Mercedes faces genuine challenge at Singapore GP

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SINGAPORE (AP) For every grand prix this season, the only question before the race has been which of the two Mercedes drivers would win.

At this weekend’s Singapore GP, there is a refreshing prospect of a genuine challenge in the night race to the Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg duopoly.

Having won all but one race this season – the Spanish GP where the two rivals collided on the first lap – Mercedes will start favorites again this weekend, but not by much.

The tight, twisty and bumpy nature of the Marina Bay street circuit largely cancels out Mercedes’ speed advantage over chief rivals Red Bull and Ferrari, and recent history indicates those F1 rivals should thrive this weekend.

On the similar Monaco circuit earlier this year, Red Bull had Mercedes’ measure and probably would have won if not for its pit-stop farce. Daniel Ricciardo came in for fresh tires before the pit crew was in position, so he had to drive back out and come in again next time around.

And last year’s Singapore race proved a difficult one for Mercedes in qualifying on the third row of the grid and unable to mount any challenge. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel took a comfortable victory.

Ricciardo was bullish about Red Bull’s prospects this weekend, given the strong parallels with Monaco.

“We look at it as a good chance to get the victory I’ve been after this season,” Ricciardo said Thursday. “I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself or them (the team) for this weekend but deep down, we want to win. We are a group of winners, so if there is pressure on us to get it done this weekend, we will thrive on that.”

His young teammate Max Verstappen, who took the only non-Mercedes victory this year in Spain, was cautiously optimistic, saying Friday’s practice sessions will shed more light on whether Mercedes is vulnerable.

“We know we have a very good chance to score some good points here,” Verstappen said. “It’s difficult for me to say now that we will be the No. 1 team this weekend, because we haven’t had a chance to race here yet.”

For Ferrari, this race represents the best victory chance of the season. Fail to win here, and the Italian team will be staring at the very real prospect of another winless season to match 2014.

“I’m full of optimism, it should be a good place for us,” said Vettel, who has been the most successful driver in Singapore, winning half of the previous eight editions. “This track was very good for us last year and we have improved the car since then, so it could be a reasonable track for us again.

“Mercedes had an off year last year but you can’t guarantee that will happen again.”

Mercedes has closely investigated what went wrong here, and it would be a surprise if it was as far off the pace in 2016 as it was in 2015.

“Last year we were blown away by the fact that we somehow got it wrong,” Hamilton said to the local press. “But a lot of work went into understanding that.

“I definitely think we’re not going to have as many problems as we had last year. But if we do, we’ve got the tools to correct it.”

Hamilton’s lead over Rosberg in the drivers’ championship has been cut to two points after back-to-back victories by the German at the Belgian and Italian races. Rosberg has never won in Singapore, and his best race performance dates back to 2008 when he finished second for Williams.