Vettel on the verge of title as F1 heads to Singapore

With Sebastian Vettel on the verge of becoming the youngest double world champion it would be easy to say that this season has been one of utter domination by the German. However once you scratch beneath the surface of the championship standings it is clear that this has been one of the best seasons in years in terms of pure racing and this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix looks set to continue that trend!

The Marina Bay Grand Prix Circuit

The tracks winds its way aroundMarinaBaywith theSingaporestreets and skyline providing a dramatic backdrop for a circuit that has already gained acceptance from Formula 1 in just four years.

Drivers love the challenge of racing on the city-state’s streets while the teams enjoy the technical and logistical problems that racing at night provides. With a mixture of fast, flowing sections and slow chicanes and hairpins theMarinaBaycircuit offers a great challenge to drivers and engineers to find the perfect compromise as they set their cars up.

Speaking before the race 2009 race winner, Lewis Hamilton, was keen to talk about the challenges facing drivers:

“I love street circuits and I really enjoy this place,” said the Englishman. “It’s almost two tracks in one: there are quite a few fast corners, which require good set-up and a bit of commitment, but there are also lots of tighter 90-degree bends, which are slower and more technical. You’ve got to keep it precise through these and just be patient, waiting for the tyres to bite before getting on the throttle. If you’re impatient, then you end up losing time because you over-stress the tyres and you over-drive the car.”

The track surface is low grip as a result of being public roads and having to deal with the everyday dust and grime from everyday road users and as a result the grip level changes immensely as the weekend progresses. The track consistently improves and gets faster as more rubber is put down. The last driver across the line in qualifying will have a significant advantage and will be able to take advantage of the best conditions of the session.

Throughout the year Vettel has consistently been able to time his final qualifying lap to perfection and been the last driver to start his flying lap. This ability will be key for the Red Bull driver as he strives to give himself yet another pole position. Last year however, a mistake in qualifying cost Vettel dearly that saw him qualify second and unable to overtake pole sitter Fernando Alonso for the duration of the 61 lap race.

Timo Glock finished second toHamiltonin 2009 and while the Virgin driver will have to rely on poor reliability on Sunday to even challenge or a point it is clear that he is upbeat and looking forward to a race at a track that Virgin will bring aerodynamic upgrades to:

“It’s great to be back in Singapore where I finished in second position in 2009,” commented the 29 year old. “The Singapore Grand Prix is clearly one of the highlights of the year and my favourite track on the calendar. It really is an amazing experience and I just can’t wait to get in the car and drive through the streets of Singapore at night again. It’s great fun! The Marina Bay Street Circuit is very challenging. Just the fact that it is a street circuit already makes it very demanding, but if we add the fact that it’s a night race it just adds to the excitement. Car set-up is tricky, as with any other street circuit, so Friday will be a busy day. I am looking forward to the final leg of the season.”

Challenges for this weekend

The nature of the circuit and hosting the race at night provides numerous challenges to the teams…not least having to sleep during the day and work at night! With numerous races now taking place in the later hours of the day the teams however have gained more than enough experience in this regard.

The main challenge for them is to find the best compromise setup that will allow drivers to ride the bumps and have a stable car through the faster corners. Red Bull’s Mark Webber spoke of the challenges facing drivers over the course of the race:

“The Singapore night race is a challenging one,” said the six times Grand Prix winner. “The track is bumpy and although the 1500-odd lights do a good job at illuminating the circuit, it’s not like racing in daylight and that makes it tiring. It’s also the longest race of the year, running close to the two-hour time- limit set by the FIA, and the intense heat and humidity makes it pretty warm in the cockpit. You have to watch your hydration during the build-up to the race.”

Sam Michael, outgoing technical director of Williams, has been in the news since the Italian Grand Prix following confirmation that the Australian will move to McLaren at the end of the year. This will be Michael’s last race for Williams and comes at the scene of their last realistic opportunity to win a Grand Prix.

In the 2009 race Nico Rosberg was in position to challenge for the win but crossed the white line as he came out of the pits and was given a drive through penalty that cost him dearly. Since then the team has been in a constant downward spiral and even the major upheaval of the team’s technical department makes it difficult to see much light at the end of the tunnel for one of the most successful team’s in the sport’s history.

Even though this is sure to be an emotional weekend for Michael after spending more than ten years with the squad it is clear that his focus is firmly on how to end his relationship with the squad on a high:

“Singapore has all the challenges, for both the drivers and engineers, of a classic street race, but with the addition of it also being held at night,” said the Williams technical director. “There is a large improvement in track grip as the race weekend progresses. There are also more bumps and kerbs to deal with compared to normal and downforce is set to a maximum. Good traction with minimal understeer are always the focus of the car set-up here. We have an upgraded diffuser and a new front wing assembly for the first of the flyaways. We’ll test both of them on Friday.”

Last year James Key was the engineer at the centre of attention with the then ForceIndiatechnical director looking to move to Sauber. The Englishman has enjoyed a successful first season with the Swiss squad and this could be a very strong race for Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez.

Last year Kobayashi enjoyed one of his strongest weekend’s with a top ten qualifying position and a strong race before crashing out. The team is in high spirits and eager to score points and move into sixth in the constructors’ championship, they are just one point behind ForceIndia.

Speaking about the challenges of Singapore Key commented:

“Following Spa-Francorchamps and Monza, which are unique circuits, we go to another unique track in Singapore. It’s a long and windy high downforce street circuit, which is typically quite bumpy. It needs good mechanical grip. Traction levels and braking stability are important as well. It’s a hard circuit for the brakes.”

“We’ll be running a high downforce configuration, and we will be working on the mechanical grip,” continued Key. “Pirelli will supply the soft and super soft tyres, the same as in Hungary, and we feel these are generally better tyres for us than what we have had at the last two events. We’ll be looking closely at the balance of the car and its ability to absorb the kerbs and the bumps. We tested some new engine maps in Monza for the first time, and we will develop these further in Singapore. Even with DRS, overtaking will be difficult on this track, so qualifying positions and strategy are going to be important.”

The DRS system could play a crucial role this weekend. While, as Key said, overtaking will still be difficult it is clear that the DRS has played a crucial role in assisting overtaking this year. If the Pirelli tyres struggle to deal with this street circuit, as they did at Monaco, there could be opportunities to find a way past the car in front. Martin Whitmarsh, team principal of McLaren, certainly believes that there is potential for an exciting race on Sunday:

“I think we’re set to continue the trend we’ve witnessed so far this season, with DRS enlivening races that hitherto would have been somewhat processional,” said Whitmarsh. “The addition of DRS means that we should expect some truly electrifying racing this weekend. The track is wide enough to support close and exciting wheel-to-wheel racing and I sincerely hope that’s what we see this weekend.”

Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres in 2011

As has been the case throughout the season thus far the race will swing on the performance of the Pirelli tyres. The Italian manufacturer has done a superb job of enlivening races with a high performance tyre that degrades quickly. This weekend’s race should, once again, provide a thrilling shootout where drivers are forced to think on their feet and adapt to the performance of the tyres as the ever changing nature of the track surface provides a unique challenge for drivers.

Pirelli will once more be the focus of much attention at Jerez

Paul Hembery was keen to comment on how Pirelli will impact proceedings over the course of the weekend:

“Singapore is a race that adds a unique and truly spectacular new dimension to the Formula One calendar,” said the Pirelli motorsport director. “Because it is such a specific event, this makes it quite hard for teams to arrive at the best set-up and you often see some quite different solutions. Our tyres have to work equally effectively within a wide range of parameters, and this is one of the biggest challenges for us over the course of the year. A lot is made of the heat in Singapore, but what people tend to feel is actually the humidity, which means that our tyres should be comfortably within their working range when it comes to ambient and track temperature. The tyres will be working as hard as the drivers this weekend: many of the drivers say that this street circuit is even more demanding than Monaco.

“As we’ve seen in the past, particularly in Canada, the combination of soft and supersoft tyres provides plenty of opportunities for the teams to put in place some interesting strategies, with the supersoft in particular expected to provide an appreciable performance advantage. The free practice sessions in Singapore will be crucial, as the teams assess the effect of each of our tyres on their set-ups and overall speed.”

Weather for this weekend

High temperatures, and high humidity, are expected throughout the weekend with scattered thunder storms also forecast. There has not been a wet Singapore Grand Prix since it came onto the calendar but with Pirelli having tested in the wet weather under the Abu Dhabi lights there is little to fear in relation to how the lights and track surface would make it difficult for drivers to see the track, as was the case for MotoGP rider in Qatar last year.

The challenge of heat and humidity will surely be the biggest test for drivers throughout the weekend but an untimely shower in qualifying or the race could provide a dramatic challenge for drivers!

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