Nico Rosberg moved back into the lead of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship for the first time since the middle of July by taking a hard-fought victory in Sunday’s Singapore Grand Prix, his eighth of the 2016 season.
Rosberg appeared to have the race sewn up after the leading drivers came in for their second pit stops, the idea being his rivals would go to the end of the race on the soft tire.
However, when Mercedes opted to bring Lewis Hamilton in for a third stop late on, it set off a chain reaction that allowed Ricciardo to go on a late charge, catching Rosberg at multiple seconds each lap on fresher, quicker tires.
Late traffic stunted Ricciardo’s charge, though, leaving him just a second shy at the flag as Rosberg clinched his first Singapore win.
The start saw Rosberg make a perfect getaway from pole, retaining his lead ahead of Ricciardo and Hamilton. Max Verstappen dropped back after a tardy start, but was fortunate to continue after Nico Hulkenberg smashed into the wall on the main straight after contact with Carlos Sainz Jr. The incident sparked an immediate safety car period as the debris was cleared.
Swift work from the marshals ensued the race could resume on lap three, with Rosberg immediately opening up a lead over the chasing pack. Despite being warned about his brake management by Mercedes, Rosberg was able to pull out a seven-second lead over Ricciardo in second through the first stint of the race.
Ricciardo was the first of the leading drivers to pit, coming in at the end of lap 15. Hamilton followed him into the pits line astern, with the two drivers opting for different strategies. While Red Bull handed Ricciardo another set of super-softs, Hamilton took on soft tires, allowing him to go for a longer second stint. Hamilton was less than impressed, though, telling his team: “I needed a strategy that could get me past!”
Rosberg followed suit one lap later, retaining his advantage over Ricciardo despite Mercedes’ pit crew costing him a couple of seconds while attaching his front-right tire. Now on the soft tire, Rosberg knew that Ricciardo would have the pace advantage through the next stint of the race.
Ricciardo put his super-soft tires to good use, eating into Rosberg’s lead while opening up a gap of over 10 seconds to Hamilton behind. The Briton now found himself falling into the clutches of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who moved to within a second on the super-soft tire.
Another battle raging on through the second stint of the race was between Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen, the pair who swapped seats earlier in the year. Kvyat refused to let Verstappen past, forcing the Dutchman wide on a number of occasions with some hard but fair moves. Verstappen was left frustrated and eventually came in for a set of super-softs without having passed Kvyat, the Russian scoring a moral victory in their scrap.
Ricciardo managed to whittle the gap to Rosberg down to less than four seconds, but his super-soft tires began to wear as the race passed half-distance, allowing the leader to pull away again. Red Bull opted to cut its losses and bring Ricciardo in at the end of lap 32 before the gap grew too big, fitting him with soft tires that would take him to the end of the race.
Mercedes reacted immediately to Red Bull’s move, bringing Rosberg in one lap later to also take a set of soft tires. Further back, Hamilton’s difficult weekend continued as he locked up and allowed Raikkonen to move up into third place. The pair pitted within a lap of each other, Raikkonen retaining his advantage heading into the final stint.
With the threat of Red Bull’s tire strategy options now seen off, Rosberg found himself five seconds clear of Ricciardo up front with just over a third of the race to complete, knowing that so long as he kept his cool, a maiden Singapore victory was his to take.
Things soon became a little less predictable though. Keen to become the first team to take a one-two finish in Singapore, Mercedes rolled the dice in a bid to get Hamilton up the order. The three-time world champion was told he had been moved onto ‘Plan B’ and to push hard, catching Raikkonen quickly, before diving in to the pits with 16 laps to go for a set of super-soft tires.
The move piled pressure on Ferrari, who decided very late on to mirror Hamilton’s move and bring Raikkonen in one lap later. A rapid out-lap from Hamilton meant Raikkonen emerged from the pits staring at the Mercedes’ diffuser – the undercut had worked perfectly for Mercedes.
Inspired by Hamilton’s move, Red Bull opted to bring Ricciardo in one lap later for super-soft tires and make life difficult for Rosberg at the front. Mercedes gave Rosberg the hurry-up, only to keep him out and not mirror the rest of the field, believing his 25-second lead to be enough to get to the end of the race.
Ricciardo quickly began to ramp up the pressure on Rosberg, running almost three seconds per lap quicker heading into the closing stages, setting up a nail-biting finish.
Ricciardo managed to close to within five seconds of Rosberg entering the final few laps, only for traffic to get in his way and give Rosberg some breathing space once again.
The pair crossed the line separated by less than half a second, but it was Rosberg who finished ahead to record his third straight victory and re-take the lead of the drivers’ championship.
Hamilton rounded out the podium in P3, fending off Raikkonen in the fight to the line, but now trails his Mercedes teammate by eight points in the drivers’ championship.
Sebastian Vettel perfected his strategy to charge from 22nd on the grid to fifth at the flag, while Max Verstappen ended up sixth for Red Bull.
Fernando Alonso was McLaren’s sole point-scorer in P7, finishing ahead of Sergio Perez who failed to make an aggressive two-stop strategy work.
Daniil Kvyat and Kevin Magnussen both ended their barren runs of form to finish ninth and 10th respectively. For Kvyat, P9 marked his best finish since he hit the podium in China, while Magnussen’s point was Renault’s first since Russia.
Esteban Gutierrez finished 11th once again for Haas ahead of the Brazilian pair of Felipe Massa and Felipe Nasr. Carlos Sainz Jr.’s race was ruined early on by a barge board issue, leaving him to finish 14th ahead of Jolyon Palmer. Pascal Wehrlein was 16th for Manor ahead of Marcus Ericsson and teammate Esteban Ocon.
Valtteri Bottas was forced to retire from the race early after an issue with his seatbelt and a minor engine problem, while Jenson Button also parked up in the McLaren garage with 18 laps remaining.
Romain Grosjean’s miserable weekend ended early after a brake problem on his Haas VF-16 car prevented him from starting the race.