BY SINGAPORE GP
IN SPORT, confidence is everything – and the man who’s full of that commodity ahead of the Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix is Mercedes-Benz’s two-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.
“I’m riding high right now,” says the 30-year-old Englishman. Hamilton’s victory here last year was his second in Singapore and he comes with a 53-point lead over team-mate Nico Rosberg.
But he has two records in his sights that belong to one of the drivers he idolised as a young man. Hamilton is gunning for his eighth straight pole position. The last driver to achieve that feat was Ayrton Senna, the late, great Brazilian who took pole in the last three races of 1988 and the first five of 1989. If Hamilton can equal that mark, his second target this weekend will become easier to hit.
That’s the race win – and five of the seven races in Singapore so far have been won from pole. Two of those went to Hamilton.
A third Singapore victory would be Hamilton’s 41st in F1 – the same number as Senna achieved in his 161-race career. And to highlight the coincidence, this weekend’s will be Hamilton’s … 161st F1 race.
But wait. There’s more bad news for the other 19 drivers in this weekend’s field. For most of them, this race represents the most gruelling challenge of the year: high heat and humidity, 23 corners, 61 laps and the longest race on the calendar. And Hamilton loves it.
“This race is always a highlight of the season,” he says, “a great city which looks really spectacular under the lights with the tricky street circuit below – my favourite kind of track to drive.”
Rosberg, of course, insists he is ready to accept the challenge. “I approach the final seven races with the attitude that there’s nothing to lose,” says the 30-year-old German who has three race wins under his belt this year. “It’s maximum attack and I won’t be giving up the fight, no way. Singapore is one of my favourite races, so that’s a good place to start.”
Winless in four races, Rosberg has to put two nightmares behind him: last year’s Singapore race, where he was hobbled from the start by a glitch with his steering-wheel, and more recently Monza two weeks ago, when he was fighting back from a poor start when a puncture stopped his charge just before the finish.
One other point to remember: Rosberg has been on the Singapore podium just once, and that was in the inaugural night race here in 2008. So who else might we expect to take the fight to Mercedes-Benz and Hamilton?
Sebastian Vettel has won three times in the Lion City, all for Red Bull Renault, and twice this season for his new team Ferrari. He has also been on pole here twice. Might Seb just be the man?
It surely won’t be the only other driver to have won here. That’s former Ferrari ace Fernando Alonso, now with McLaren Honda – and now struggling near the back of the grid. But Singapore may just be the kind of circuit – lots of slow corners, not so many long straights – that could disguise the power deficiencies in the 34-year-old Spaniard’s current equipment.
“I’ve won twice in Singapore and I love racing there, so with my engineers we’ll be focussing on setting up the car as best we can for this circuit as soon as we arrive,” says Alonso, who has amassed just 11 points to lie 15th overall this season.
“It’ll be interesting to see how our car responds to the high-downforce setup there and I hope we can have a more positive weekend,” Alonso adds. “Singapore is an incredible place for a race. It’s really unique in every way, and as a driver it’s a privilege to be part of such an amazing night show.”
Could Williams be the ones to watch? They come with significant updates to their Mercedes-powered car, although they may not be enough to make driver Valtteri Bottas entirely happy.
Bottas has re-signed with Williams for 2016. Although he’s currently sixth overall, his best result this season is third place in Canada, and Ferrari have edged ahead in the race to be second-best to Mercedes.
“We’re not where we’d like to be,” the 26-year-old Finn told the first official press conference of the weekend at Marina Bay on Thursday. “Downforce and power – that’s what keeps you going forward,” he insisted as he looked forward to 2016. “We definitely can be stronger.”
So far his career hasn’t included much success on street circuits. “We’re going to fix that this weekend,” Bottas insisted. And he has a big incentive to do well: Singapore marks Valtteri’s 50th Grand Prix start.
Also hoping to consolidate some recent success is Force India’s Sergio Perez, whose fifth and sixth places in the last two races have helped the team to be 13 points ahead of Lotus in fifth place overall – and they have never finished that far up the constructors’ standings in their seven previous seasons.
“We’re fifth already,” said the 25-year-old Mexican, “but 13 points is nothing, it can change from one weekend to the next. It’s a close fight with Lotus, and next ahead of us is Red Bull. They may be 50 points in front but if they have two bad weekends it’s possible for us to go even higher.”
Of the four other drivers in the opening press conference, Mercedes-powered Romain Grosjean might be the best-equipped to do well in Singapore. While his Lotus team is fighting for F1 survival, Grosjean, currently ninth in the standings, is serene: “I am clear in my own mind about where I am going,” he said, “but if you don’t mind I won’t say any more.”
Not quite so serene is Spain’s Roberto Merhi, who arrived in Singapore at the start of the week to be told by Manor that his services were not required – he will be replaced for the next five races by American Alexander Rossi, who is second in the 2015 GP2 standings.
“The team gave me a great chance,” the 24-year-old said magnanimously. “Now they’ve taken a driver that is better for the team in the long term. For next season, we don’t know yet. I am looking for a Formula 1 seat and will try to find the best option but it’s hard to find the budget.”