Formula 1 had waited 10 years for its first wet night race, and boy, did Sunday’s Singapore Grand Prix live up to the hype.
A short, sharp rain shower in the lead-up to lights out at Marina Bay drenched the track, perfectly saddling the gap between intermediate and extreme wet tires being required.
All of the front-runners opted for intermediates, including pole-man Sebastian Vettel, who entered the race as the overwhelming favorite for victory.
And then the F1 title race took a huge, huge twist.
The pictures have been shared far and wide. We’ve all seen them. The video clip has even been set to Titanic music. But the blame is still hard to pin down.
Vettel made the slowest start of the three drivers involved, sitting on the outside line on the run to Turn 1. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was able to make a slightly better getaway to start pulling alongside, but it was the fastest of the three, Kimi Raikkonen, that was the driver Vettel missed.
Moving across to try and defend from Verstappen, Vettel inadvertently pinched the Red Bull driver between himself and his teammate. Raikkonen had nowhere to go and was too committed to pull out, leaving the Finn to be turned into a spin by Verstappen and into the path of Vettel ahead.
Raikkonen and Verstappen’s cars were sidelined immediately, while Vettel spun on the run to Turn 4 due to the damage sustained.
Lap 1, three DNFs. Game over.
And, in the title race, it might well be the incident that makes it game over for Vettel as well.
Luck is always a factor in the race for the championship. Lewis Hamilton learned that the hard way in 2016, with his cruel DNF in Malaysia arguably denying him a fourth world title. But things swung back his way on Sunday as he dodged the start-line chaos to take a third straight win, something he thought unlikely after being off the pace in the dry and qualifying down in fifth.
This was meant to be Ferrari’s weekend. The margins with Mercedes have been so fine this season that it has largely been a track-by-track swing in momentum, with the tighter, twistier stuff playing to the Prancing Horse’s favor.
One-two finishes in Monaco and Hungary gave Vettel and Raikkonen hope of producing a similar result in Singapore. While Red Bull was much closer this time around, Vettel’s stunning Q3 lap on Saturday and strong record at Marina Bay made him the man to beat.
It was a weekend that could have really put the championship in Vettel’s favor. While the weekends where Mercedes dominated such as Spa and Monza saw Vettel still be best of the rest, hitting the podium both times around, this was a chance for Ferrari to get a greater net gain with Mercedes being the third-fastest team. Had the race gone the way of qualifying, Vettel would have left Singapore with a 12-point lead.
Instead, he’s 28 points back, and in deep, deep trouble.
Should Vettel have played it safe at the start? Hindsight is a beautiful thing – but the truth is that Vettel knew losing out to Verstappen could have dealt a big blow to his title hopes, potentially denying him the extra seven points between a first and a second. He had to make the squeeze – he just didn’t know that Raikkonen was there.
That said, in the wet, maybe it would have been wiser for Vettel to not pull across the track as quickly as he did. The old adage of not being able to win a race at the start but lose it rang very true.
Ferrari won’t get another chance to dominate as it could have in Singapore this year. Suzuka, Interlagos and, in particular, Abu Dhabi will be the best chances, but it is difficult to see anyone stopping Mercedes in Malaysia, Austin or Mexico.
Were Vettel still only a handful of points shy, that would be so bad. The fact he is now 28 points back means that Hamilton is almost at the point where he can play the percentage game, much like Rosberg did en route to the title last year.
If Hamilton wins in Malaysia with Vettel finishing second, the gap will be 35 points with five races to play. On that basis, if Vettel were to then sweep the calendar with Hamilton P2 each time around, they would close out the season tied on points, Vettel winning on countback.
But Mercedes also has Valtteri Bottas in the picture, the Finn proving to be a much greater force in the title race than Ferrari’s Raikkonen has. All Bottas would have to do is finish in the top two once, and the picture becomes even bleaker for Vettel.
As for Bottas’ title hopes? Mercedes will not publicly go on record and say it is all behind Hamilton, with Toto Wolff fearing it could affect Bottas’ mentality at the front of the pack.
But in reality, the team is already pulling in the obvious direction. Hamilton has a 51-point lead over his teammate, something that won’t turn around quickly.
Bottas has done everything right this year since joining Mercedes, and now with a new contract under his belt, he can play a part in a double championship win.
The cards are stacked in Hamilton’s favor. He has the points lead, the theoretical advantage at more of the remaining circuits, and the stronger ally with Bottas on board.
And if we come to look at another failed title bid for Ferrari come the end of the season, a great deal will be pinned on Vettel’s start-line maneuver in Singapore.