Fernando Alonso has returned Renault to the top of the rostrum in Formula 1 for the first time in almost two years by producing the drive of a champion to triumph in the inaugural Singapore Grand Prix night outing this weekend.
Indeed, it was a race of epic proportions in more ways than one, with Alonso's success the result of superb pace, a timely accident for team-mate Nelsinho Piquet and – ironically – the qualifying misfortune that had left him down in 15th place on the starting grid. Behind the Spaniard, Lewis Hamilton may only have finished third, but on Ferrari's darkest day of 2008 it was enough to put the Stevenage ace thoroughly in command of the title battle as the championship showdown closes in.
With Felipe Massa making a textbook getaway from pole position when the lights went out, Hamilton had to fight off defending F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen who dived to the inside, as all 20 cars got safely through the opening few corners. Hamilton's McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, however, was less fortunate, trying to brave it out around the outside of Robert Kubica's BMW-Sauber only to be unceremoniously bundled aside by the Pole as the pair briefly locked bodywork.
That cost the Finn positions to both Italian Grand Prix winner Sebastian Vettel in the Scuderia Toro Rosso and Timo Glock, and though he nipped by the Toyota into turn seven, Glock was immediately back past again into the very next corner.
Massa had extended a lead of almost 1.3 seconds by the end of the opening lap, with Raikkonen being dropped in third ahead of Kubica, Vettel, Glock and Kovalainen. A little further back still, Jarno Trulli had made a strong start in the second Toyota to gain two positions from eleventh to ninth, but with the Italian being on a heavy one-stop strategy, the old spectre of the 'Trulli Train' rapidly resurfaced.
Behind the 34-year-old sat a clearly frustrated Nico Rosberg, Kazuki Nakajima, a fast-starting Alonso – the only driver in the field to begin the race on soft tyres, as Renault seemed to be living up to Pat Symonds' post-qualifying promise of trying out an inventive strategy – Jenson Button, both Red Bulls of Mark Webber and David Coulthard and the STR of Sébastien Bourdais.
Despite a good deal of debris on the track, Rosberg was clearly trying every which way to get past Trulli, with Nakajima locking up behind and very nearly slamming into the back of his team-mate – what would undoubtedly not have gone down well during Sir Frank Williams' last grand prix appearance of the 2008 campaign – as the 'train' lapped regularly a full five seconds slower than race leader Massa.
Indeed, such was Massa's supreme pace that within just three laps Raikkonen was six full seconds in arrears, as Trulli began to go backwards, ceding places to both Williams' and Alonso, the Spaniard going all the way around the outside of his former team-mate at turn six to gain the inside line for turn seven and fairly scampering away.
With eight laps run and as the gap at the front ebbed and flowed, Raikkonen began to come alive, as Massa ran over one of the pieces of debris on the circuit that got lodged in the T-tray underneath the front of his car – but the pace just continued to get hotter and hotter still.
A new fastest lap from Raikkonen – the first man to dip below the 1m45s barrier – saw the Finn take a full seven tenths out of Hamilton's advantage over the course of a single tour, as the Scuderia
seemed to begin to sense a one-two to grab control in the drivers' title chase back from the Briton.
Kovalainen, meanwhile, was struggling back in traffic behind Vettel and Glock, lapping up to a second-and-a-half shy of his team-mate, as Alonso became the first man to blink at the end of lap twelve and the under-fire Bourdais the first man to spin, the Frenchman rejoining the fray after a neat 360.
Just a couple of laps later came the race's first major – and as it would transpire pivotal – incident, when Nelsinho Piquet lost control of his Renault and spun it sideways into the wall on the exit of turn 17, bringing out the safety car. Whilst both Red Bulls and Honda's Rubens Barrichello reacted quickly enough to make their pit visits before the safety car was deployed, Rosberg and Kubica were less fortunate, having to come in to re-fuel whilst the pit-lane was still closed – and taking the accompanying penalty that goes with it.
Barrichello's good fortune, meanwhile, rapidly turned into bad fortune as his car stopped out on-track with no fuel having gone in, whilst as soon as the pit-lane was open Massa, Hamilton and Raikkonen came in en masse
, with high drama as Ferrari's pit-stop again ended in disaster. As Massa was given the green light to pull away, the fuel hose was still attached, and as the Brazilian accelerated he took it with him, pulling a mechanic to the ground and almost colliding with the Force India of Adrian Sutil – again, not for the first time in 2008…
The ensuing drama also cost team-mate Raikkonen time, and after reaching the end of the pit-lane Massa was forced to pull to the side and wait for his pit crew to arrive to remove the offending hose, cheered on ironically by McLaren's mechanics as they rushed to his aid.
All of that chaos left Rosberg leading Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella – who had started the grand prix from the pit-lane following his two Saturday shunts – Kubica, Alonso, Webber, Coulthard and Hamilton, with Rosberg and Kubica both facing stop-go penalties and Massa plum last.
Kovalainen and Raikkonen were also big losers from the pit-stop rush, exiting down in 14th and 15th positions respectively, as a clearly frustrated Massa – almost 20 seconds off the race lead – ran wide through the final corner in his efforts to get past Bourdais.
Fisichella – lapping three seconds slower than leader Rosberg – was now backing the field up, with Kubica, Alonso and co seemingly unable to find a way past the experienced Italian, again punching above his weight in the Force India. That allowed Rosberg to extend his advantage to some ten seconds, as it was confirmed that the German, Kubica and Massa were all under investigation.
Massa was the first to be awarded a drive-through penalty, with Rosberg and Kubica subsequently receiving stop-and-gos, as Fisichella continued to frustrate the pursuing pack behind him, and Hamilton remained tucked up behind the two RBRs with 35 laps left to run.
Webber was the next man to run into trouble, going wide as he ceded places to Coulthard, Hamilton, Glock and Vettel – and kissing goodbye to a potential podium finish. Rosberg pitting to serve his penalty, meanwhile, promoted Trulli to the head of the field and made it an Italian one-two on the leaderboard with Fisichella up to second.
So great an advantage had he built up, though, that when Rosberg rejoined he did so in front of Coulthard, with Hamilton still desperately trying to find a way past the Scot. As Fisichella pitted with 32 laps remaining, Webber's earlier 'error' would ultimately transpire to be a failure on his RB4, the unfortunate Australian becoming the race's third retirement after Piquet and Barrichello.
With Trulli four laps away from his one and only pit-stop, Alonso sat eleven seconds behind and the chase was on, whilst down at the bottom of the order Kubica swept past erstwhile leader Massa, whose fuel supply was beginning to run out. Happily, the Brazilian's second stop on lap 31 went without drama or injury.
Trulli rejoined from his pit visit ahead of Nakajima, who immediately made energetic efforts to get past the Toyota for the second time during the race, the Italian's heavy fuel load again badly hampering his pace – but allowing Alonso, from all the way down in 15th on the grid, to make hay at the front, lapping almost two seconds faster than fourth-placed Hamilton, who was still tucked up behind fellow Brit Coulthard.
Raikkonen, though, was even worse off, cruising up to the back of the Trulli-Nakajima duel for eighth place, as Ferrari's day went from bad to disastrous. The Williams ace got through, leaving Trulli to stave off the attentions of Raikkonen, who similarly took little time to get past a car that – with fuel on-board – was something of a sitting duck.
With 22 laps remaining, Alonso had a margin of eight seconds over second-placed Rosberg, and more than 20 seconds ahead of the ongoing third-placed Battle of Britain between Coulthard and Hamilton. Rosberg was the first of the four to make his final pit-stop, switching over to the less-favoured softer rubber and rejoining seventh behind the German trio of Glock, Vettel and BMW's Nick Heidfeld.
Alonso was in next time around, the Spaniard having used his softer tyres during the first stint of the race, and came out again right in front of the duelling Coulthard and Hamilton. The subsequent loss of momentum for the former enabled Hamilton to dive up the inside in a brave move for third place – meaning the podium was back on again, or perhaps even better…
Both Hamilton and Coulthard were in at the end of the lap, and there was fear of a second 'Massa' incident in the RBR box when the Scot pulled away a fraction too soon, the loss of time seeing the 37-year-old fall behind Trulli.
With 17 laps remaining, second-placed Glock and fourth-placed Raikkonen still had to pit for the second time, as Hamilton began to chase down Rosberg, just over ten seconds up the road from him and Coulthard sat outside the points in ninth – and losing brakes in his Red Bull.
Glock came in for a quick second stop with 15 laps to the chequered flag, rejoining the fray ahead of Toyota team-mate Trulli, the pair running fifth and sixth, though with the latter still under pressure from behind from Vettel and Heidfeld.
Trulli, indeed, was sadly the next man in difficulty, his Toyota suddenly slowing with a gearbox problem that left his TF108 stuck in fourth gear as he had been looking good for points, allowing Raikkonen to rejoin from his second stop in fifth place.
There was even greater late-race drama, though, when Massa spun on the entry to the tunnel as he chased Fisichella. As the Ferrari rejoined, an unsighted Sutil in the sister Force India was caught off-guard and planted his VJM01 in the tyre barriers – bringing out the safety car for the second time with ten laps to the flag, and eradicating Alonso's 18.5-second lead in one fell swoop.
As the safety car returned to the pit-lane, nine laps remained to run – and Hamilton knew he had been given a second chance. Alonso scampered away as Rosberg concentrated on fending off his former karting sparring partner, and further back the second Williams of Nakajima was crawling all over Coulthard for the final points-paying position.
Alonso, though, was not messing about, as he sensed his first grand prix victory in more than a year, pulling out an incredible 3.7 seconds over Rosberg in one lap alone, with Hamilton a further 1.2 seconds in arrears. The Spaniard's advantage was more than six seconds a lap later still, with only five tours now remaining…
As Hamilton continued to pile the pressure on Rosberg, Raikkonen was doing likewise to Glock, but with just four laps left the Finn completed Maranello's day of abject misery, as he slid his F2008 into the wall and threw away four points – handing McLaren the advantage in the constructors' title chase, making it four races in a row now in which he has failed to score and finally and irrevocably bringing the curtain down on his faint hopes of retaining his hard-won 2007 crown.
That error promoted Vettel to fifth place and Heidfeld to sixth, with Coulthard seventh and Nakajima into the points in eighth, as Button and the lacklustre Kovalainen completed the top ten.
As the field headed into the last lap, Hamilton looked to have settled for third and a seven-point advantage over Massa in the championship standings – meaning he can now afford to finish second to his Ferrari rival in each of the final three grands prix of the campaign and still be crowned – but all eyes were on Alonso, who completed the drive of a true champion to secure a totally unexpected triumph twelve months on from his last win in the top flight at Monza in 2007.
Behind the man from Oviedo, Rosberg came home for a superb runner-up spot, ahead of damage limitation expert Hamilton, Glock, Vettel, Heidfeld, Coulthard and Nakajima, with Button, Kovalainen, Kubica, Bourdais, Massa and Fisichella rounding out the finishers at the end of 61 thrilling laps.
Massa, indeed, crossed the line an unlucky 13th – perhaps apt in a race of such ill-fortune for the Brazilian – having lapped ten seconds off the pace on the final tour as Ferrari had to swallow the bitter pill of their first non-score of the season.
The driver they were all talking about once the chequered flag had dropped, though, was Alonso, who had declared the grand prix 'lost' following his qualifying disaster only to reap good luck in the race in much the same way as he had been dealt bad luck the previous day.
Punching the air in pure delight and doubtless a touch of disbelief on his slowing-down lap, the result was a fitting reward for a team that has suffered, as the 2008 campaign has progressed, more than its fair share of heartbreak.
To see the race result in full, click here