Formula One’s very first night race has been a success, with the Marina Bay circuit giving the fans a superb spectacle under floodlights. Although there are still some minor issues to sort before next year, I think it is safe to say that safety cars and great driving have produced a fantastic grand prix. With Fernando Alonso winning his first race in a year and beating the opposition with an interesting strategy, the championship has been turned around for the top two teams and their drivers.
The start of the race went as standard, with little hustling through the field. A couple of drivers were forced to cut corners as they tried to squeeze through three-abreast, but geenrally speaking, there were no major incidents. Robert Kubica and Heikki Kovalainen came close though as the McLaren driver attempted to edge past the BMW. Jarno Trulli made a great start from eleventh on the grid and Timo Glock in the sister Toyota was enjoying a great battle with Kovalainen further around the first lap.
Unfortunately, Trulli’s great start put him the familiar position of train-driver, and the Italian was hampering the charges of those behind on different strategies. More and more the following drivers were getting frustrated until Nico Rosberg eventually made his way past the Toyota. From then on, others lined themselves up for moves; Kazuki Nakajima locking up massively over the bumps as he made his pass stick.
Starting fifteenth, Fernando Alonso had his work cut out, but after the first lap he was up to tenth, and after a quick pitstop on lap twelve, changed strategy to a two-stopper and began to make progress once again. Red Bull also took this opportunity to pit their cars as well, and the timing couldn’t have better. The reason being that the safety car was sent out on lap fifteen, closely followed by the medical car as a precaution.
Both safety and medical cars were sent out because Nelson Piquet Jr. had what appeared to be a sizable shunt at T17. Thankfully, replays showed the accident to be less severe and Piquet climbed out of the strickened Renault and dived for safety on the other side of the track. The Brazilian lost the back-end of the car on the exit of the corner and spun around, clouting the inside barrier and ending his race in a mess of debris.
Unfortunately for Rosberg, the safety car deployment came at a poor time for his strategy and the Williams driver was forced to pit for fuel, despite the pitlane being closed. It wasn’t long after that Nico was given the expected stop/go penalty, highlighting once again just how poorly thought-out the rule is. Also feeling the heat at this time was Robert Kubica, who suffered a similar fate and was also penalised.
Rubens Barrichello retired his Honda, coasting along the track before coming to a halt and throwing his gloves into the water; I think he was aiming at the crowd, as he often does, but Barrichello’s aim appeared to have been a little off. According to Rubens’s post-race quotes, “the engine just died”.
On lap seventeen, the pitlane was opened, although the safety car was still touring the track while the marshals cleared the Renault from a particularly tricky spot. Felipe Massa dived in immediately for fuel, but what happened next was nothing short of a complete disaster. Continuing with their lighting system to indicate to the driver when to go, and despite having troubles with it (or the operator) in Valencia, Massa waited patiently for his tank to be filled. With the fuel hose still attached to the Ferrari, Massa was shown the green light before it very quickly went red again.
It was too late. Massa had dropped the clutch and squeezed the throttle. The mechanics were pulled to the ground and Felipe drove straight into the fast area of the pitlane in front of Adrian Sutil – what is it about these two teams meeting like this over and over again? Realising something was amiss – Massa was dragging the fuel hose behind him – the Brazilian pulled over at the end of the pitlane and Ferrari personnel sprinted down to free the offending article. Massa rejoined the race in pretty much plum-last. Oh how the mighty had fallen.
Sitting behind Massa in the pitlane and seeing the drama unfold in front of his eyes was Kimi Raikkonen, who because of the pitlane closure was forced to stop on the same lap and queue behind his team mate. Also pitting on lap seventeen was Lewis Hamilton. After all the drama in the pitlane, Nico Rosberg emerged as the race leader, followed by Jarno Trulli and… Giancarlo Fisichella!
While the stewards were assessing the issues of Rosberg and Kubica pitting while the pitlane was closed, they also announced an investigation into Felipe Massa, and sure enough, the Ferrari pilot was delivered a further blow; a stop/go penalty for unsafe release into the path of another driver. On lap 27, Kubica served his penalty, Rosberg similarly on lap 29. The positions at the front were bizarre to say the least, with David Coulthard in the mix for Red Bull along with strong runs from the Toyotas.
The Halfway Mark
At half-distance, Lewis Hamilton was somewhere around P4, Felipe Massa around, erm, last, and Kimi Raikkonen was gradually recovering from his pitstop delay not too far ahead of his team mate. Fernando Alonso took over the lead from Jarno Trulli when the Italian pitted and the Spaniard remained there for the rest of the race. Lewis Hamilton was in fourth, but stiuck behind David Coulthard, not making his move until lap 42 when the Scot was busy watching cars coming out of the pitlane.
Fernando Alonso made his final stop at this time as well, as did Hamilton and Coulthard the following lap. The Red Bull driver almost left the box with his fuel hose still attached, but reactions caught up with the Scot and Coulthard was able to brake in time. Timo Glock continued his impressive run in the TF108 and Rosberg found himself in second after the final pitstops shook themselves out.
On lap 50, Felipe Massa almost crashed his Ferrari going under the bridge. Thankfully for him, the F2008 just spun through 180° and Massa was able to recover and continue, but directly behind, Adrian Sutil slid his Force India into the same spot as Massa was just a few moments prior. As Massa drove away from the barrier, he inadvertently allowed water to leak from the tyre structure, but this wasn’t to blame for Sutil’s crash – the German was already out of control before he reached the corner. The safety car was deployed for the second time to allow the marshals time to clear the Force India out of the way.
Jarno Trulli retired his Toyota on lap 50, stalking to the back of the garage to get some rehydrating fluids. Moments later the safety car peeled into the pitlane and Fernando Alonso once again set about building up a lead again. Lewis Hamilton, now in third and behind Rosberg, made a few attempts to distract and pass the Williams, but Nico was experienced enough to keep his cool.
Just as the McLaren driver was settling for third, knowing that Massa wouldn’t score any points, Ferrari’s weekend went from disastrous to simply embarrassing. Kimi Raikkonen caught a kerb slightly awkwardly and his Ferrari was pitched into the armco. It was pretty much game over for the Scuderia. The front-runners settled into a casual pace for the remaining few laps and Fernando Alonso took the win at the 1:57:16.304 mark, less than three minutes under the two hour race limit.
Timo Glock took a fine fourth for Toyota, and Sebastian Vettel collected more points from his fifth-place finish. Nick Heidfeld proved his racing credentials once again by coming through to sixth at the chequered flag and David Coulthard picked up two points for seventh. Kazuki Nakajima claimed the final point, finishing the race two places ahead of his grid position.
This result, or non-result for Ferrari, has meant that McLaren now lead the constructors title by the slimmest of margins, and Lewis Hamilton has finally extended his championship lead to seven points. Even if Felipe Massa wins the final three events, Hamilton just has to come home in second to take the title by a point. However, Formula One isn’t that simple and I suspect we are in for more drama before the season is over.
Renault’s win moves them ahead of Toyota in the constructors fight, and Williams edge closer to Scuderia Toro Rosso after Vettel’s win in Italy. Amazingly, Robert Kubica is still in the driver’s championship, sitting 20 points behind Massa, and 7 points ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn is also still mathematically able to take the championship, 27 points from a maximum of 30, with the hope that all others retire – it really isn’t going to happen though. Unfortunately for the fans, I suspect the title will end up being a race between Hamilton and Massa. But having said that, it should be a great battle.
As always, the race was action-packed and I’ve probably missed lots of things. Feel free to add to the report in the comments below.