The competitive pattern between the three leading teams seen in the last two races will almost certainly change very significantly at Singapore this weekend.
Ferrari’s hopes of continuing its winning sequence from Spa and Monza must be considered weak. By contrast, Red Bull could feel justified in feeling very optimistic about this race, for very specific technical reasons in both cases.
Where does this leave the prospects of Mercedes?
In terms of circuit demands, there could not be a starker contrast between Monza last week and Singapore. Whereas the Italian track is all about low drag even at the expense of downforce, the street circuit around the city state demands the absolute opposite.
Singapore is roughly twice as sensitive to downforce as Monza, as measured by how much lap time a given increase in downforce will buy. On the other hand, it is less than half as sensitive to drag. In terms of the track’s power sensitivity, Singapore is down near the bottom of the list, with extra power worth only around two-thirds of the lap time it would reward you with at Monza.
From the GPS traces (as provided by the FIA) all the teams see, they each know the relative strengths and weaknesses of each others’ cars. The pattern between the top three cars this year is very apparent and shows the Ferrari to be super-strong in power and low in drag but relatively weak in downforce. Because its strengths are less valued at Singapore than Monza, and its weaknesses punished more, it’s probably not going to be setting the pace through the streets – although Sebastian Vettel (a four-time pole winner here, just like Lewis Hamilton) has pulled out some extraordinary qualifying laps here in the past and Charles Leclerc is super-quick around street tracks.
Red Bull has traditionally flown around Singapore as it’s invariably produced a car with a great spread of downforce throughout the speed ranges. Since its mid-season upgrades, the RB15 has conformed very much to this pattern and the team has been very selective about when to introduce its upgraded Honda Spec 4 power units specifically to maximise its chances around a track in which it expects to contend for victory.
That downforce brings with it an associated cost in drag and hence at Spa and Monza the car was not seen at its best – which is why those races were chosen for the engine penalties of Alex Albon and Max Verstappen respectively. This offset engine penalty also had the effect of taking the pressure off new recruit Albon in that it has avoided a direct qualifying comparison between him and Verstappen as he’s played himself into the team. Verstappen produced an extraordinary Singapore qualifying lap last year to put himself on the front row despite an engine glitch and such a level of performance is the formidable bar against which Albon will be measured.
Singapore was initially Mercedes’ only bogey track, as highlighted by an off-the-pace performance here in 2015. But since then it has seemingly mastered the place. In the conception of the W10, some of the aerodynamic efficiency of previous Mercs was surrendered in order to prioritise downforce under the new aero regs. This has been a particular strength of the car this year, particularly through slow speed corners. In fact, its performance profile is now very similar to that of the Red Bull, each strong and weak in the same areas.
Everything points to a super-close battle between Red Bull and Mercedes around the streets, continuing where they left off in Hungary. Hamilton and Verstappen are capable of pushing each other to the very outer edges of possibility between the unforgiving walls. They shared the front row here last year and did the same at Hungary this year before F1 visited the two low-downforce tracks. On that occasion, Verstappen took pole only because he managed to get his tyres up to optimum temperature before the first corner and Hamilton did not. But that was partly because Mercedes had prioritised tyre wear for the race – and did indeed have the quicker car at Budapest on the Sunday.