A point-less weekend in Italy saw Sebastian Vettel slump to fourth in the championship but he’s started the Singapore weekend in the best way possible, topping the times in both of Friday’s practice sessions. Red Bull look likely to be in the thick of the battle for pole position on Saturday night.
Why it’s closer than it looks
One phrase that comes up a lot at Singapore is ‘track evolution’. Simply put, this refers to how the track surface changes over time. As more cars pass over the track it becomes cleaner and rubber builds up on the racing line. As a result, the tyres grip the road better and everyone’s lap times improve.
The effect is especially pronounced at street circuits like Singapore because the roads that make up the course are seldom used for racing. So at the beginning of the weekend the track is very ‘green’ – in racing parlance – and its condition improves quickly once the cars start lapping.
Why is this important? Because it reveals to us that the battle for pole position at Singapore is even closer than it looks at first glance. Vettel headed the Friday times with a best lap of 1’48.340, followed by Jenson Button, who was three-tenths of a second slower. Next were Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton.
But Hamilton was the first of those to set his quickest lap, meaning he did so when the track conditions were least favourable. Webber was next, then Alonso and so on. So in fact these five drivers, who are separated by three-quarters of a second on the times sheet, may be much closer together on real performance than it seems. That is certainly true of Hamilton, who made a mistake at the end of his best lap, costing him several tenths of a second.
The battle for pole position looks set to be between the two Red Bulls, the two McLarens and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. Vettel and Hamilton have the shortest odds at the moment, partly because the pair have more poles this year than the rest (three and four respectively). Hamilton is at 2.30, Vettel 3.00.
But keep an eye on Alonso as well – as mentioned in this column on Wednesday he is very rapid around Singapore and his odds on taking pole position have drifted slightly to 9.00. As is Button, who last took pole position just two races ago in Belgium.
Force India appear best of the rest
The likes of Williams and Sauber have fluctuated in form throughout the season. These midfield regulars have occasionally made forays onto the podium and even, in the case of Pastor Maldonado in Spain, won a race.
In contrast, Force India have been consistently gathering points. Their car may not always as be quick as their rivals’ but they have two highly-rated drivers who are clearly getting the most out of it.
On Friday, Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg were best of the rest behind the top teams, impressively out-pacing the likes of Mercedes and Lotus. This could be their opportunity to shine. Di Resta had an excellent race at this track last year taking sixth place, which remains his best result to date.
It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on the pair to spring a surprise in the race. Both look like solid contenders to reach the top ten in qualifying based on the pace they showed today.
Keith Collantine is the editor of Formula One blog F1 Fanatic.