The beat goes on….F1 heads to Singapore

The Singapore Grand Prix has quickly established itself as a favourite amongst the F1 paddock with many drivers calling it the race they look forward to most.

Racing during the night offered plenty of challenges to the teams in the inaugural race in the city state but since then their practices have been honed and adapting to the challenges has been perfected. Even so the prospect of racing under the lights is still one that offers fans a tremendous prospect to see how a Formula 1 car works.

The flames spitting from exhausts are visible, the sparks shower from the underbody of the car as it bounces from one bump to another and the challenging street layout offers drivers little margin for error.

The Marina Bay Circuit

Singapore may be the smallest country in South East Asia but its organisers had big ideas when they were confirmed as a host to Formula 1 five years ago. The first race, in 2008, was to be a historic occasion for Formula 1 with Marina Bay hosting the first night race in the history of the sport and since then the race has been a key feature of the F1 season.

The Singapore circuit echoes more towards the Indy Car style street circuits rather than the challenges of Monaco but its unique characteristics offer a tremendous challenge for drivers.

Reigning champion, Sebastian Vettel, has struggled for consistency at times in 2012 with the dominant Red Bull of recent years now being relegated to merely a front running car. The German however has always been strong in Singapore and a repeat of last year’s is crucial for him championship hopes.

Even during his Toro Rosso tenure Vettel has had strong races in Singapore and the double world champion clearly enjoys driving at Marina Bay:

“Singapore is one of the highlights on the calendar, because the atmosphere of a night race is amazing,” said Vettel. “I also like it because the track is really great to race on – which is partly to do with the fact that we race anticlockwise there. Singapore is a fascinating city to visit and everything seems to be extremely clean and tidy. We all stay on European time for the weekend and because the race doesn’t start until 8pm, most of the drivers tend to get up around 2pm – it’s pretty unusual.”

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 laid down.

Strategy and fortune will play a key role

This weekend’s race in Singapore promises to be one of the most difficult of the season from a strategic perspective. The simple reason for this is that team’s have to think on their feet.

At every race on the calendar teams have a clearly thought strategy that they know will put them in the best position to win the race. Team strategists look to play the same role of a card shark. They count the cards by studying the form throughout the weekend and take into account past patterns….at Singapore however the deck of cards is stacked against them.

The City State legalised gambling only within the last three years and have moved to be the world’s second largest gaming hotspot in the world. The house always wins on the blackjack tables, the roulette wheel and on the slot machines but no deck is more loaded than the Singapore Grand Prix.

The Marina Bay Circuit offers a combination of challenges to teams with the track surface gradually cleaned throughout the weekend offering vastly different characteristics at the start of the weekend to the end of the race.

The nature of the track layout also offers challenges to teams and drivers with the rear tyres receiving the brunt of wear due to the constant accelerating and braking throughout the lap. As a result it is very easy to overheat the rear tyres while conversely with all corners seeing relatively low apex speeds it is quite difficult for drivers to “load” the front tyres and generate sufficient heat to get the front tyres into their optimum operating window.

With the Singapore Grand Prix set to last for just under two hours, the longest race of the year, drivers set off from the grid with the heaviest car they will use all year; approximately 170kg. This places a tremendous strain on the tyres and with the nature of the track already causing extreme wear on the rear tyres it is clear that the opening stint of this Grand Prix could be exceptionally short as drivers are forced to deal with a severe lack of rear grip.

Last year Sebastian Vettel stopped three times en route to his victory. The German enjoyed the advantages of a dominant car last year but with Formula 1 incredibly competitive this year the chances of one driver enjoying a significant advantage are lessoned.

With Pirelli bringing their softest two compounds of tyres to this weekend’s race the difficultly facing the drivers is quite high. The heavy fuel, close field and challenging tyres will make it very easy to push too hard too soon and suffer excessive tyre wear. These factors will give the cars that are gentle on their rear tyres a significant advantage.

Teams such as Sauber, who have shown a great turn of speed at late, be able to take advantage of making one stop less than their opposition and also give themselves an additional strategic fillip will limit the potential of a safety car hampering their pace in the race.

The possibility of the safety car being deployed is quite high in Singapore with each of the previous races having seen accidents cause the deployment. As a result teams will do their utmost to ensure that they are in a position to make a “free” pitstop under a neutral track. This plays into the hands of the likes of Sauber and Toro Rosso who will do their utmost to make just a single pitstop as they try to move through the order from rows five, six of seven on the gird.

One of the most surprising elements of races in Singapore has been that once a car gets falls into the midfield it is all but impossible for them to get back to the front of the field, regardless of the speed of their car.

This was illustrated perfectly by Felipe Massa in 2008. The Ferrari driver set the pace throughout the weekend and he came into the pits for a scheduled stop in the lead but after a disastrous stop that saw him leave the pits with the fuel hose still connected the Brazilian found himself in the midfield and unable to finish better than eighth.

Due to this difficultly, and the 24s pit time, teams will do their best to limit the amount of time spent in pitlane and will do their best to be as flexible in case the safety car is deployed.

Balance the key for Singapore setups

 Qualifying is key in Singapore. In the previous five races only Felipe Massa was unable to convert his pole position into a win. The Brazilian dominated the 2008 weekend until his first pitstop when the fuel nozzle jammed in to his car and the championship contender dragged it down the pitlane.

The incident cost him dearly and he spent the rest of race mired in the midfield. In dirty air he was unable to take advantage of his speed advantage and with the layout of the track not favouring overtaking it was to be race that played a key role in how Massa lost on the world title by the slimmest of margins to Lewis Hamilton.

Sauber’s head of track engineering, Giampauli Dall’Ara discussed the difficulty facing teams in finding the perfect setup for qualifying so that they can avoid the midfield fight:

“Singapore is a street circuit with lots of corners and short straights,” said the Italian. “Therefore overtaking is difficult, which makes qualifying particularly important. Good traction is crucial on this stop-and-go track with mainly low speed and just a couple of medium speed corners.

“In some places the surface is very bumpy – something to bear in mind when setting up the car. You have to keep an eye on the brakes, because they have very little time to cool down between corners. The track surface is not very rough. Pirelli will allocate the supersoft and the soft compounds, which should work well in qualifying, but I don’t expect any chance of a one-stop strategy in the race.”

Mark Gillan, Williams’ head of trackside engineering, made a point of talking about the difficulties that the track places on the car throughout the race:

“It’s a long and physically demanding race for both driver and car,” said Gillan. “The circuit is extremely severe on brakes and due to the hot ambient temperatures we will be required to open the bodywork for engine cooling. Aero wise we run near the maximum down-force level and from a set-up perspective you have to be mindful of the harsh kerbs. Finally the weather is difficult to track in Singapore and heavy rain is always a possibility.”

Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres

Pirelli will take their super-soft and soft compound tyres to this weekend’s race and they will, once again, challenge the field to find the best balance between speed and tyre wear.

The Italian company’s motorsport boss, Paul Hembery, knows the challenge facing his customers this weekend but the Englishman clearly is looking forward to another exciting race:

“Personally speaking I love the Singapore Grand Prix: it makes for an amazing spectacle at night with a great atmosphere and a fantastic challenge for our tyres,” commented Hembery in the leadup to the Grand Prix.

“Due to the unusual circumstances in which the race is run, under more than a thousand spotlights, the teams and drivers have to think very hard about strategy – as track conditions and evolution are somewhat different than you would find in a normal daytime race.

“One factor that could certainly come into play is safety cars: during every single Singapore Grand Prix that has been held so far since 2008 the safety car has come out at some point. This means that strategies have to be flexible as well as effective in order to quickly take advantage of any potential neutralisation. While the humidity is constantly high, it hasn’t yet rained in any Singapore Grand Prix so this should be the same again this year and we are likely to see the ultimate performance offered by the two softest slick compounds in our Formula 1 range.

“Last year’s race was won with a three-stop strategy by Sebastian Vettel, but Lewis Hamilton finished fifth after stopping four times and taking a drive-through penalty as well. As average speeds are not very high, degradation should not be an issue if wheelspin is controlled out of the slower corners, which can lead to overheating.”

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