Double world champion gives Singapore’s Marina Bay a christening to remember after winning dramatic inaugural night race;
Ferrari incompetence in the pits puts Hamilton in pole position for the title.
He said he needed a miracle. And on lap 15 it came, his team-mate ironically the bearer.
When Nelson Piquet threw his Renault into the wall, bringing out the safety car, any chance of a straight forward outcome to the inaugural Singapore race was lost as the Marina Bay circuit opened its gates to a flood of spectacle and drama.
Prior to Piquet’s collision it was a distinctly less complex picture that had begun to emerge under the night lights. Felipe Massa led Lewis Hamilton and the rest of the field through the first corner without major incident – a knock between Heikki Kovalainen and Robert Kubica excluded – and had begun to build up a sizable cushion over his championship protagonist.
By Lap 12 Hamilton was beginning to struggle to keep the Brazilian in sight and had the added concern of Kimi Raikkonen steaming up onto his gearbox.
“I started well, but then my rear tyres faded and, although we had good pace, I wasn t in a position to challenge Felipe ahead of me,” explained Hamilton.
Alonso, who qualified fifteenth after being hit with a fuel problem in qualifying, was on a short first stint and pitted for fuel early on Lap 13. That dropped him to the rear of the field and appeared to mark the end of his race.
Then all hell broke loose under the night sky. The Piquet-induced safety car bunched up the field right in the middle of the pit-stop window. Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica were among those to get caught out and were forced to stop for fuel while the pitlane was closed, later taking their respective ten second penalties.
The rest of the field waited patiently behind the safety car and Massa led the charge into the pitlane the moment it re-opened leaving Rosberg (yet to take his drive-through penalty) leading the one-stoppers of Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fissichella, and the short-stinting Fernando Alonso. The Red Bull cars of Mark Webber and David Coulthard were also in the mix behind Alonso having also stopped early in the race.
That was the moment that it all begun to unravel for poor old Felipe Massa. Ferrari’s controversial semi-automatic pit-release signal gave the Brazilian the green light to leave the pitlane before the refuelling hose had been detached. The Ferrari driver carried the hose down the pitlane, much to the delight of the McLaren mechanics, before stopping and waiting for it to be de-attached.
“When he came in, we had a problem with the fuel rig, we had a problem with our refuelling system,” Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley explained to German broadcaster Premiere. “He saw the green light and he correctly left the pit box, but it shouldn’t have been a green light, so it was a failure of the team and not of him.”
“And, for that, he had to stop at the end of the pit lane, and then we sent the guys up an they pulled the fuel nozzle out and then he got a drive-through penalty and then he got a puncture. So, what could go wrong, did go wrong.”
“Unfortunately, it’s just one of them things, everything always happens at the worst possible time, that’s why you’ve just got to be 100 percent waterproof with all your reliability and today we weren’t. Today we were useless.”
The incident was almost identical to Ferrari’s pit-lane faux-pas in Valencia, only this time the stewards were less sympathetic and docked Massa with a drive through penalty on the grounds of “unsafe” release. Game over. The Brazilian was dropped to the rear of the field. A spin at Turn 18 with ten laps to go sealed his fate.
The debacle also dashed Raikkonen’s Singaporean hopes. The Finn had been forced to queue behind Massa in the pits and bore the brunt of Ferrari’s bungle as much as the Brazilian himself. Unlike Massa though, Raikkonen recovered to fifth and was sitting pretty when the safety car re-remerged in the closing stages. That was until he dropped his Ferrari into the wall with only four laps remaining.
Zero points for Ferrari and advantage McLaren in the constructors’ championship for the first time this season.
Lewis Hamilton emerged from his pit-stop behind the trail of one-stoppers and short-stinters, three places behind Alonso in the provisional lead, but behind a much slower David Coulthard.
“During my first pit stop I lost a bit of time because everybody came in due to the Safety Car period,” said the McLaren driver. “After that I was unfortunately stuck behind David and although I was clearly faster it was really difficult to overtake him.”
The McLaren driver, sensing the opportunity presented by Massa’s demise, made little impression on the Red Bull car and it wasn’t until Lap 41 that he leapfrogged Coulthard, by which point Alonso and second place man Nico Rosberg were out of reach.
The final safety car period provided Hamilton with a chance to pass Rosberg for extra points, but by then the Briton appeared happy to just bring his car home in the points; he settled for third.
“After the second re-start, I tried to stay as close as possible behind Nico; however, I didn’t want to take chances – particularly as the Ferraris were outside the points. Also, this is not a track where overtaking is easy.”
Toyota’s Timo Glock managed to claw his way up to fourth having pushed hard after his first stop to leap frog his one-stopping team mate Jarno Trulli and the Red Bull duo. Sebastian Vettel finished fifth ahead of Nick Heidfeld, David Coulthard and Kazuki Nakajima.
But the day undoubtedly belonged to Fernando Alonso. The double world champion had showed impressive pace throughout the weekend, and in a strange quirk of fate it was his qualifying misfortune that enabled to triumph by virtue of a strategy selection based on his fifteenth place grid slot. The win is Alonso’s twentieth and the first in over a year.
“Fantastic! First podium of the season and the first victory,” enthused Alonso after the race. “I’m extremely happy, I can’t believe it.”
“I think I need a couple of races to realise that we won a race; it seems impossible. Here we’ve been competitive; we had bad luck in qualifying, but great luck in the race. The safety car helped me a lot and I was able to win the race.”
“We chose to do a very short first stint, recognising that in fifteenth place you can’t overtake.”
“So we tried something very different: very short first sting and try to make as many positions at the start, and we would see from there. It was very lucky. The pace was there all through the race and we were always able to pull out a gap to the cars behind us.”