Smooth Operation

Singapore 2023: The Smooth Operator strikes again

After another smooth operation from Sainz, the Flying Dutchman, it seems, has been bested and returned to the ‘depths’ of the midfield. Well, sort of.

After an impressive recovery drive, aided by some favourable safety cars and four DNFs, Max Verstappen’s record breaking ten race winning streak was brought to an end at the Marina Bay circuit, crossing the line in a measly P5. It was Carlos Sainz’s ingenious tactics in the scarlet Scuderia that finally broke the Dutchman’s streak, as he capped off a dominant Saturday pole position in qualifying with his second race win, simultaneously adjourning both the constructor’s and driver’s winning streak record (10 and 15 consecutive victories respectively). Though the podium celebrations lacked their usual Dutch and Austrian soundtracks, the ending under the lights of Lion City certainly injected new life into the somewhat stagnant 2023 season. 

One of the biggest stories making the rounds in the paddock since F1’s return from the summer break has been the slick Spaniard that is Carlos Sainz Jr. With a convincing P5 in the Dutch grand prix, followed by a pole and P3 in Monza (much to the delight of the Tifosi), Sainz has returned with a new vitality and hunger for victory that is undeniably evident in his performance. In fact, across the Singapore weekend Sainz topped all but one session (coming in at P2 behind his teammate in FP1) and subsequently out-qualifying all other drivers, and was the only driver to set a time within the 1 minute 30s. With the RedBulls down in P11 and P13 after an uncharacteristically poor qualifying, the race was Sainz’s to lose, and boy did he capitalize on it. 

The Smooth Operator controlled the pace from the onset, keeping it slow so as to conserve tyres for a later push should the inevitable safety car come. Though the first safety car had Sainz set up well, Frenchman Estaban Ocon’s birthday bash was brought to an untimely end with gearbox issues which enabled the two not-so Silver Arrows to pit for fresh mediums under the second safety car – an eventuality they had specifically planned for in their tyre allocation – and thus triggering the nail-biting final twenty laps.

With Russell leading Hamilton, the Mercs had to close the gap and dispatch both the other Ferrari of Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris’ papaya McLaren if they were to take the win. The first of these obstacles was overcome rapidly with Russell and Hamilton shaving off some six seconds in four laps, and making short work of Leclerc who was ailing with ancient hard tyres.

This left the run to the top step open, so long as they displaced the McLaren.

Though the Mercedes’ rapidly caught up to Norris’ gearbox, an ingenious tactical play from the leading Ferrari by slowing his pace to gift Norris DRS and thus creating one of the notorious ‘DRS trains’ left the Mercs within touching distance, but Norris’ increased speed prevented the seemingly inevitable overtake. The gap between the leading four was within 1.7 seconds in the final two laps. Though Sainz was under pressure, risking the speed advantage from Norris’ DRS ultimately earned him the top step on the podium, on which he looked to be joined by Norris and Russell.

That was until Russell, who was ardently engaged in the fight for P2, followed Norris into clipping the inside wall of turn 10 on the final lap. Lando escaped by the skin of his teeth, George was not so lucky as he was sent careering in a shower of sparks into the barrier whilst uttering an understandably bleeped string of expletives. But it was another smooth operation from Sainz who prevailed in reinvigorating the season with a race to remember. 

But once the champagne had been sprayed and the trophies lifted, the question remains: was RedBull’s pitiful performance an anomaly? Or have they reached their ceiling? The answer is likely no. Both the intense humidity, heat and the fact Marina Bay is one of the most technically demanding street circuits on the calendar all point to it being RedBull’s poor performance that was anomalous, and many expect business to resume as usual next week in Suzuka. Although, Aston Martin’s rapid return to the midfield after blistering early pace is still fresh in the minds of all constructors, Christian Horner and co. would be foolish to get too comfortable. After all, the finishing top three were separated by less than two seconds across the line (make that top four if Russell hadn’t binned it) – one of the closest photo-finishes in recent memory…

In all probability, RedBull will resume their wining tendencies and likely go about starting a new streak with the commencement of the Japanese Grand Prix this weekend. Considering that there are seven championship rounds remaining, should RedBull’s untouchable performance resume, Verstappen’s third consecutive world championship seems very likely, and I’m sure he’ll go and break his own record of the most number of wins in a single season whilst he’s at it.

Nevertheless, Singapore will, for me as it will for many, remain the highlight of the 2023 season so far.  In a sport that not unlike the Premier League is all but certain in one team/driver/player’s dominance (I’m looking at you Man City and Erling Haaland), the rare instance when F1’s plentiful talent pool from lower down the grid have a chance to prove themselves is a prized commodity. 

The idea of ‘F1.5’ gets thrown around a lot, albeit often jokingly, the notion of a season without the almost certain week in, week out victory of one driver certainly appeals. If the 2023 Singapore Grand Prix is any example to go by, should F1’s regulators ever manage to preclude the apparently inexorable periods of racing supremacy by one team, the future of the sport looks bright. 

Image Description: Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari F1 car on track

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