The 2013 Singapore Grand Prix turned into one of those cases where, if you ignored the elephant in the room, there was a thrilling climax consisting of battles for podium positions and points finishes raging all over the place in the closing laps.
As the cars lined up under the dazzling floodlights in Marina Bay in Singapore, the big question was whether anyone would be able to do anything to fend off a seventh Sebastian Vettel victory of 2013. Vettel had gambled with an early run in Q3 and it had paid off with pole, and now not even Nico Rosberg starting alongside him from second place on the grid felt that it would be possible to thwart the world champion's winning streak this weekend.
Of course, Rosberg was determined to try his utmost. Both men on the front row got away cleanly, Rosberg angling his way across the track to try and head off Vettel's path into turn 1. He actually managed to get the nose of the Mercedes marginally ahead but the effort saw him run wide over the kerbs and in doing so he handed the momentum back to the polesitter - Vettel was back in charge and already checking out.
Behind them Romain Grosjean had dropped two positions from his third place start - and one of them went to a quite magnificent Fernando Alonso, whose Ferrari had flown off seventh place off the grid to slot into third just ahead of Mark Webber. Lewis Hamilton also found himself demoted two spots to seventh place as not only Alonso but also Felipe Massa managed to pass him in the initial run down to turn 1; his first attempt to get past Massa saw him stray off the track in the process and he was told by the Mercedes pit wall to hand the place back rather than risk a drive-thru from the race stewards.
Once the initial flurry of action was out of the way, the drivers were soon being warned to lok after their tyres and so the race settled down into a polite procession with Vettel's lead over Rosberg and Alonso stabilised at a little over seven seconds. That lull didn't last long before Kimi Raikkonen coming in for his first pit stop and the end of lap 11, having made his way up to tenth place in the opening stint despite racing with a painful back. Raikkonen filtered back out in 19th place and his initiative was followed next time around by Sauber's Esteban Gutierrez and Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Verge.
Massa was in next time around, with Adrian Sutil also reported for fresh tyres despite being the only man to have started on the longer-life mediums on the Force India; after that there was a steady flow of traffic through the pit lane, with Webber, Button and Hulkenberg in on lap 14 and most of the rest of the field in over the next couple of laps, but the man seemingly most unaffected by tyre worries was the race leader Sebastian Vettel who cruised on to lap 17 before deigning to come in for a service. Only Paul di Resta was able to last longer longer, climbing as high as third place as a result before finally paying a visit to pit lane on lap 20 which set him back down to 13th place after taking on a second set of supersofts and seemingly on course for a two-stop strategy. That was in stark contrast to Hamilton, who by lap 20 was already complaining that his latest set of tyres were terrible and not relishing the idea of having to spend an even longer stint on this set than he had the first.
Vettel's lead over Rosberg was now up to nine seconds, while Alonso had dropped a further eight seconds back after being held up waiting for di Resta to pit. Webber was still maintaining a watching brief on the Ferrari ahead, with Grosjean in fifth and Hamilton back up to sixth having leapfrogged Massa during the cycle of pit stops. Massa was flirting with allowing himself to come within DRS distance of Jenson Button in eighth, while Kimi Raikkonen had pushed on to ninth ahead of Sergio Perez but was complaining of a problem on the Lotus that the pit wall was unable to detect or diagnose by telemetry.
The calm routine of the pit wall reminding drivers to take on fluids came to an abrupt half on lap 25, when Daniel Ricciardo locked up heading into the turn 18 left hander underneath the grandstand and buried the nose of the Toro Rosso into the barrier, triggering an immediate safety car. That sent the teams into emergency response measures regarding how best to take advantage of the situation for the next round of pit stops. Teams double stacked at their pit stalls and cars ended up being held up after their own stops were completed as they were forced to wait for other cars to exit.
Vettel, Rosberg, Webber and Hamilton all decided that this was too much of a shot in the dark to warrant the risk and so they stayed out, with Alonso the first of visitors to pit lane returning to the fray in fifth place ahead of Grosjean. With no need to make an early return to pit lane, di Resta suddenly found himself popped back up into seventh place by this latest turn of events and more or less back on the same pit strategy as those around him, with Massa, Button and Raikkonen all now lined up behind him in the bottom half of the top ten.
Vettel's ten second lead was a distant memory when the race restarted on lap 31 following an extended delay while backmarkers were waved around and allowed to unlap themselves. No one was able to take advantage of the restart and by the end of the first lap under green Vettel had already claimed back more than two seconds of his former lead over Rosberg - which Vettel repeated over the next few laps until he was once again out of sight of the competition.
There was bad news for Romain Grosjean however, who was summoned to pit lane on lap 34 after being told the Lotus needed an urgent top up of the air supply to the car's hydraulics. An interminably long hold while the work was carried out dropped Grosjean from sixth place all the way to the back of the field and left Grosjean fuming in the cockpit as a valuable opportunity for points disappeared before his very eyes. A few laps later the problem was revealed to be terminal in any case and Grosjean crawled back in to pit lane to retire, all of which moved di Resta up to sixth and also promoted Massa, Button and Raikkonen up a position apiece with Perez now moved into the top ten by the Lotus' misfortune.
Seemingly out to make a point about how losing his lead to the safety car, Vettel carried on punching out the fastest laps until by lap 39 it was already up to an unprecedented 20 seconds. Part of the advantage was an issue with some discarded marbles having lodged in Rosberg's front wing which was inducing understeer and stressing the tyres, meaning that the Mercedes was holding up a train of car that were looking as if they would be able to run significantly faster in clear air.
Webber was the first of the leaders that had stayed out under the safety car to make his final pit stop at the end of lap 40, dropping him back to 13th in the meantime. Rosberg came in next time by, but a slow stop saw him exit behind Webber which meant that a Red Bull one-two was looking increasingly assured; and next time around it was di Resta and Massa heading in, both men trading in their supersofts to mediums for the first time as they rejoined behind Webber and Rosberg. Hamilton came in next time by and managed to slot in behind Rosberg, leaving Vettel as the final driver to hit pit lane at the end of lap 44.
As if he needed any more trump cards up his sleeve, Vettel was rewarded with the new set of supersoft tyres for his final stint that he'd essentially saved with his daring single-lap Q3 qualifying gamble on Saturday. He emerged four seconds up the road from Fernando Alonso, with Jenson Button in third ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg - all of whom were yet to pit again and whose teams seriously considering going to the end without a further call on pit road. Not that the possibility worried Vettel who was already scampering off into the nighttime darkness, faster by almost three seconds a lap despite being cautioned by the Red Bull team wall that he needed to take care of his brakes.
he drivers who were starting to fret at this stage were Webber, Rosberg, Hamilton and the rest who had dropped down the running order after their most recent stops and who now found themselves behind the likes of Esteban Gutierrez who was putting in a solid job in seventh place. DRS helped Webber take the position and the others all quickly followed the Australian's lead, but then they found themselves with the second Sauber of Hulkenberg to dispatch: suddenly this was becoming a real hard-fought race for on-track position, and a formerly processional event was taking on a distinct late-night thrill.
With the stay-out group's pace now falling off the proverbial cliff, much depended on how quickly Webber and his cohorts could scythe their way past the traffic: Webber got the jump on Hulkenberg through turn 7 on lap 54 and then swiftly hunted down Perez for fifth place. Rosberg and Hamilton were in hot pursuit, but Paul di Resta pushed too hard to keep up with them and ended up running into the wall at turn 7. For a moment the outcome of the race depended on whether or not a safety car would be required to clear the stalled Force India, since that could prevent Webber and the others pushing on; fortunately the matter was dealt with under local waved yellows and the race was allowed to continue.
Button had already been passed for third place by a lovely move around the outside turn 14 by the hobbled Kimi Raikkonen on lap 55, and now Button was next to be put to the sword by Webber, Rosberg, Hamilton and Massa as the aged tyres on the McLaren refused to offer up any further grip. That put Webber up to his familiar fourth place, at which point Red Bull were cautioning him that to short shift to protect an ailing engine that was at risk of failing. H now had to concentrate on maintaining the position from the Mercedes duo for the last three laps of the race rather than being able to press on to assail Raikkonen for the final podium position.
Sadly for Webber, the engine situation proved unsalvageable and on the final lap of the race - even as his team mate cruised across the finish line for a famous and totally unopposed victory - the second Red Bull caught fire and Webber was obliged to pull over for some serious urgent application of fire retardant.
As the dust settled on the furious action in the closing laps, Vettel was joined on the podium by Alonso and by Raikkonen, who'd pulled off a quite remarkable recovery from 13th on the grid despite his back issues. Rosberg, Hamilton and Massa benefited from Webber's last-minute flame-out to take fourth, fifth and sixth while Button ended up in sixth place ahead of his team mate Sergio Perez who was followed across the line by Nico Hulkenberg and Adrian Sutil, who clinched the final point in tenth ahead of Pastor Maldonado, Esteban Gutierrez, Valtteri Bottas and Jean-Eric Verge, with Webber ultimately credited in 15th a lap down ahead of the two Caterhams and both Marussias who all made it to the finish without retirements.
Vettel's utter superiority meant that the race result was never in doubt almost from the very first corner of the race when he'd fought off Rosberg, but behind him there had been exceptional performances as well from Alonso and Raikkonen together with a thrilling battle of strategies sparked by the mid-race safety car that had really brought things alive just when interest had threatened to wane.
Ultimately, though, the day belonged to Vettel and to Red Bull, who jointly take another big leap forward to the seemingly inevitable fourth double world championship which can't be too far away now even as F1 heads to Korea in two weeks time.See full race results