Sebastian Vettel so dominant at Singapore, strategy didn’t matter

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The Singapore Grand Prix may well have been something of a foregone conclusion in terms of the eventual winner, but it proved to be a fascinating battle of strategy and decision making in Sebastian Vettel’s wake.

The ominous truth is that the RB9, in the hands of the current World Champion, was simply on another level all weekend at the Marina Bay Circuit. Such was his utter dominance, not only was he able to sit out the majority of qualifying 3 on Saturday, having set his pole position time early on his first run, but he controlled the race from turn two to the checkered flag.

In a race that was dominated by strategic decisions, that for most teams, meant the difference between success and failure, for Sebastian Vettel his race strategy was largely irrelevant. The car had so much raw pace, pace that he was able to turn on and off at will, that he could react to situations by just pulling out the required gap to the chasing pack whenever the team asked him to.

Any race strategy has to be flexible enough around the tight and twisty streets of Singapore to accommodate the, almost inevitable, safety car period.

Simulations after qualifying predicted a three stop race being quicker than a two, but with the compromise being the difficulty in dealing with a safety car spell that history suggested would almost certainly arrive at some stage.

If we take the top three cars and look at their races, Vettel was in a class of his own and won the race because he had such an incredible pace advantage over his rivals. The safety car, when it came, wasn’t at an ideal stage for Red Bull, and they chose not to pit, along with the three cars behind him. The difference between our winner and the others in the same situation, was that he was able to immediately extend his lead after the safety car spell to over 30 seconds, comfortably enough to pit for new tires and yet still come out in front. Those in second, third and fourth, not so blessed with his speed, but still to pit, found themselves exiting pitlane around the ninth and tenth positions and in traffic that would ultimately prevent them from challenging for podiums come the end.

The second and third podium spots went to two drivers who managed to use strategy to outwit the likes of Webber and the two Mercedes’.

With Mercedes knowing it was unlikely they could pit under the safety car and make it to the end of the long race on the same set of tires, they were forced to stay out and hold on for their second stop. Their car is notoriously poor at looking after rear tires and on a circuit limited by rear thermal degradation, they suffered this track’s big pitlane loss time for a second pitstop, that the likes of Raikkonen and Alonso, stopping under safety car conditions, didn’t.

The gamble for Raikkonen and Alonso was one worth taking. Both cars are traditionally light on their rear tyres and both drivers experienced and skilled enough to know what it takes to make it to the end. With both guys starting the race a long way behind the championship leader, they had to try something different and today it paid off. No one had tried a stint length of that magnitude on the prime tires throughout the weekend, but both former World Champions did enough to get to the end, although Alonso’s car in particular looked to be very close to the limit with its rear tires in parc ferme.

Certain circumstances played into the hands of the lead three today, like the McLarens of Button and Perez struggling to follow a similar strategy to Raikkonen and Alonso and holding up the faster cars of Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton to prevent a late challenge for the podium. But certain key decisions made the difference.

Lotus, starting 13th on the grid with Kimi, were the first to pit for new options on lap ten and in doing so, managed blistering in and out laps to jump Perez and Di Resta early on. That track position allowed steady progress through the field as the middle group pitted and got up to speed.

Alonso, when initially looking at three stops, was held up by Di Resta for 6 laps after his first pitstop lasted 3.4 seconds and brought him out fractionally behind the Scot. A sub 3 second stop would have got him out in front and allowed him to attack the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, in front at the time. In the end it became irrelevant.

Mercedes may rue the decision not to pit under the safety car. The traffic curtailed behind the ailing McLarens at the end might have given them a safety cushion to eek out the long last stint and perhaps challenge Raikkonen’s Lotus for the final podium spot?

These strategic decisions aren’t the kind of thing that teams spend Saturday nights deliberating over, they’re not the decisions made by computers based on endless data and permutations, they’re the decisions, often of the driver or the folk sat on the pitwall, made in the spur of the moment and in the heat of battle. These reactive decisions can be the difference between success and failure and are where experience and instinct can count over and above expensive and complicated simulators and software.

Whilst Sebastian Vettel won today’s race impeccably, but with a far superior car, the two guys joining him on the rostrum were there through great starts, tactics and superior tire management, proving that Formula One’s as much about decision making as it is outright speed.

Penske: No room for Patrick in Indy 500 lineup. Ganassi? OK

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Roger Penske has no room in his Indianapolis 500 lineup for Danica Patrick.

“The Captain” has a hunch where Patrick’s Indy comeback will take her in May – with Chip Ganassi.

“I sent him a note and said, `Congratulations. Danica better be driving your car at Indy because unfortunately she’s not driving for us,”‘ Penske said, laughing.

The 35-year-old Patrick said this week she will race only in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 next year and then she will walk away from racing. Patrick is the only woman to have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Patrick ran the Indy 500 from 2005 through 2011. Her highest finish was third in 2009, and she was the first woman to lead laps in the race when she paced the field for 19 trips around the Brickyard as a rookie.

Penske has a full field for Indy with Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and 2017 series champion Josef Newgarden racing as fulltime entries and three-time winner Helio Castroneves returns on a one-shot deal to try and win a fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing is the likely ride at Indy. Ganassi has room to field additional cars – he’s scaling down from four full-time cars to two next year – and would give Patrick a car capable of winning. Ganassi said Friday he has met with Patrick and called her “Danica Double” a great idea.

Penske said Patrick and Ganassi, who has Ed Jones and IndyCar great Scott Dixon in his lineup, would be a perfect pair.

“I think that’s a great seat for her,” Penske said Saturday. “That’s a great team. They’re the ones that’s always been competitive there. I take my hat off that she wants to continue to go back to open wheel. That’s going to be terrific for the sport and there’s going to be a lot of interest around the country.”

Patrick was highly marketable early in her career even though wins were rare. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013, but finished 24th in the standings the last two seasons. She won her only IndyCar race in 2008, in Japan. Patrick never scored a top-five finish in NASCAR and had only seven top 10s (though she led laps at the Daytona 500) in 189 career starts.

Penske, a 16-time winner as a car owner of the Indy 500, said Patrick would return to IndyCar a better driver.

“I think she’s going to come back to IndyCar a lot tougher having run in NASCAR,” he said. “I think she’s going to be someone that, in a good car, is going to pick it up. She’s got plenty of time to practice.”

Team Penske won the owner championship Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. Sam Hornish Jr., who won three IndyCar titles and the 2006 Indy 500, said the sport would welcome back Patrick.

“She’s probably going to have a better shot at Indy because of what she’s done the last five years,” Hornish said.

Patrick has not revealed the team she’ll race for but surely a package deal with the same team and same sponsor for the biggest races in motorsports would make her again racing’s most marketable driver.

“I think it’s a great way for her to say, hey, I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m going to go back to the two biggest races and see if I can’t get out on top,” Penske said.

Penske can win a NASCAR championship with Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup race.

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