’s street circuit may help level the playing field and potentially open the door to a surprise podium for one of the midfield teams.
Speaking on this week’s F1 Report, Sky F1’s Mark Priestley says: “Circuits like this can be a bit of a leveller. The biggest budgets usually translate into the best car, best power unit, best aerodynamic package, but this is where the driver can really make a difference.
“If you haven’t got those massive budgets you can close up. It’s not a very long track so you don’t see the leaders disappearing off into the distance and a Safety Car can come into play.
“This is one of those races where literally anything can happen, and we’ve seen over the years that things have happened which have blown us away. There is always drama in Singapore.
“You have to take advantage of those opportunities when they come along and be in the mix.”