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Formula One’s original night race is back, and as expected, Saturday’s qualifying did not disappoint.
Red Bull are on the backfoot after a disastrous qualifying in which Max Verstappen placed P11 and Sergio Pérez P13. That left AlphaTauri’s Liam Lawson as the highest current Red Bull-backed qualifier, as he was the only driver to advance to Q3 (teammate Yuki Tsunoda qualified P15).
Ferrari and Mercedes remained red hot as Carlos Sainz secured his second consecutive pole position, and George Russell is set to line up next to him on the front row. Behind them will be Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Lando Norris, whose car is fitted with the latest upgrades and has shown threatening speed against the top teams.
The Singapore Grand Prix looks to be the best chance so far this season for a non-Red Bull driver to win due to the overtaking difficulties at the tight and twisty Marina Bay Street Circuit, which has few short straights. Before it’s time for lights out at the iconic night race, here’s what we’re watching ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix.
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 16, 2023
No really – Red Bull’s perfect season is in jeopardy
Starting down the grid has rarely ruled Verstappen out of contention for victory over the past 18 months, such has been his and Red Bull’s dominance.
But from 11th on the grid in Singapore, Verstappen faces an incredibly tall order to extend his record victory streak in F1. And with teammate Sergio Pérez two places further back in 13th, Red Bull is resigned to seeing its perfect season come to an end after 14 straight wins.
It’s not simply down to the car setup struggles that Red Bull has failed to get a full understanding of this weekend in Singapore. Tweaks made to Verstappen’s car after practice backfired, leaving him unable to brake late and hard with confidence, an asset you badly need when trying to fight back. Verstappen has also struggled with the rear of the Red Bull car sliding around, which is something he can typically cope with.
That alone would be enough to make a comeback victory like we saw in Miami (from P9) or Spa last year (from P14) a big ask. But when you factor in the difficulty of overtaking in Singapore due to the tight confines of the street circuit, it becomes almost impossible.
“You can’t pass,” Verstappen said. “On other tracks, you can start last — probably at Spa, you can start last and win the race. But not here. Here you need to be two or three seconds faster (per lap) to have a chance to pass. That’s just street circuits.”
If you’ve been tired of watching Red Bull dominate in F1 this year, then Singapore is likely to offer a change of tune. And if Red Bull were to win from so far back, then it would take some real twists that would make it a very memorable race indeed.
‘Shocking’: How Verstappen and Red Bull’s Singapore qualifying unravelled
Ferrari and Mercedes must not let this opportunity slip
There was a time when discussing a streak of Red Bull victories was a very distant thought. Between 2017 and 2019, Mercedes and Ferrari were F1’s leading teams, with their battles often leading to fireworks under the lights in Singapore.
There was the 2017 race when Ferrari, trying to turn the tide in Sebastian Vettel’s title bid against Lewis Hamilton, saw its cars crash into each other at the first corner — and then publicly blame Verstappen. In 2018, one of Hamilton’s greatest pole laps paved the way for a critical victory in his late-season march to the title, while the following year yielded Vettel’s final grand prix win after he undercut a frustrated Charles Leclerc.
We’re poised for a renewal of that rivalry on Sunday. With Red Bull out of the picture, Ferrari and Mercedes have a huge chance to capitalize and snatch a big result. Pole-sitter Carlos Sainz has been in brilliant form since Monza, where he topped qualifying and then fought Verstappen through the opening stages. P2 man George Russell was also upbeat about his chances heading into the race, citing his positive feeling in the Mercedes car throughout this weekend — something that has been badly lacking at points this year, and still was for teammate Lewis Hamilton, who wound up fifth on the grid.
This is a chance that neither Ferrari nor Mercedes can afford to let slip. Ferrari is in the better position with Leclerc lining up third, but maintaining the two-versus-one advantage off the start will be crucial.
When we get back to Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix next week, the familiar script of Red Bull domination is likely to return. If they don’t win in Singapore, then they probably won’t win anywhere.
Don’t discount Norris in the battle at the front
Another team that came away from Singapore qualifying feeling very upbeat is McLaren, even after seeing Oscar Piastri drop out in Q1, losing out due to the red flag for Lance Stroll’s crash.
Armed with a raft of upgrades on his McLaren MCL60, Lando Norris put his car fourth on the grid after flirting with the front-runners right through qualifying. High downforce has been a strength for the team this year — see its performance in Hungary — but Norris’s effort was still mighty to get within three-tenths of pole position.
While Russell expected Mercedes to fight Ferrari for the win on Sunday, he added: “We can’t discount Lando either. He’s got good race pace. (McLaren’s) race pace probably looked a little bit ahead of Ferrari’s.”
Track position will be decisive, meaning the race could quickly flip on a safety car — which has come out in every edition of the Singapore Grand Prix — and tire management will be critical through a hot, grueling race where overtaking comes at a premium. But Norris is in a prime spot to fight for McLaren’s first podium since Hungary — and maybe more.
Haas could score its first points since Austria
For the first time all season, both Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hülkenberg advanced to Q3, putting Haas in the best possible scenario to score points for the first time since early July.
The Marina Bay Street Circuit is tight and twisty, making it fairly difficult to overtake. Track position is key, and after qualifying sixth and ninth, respectively, it could be safe to expect that at least one Haas driver will finish in points, barring any chaos. The VF-23s looked surprisingly strong on Saturday night, giving a glimmer of hope to Haas fans for Sunday evening’s race.
“We know it’s hard to overtake here,” Magnussen said in the team’s recap. “I would love to still have the little twisty corners in sector three now that I’m here because we know our race pace isn’t quite there to stay where we are, but maybe on this track there’s a chance.”
Haas has been strong over one lap this season but weaker during the race. That said, it was a stronger one-lap performance than they were expecting, Hülkenberg said. But he’s still cautious over Sunday’s race.
“The long run (on Friday) didn’t look too encouraging, so that’s why I’m a little bit careful and cautious.”
Sitting 10 points behind Williams and just a single point ahead of Alfa Romeo, this is a crucial opportunity for Haas to firmly grip eighth place in the constructor standings and chase seventh.
Lawson sets sights on AlphaTauri’s best result of the year
In the flurry of everyone discussing Verstappen’s surprise Q2 knockout, the identity of who bested his lap seemed to fly under the radar.
Lawson’s flying final Q2 lap was just 0.007 seconds faster than the two-time world champion’s time. By advancing to Q3, the New Zealander became the highest qualifier this weekend among the current Red Bull-backed drivers. He went on to qualify 10th but still felt there was more left in the tank.
He felt they “missed the window a little bit in Q3” in terms of tire warm-up because of “the way the track was evolving and the temperature was dropping.” And the traffic in the last sector didn’t make things any easier. Lawson said, “I think the car has been pretty strong this week, and we had the potential to be up there, so it’s a bit of a shame, but obviously, for me, I’m still building up and still learning, and there’s more to come.”
Points are the target, and the highest finishing position from any AlphaTauri driver this season has been P10 from Tsunoda. However, Verstappen and Pérez aren’t far behind him, qualifying 11th and 13th, respectively.
(Lead photo of George Russell and Charles Leclerc: Mark Thompson/Getty Images,)