If there comes a moment where we look back on the 2017 F1 season and pinpoint the event that proved pivotal in the destiny of the championship, it would be the opening lap of the Singapore Grand Prix.
In qualifying things had panned out more or less as expected. The Ferraris and Red Bulls were faster than the Mercedes’, with Vettel parking his Ferrari in P1, despite Verstappen looking faster in Q1 and Q2. The young Dutchman lined up alongside Vettel, with Daniel Ricciardo slotting into third and Kimi Raikkonen fourth on the grid. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were fifth and sixth in their Silver Arrows. The stage was seemingly set for Vettel to retake the championship lead.
There was an unexpected variance to proceedings. The notoriously hot and humid affair of the Singapore race was given the added dimension of rain, shortly before the race was due to start. Cue differing wet weather tyres, with some teams opting for full sets and others for inters. How would the conditions affect the race? Well, for three drivers it would have no impact, for their race was the ended on the first lap. As the lights went out Vettel got away reasonably well but Verstappen was already trying to get alongside him and Raikkonen was darting up the inside of Verstappen, having made the best start of the three. Vettel swerved aggressively to the left, forcing Verstappen into Raikkonen and promptly tipping Kimi’s car into the sidepod of Vettel’s own machine. Raikkonen skidded across the track, collecting Verstappen again, and Verstappen would knock into the fast-starting McLaren of Fernando Alonso. Alonso would initially carry on going, whilst Vettel would make it around the first sequence of corners but then suffer the problem of his front wing falling off. As it was, his car had a damaged radiator and that was that for the four-time champion.
Amidst the chaos Hamilton had climbed into the lead, with Ricciardo behind him. After a safety car spell (continuing the ‘tradition’ of a safety car at every Singapore Grand Prix) the action got underway again and Hamilton began to pull away from Ricciardo, apparently in defiance of how the race was expected to proceed. After a few laps Alonso retired; his car had been damaged in the first corner shunt and his best chance of a good points haul was gone. Elsewhere, Nico Hulkenberg was up into third in his Renault – quite impressive – with Bottas in fourth. The teams were contemplating tyre choices, waiting to see when the track would permit slick compounds, with everyone waiting for everyone else to blink first. The track was drying slowly, and the teams were given further food for thought when Danil Kvyat rammed his Toro Rossi into the wall, having just squeezed by one of the Haas cars. A second safety would nullify Hamilton’s advantage over Ricciardo – the Australian pitted for fresh inters whilst Hamilton stayed out. Hulkenberg lost out, with Renault waiting an extra lap to pit him, sending him tumbling down the order.
Within the middle of the pack there were a few surprises and a few scraps. The Force Indias, Haas’, Williams’ and Renaults were all getting mixed up, and there were some impressive performances. Sergio Perez qualified 12 but finished 5th. Lance Stroll, new to the venue, finished 8th having qualified 18th. McLaren rookie Stoffel Vandoorne took a very credible 7th. Yes, the crashes benefited quite a few drivers, but nonetheless the performances were good. A third safety car period (caused by the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson punting a wall on lap 35) didn’t do too much to transform the pecking order, but it did ensure that the race would run to its two-hour time limit.
Two other performances need mentioning. Jolyon Palmer, whose seat at Renault will be taken by Carlos Sainz next season, managed to score his first points of the season with sixth. It was important that he put himself in the shop window and he duly did so. Yes, he benefited from so many retirements, but then that benefited several drivers, and Palmer exploited it very well. However, it was Sainz who scored his best finish so far in F1 with fourth, providing evidence of his underlying talent, and validating Renault’s move for him.
The day though, belonged to Lewis Hamilton, who extended his championship to 28 points (more than a race win’s worth of points). The title race is far from over, but his advantage is considerable, and Vettel will be hoping for his chief rival to have a DNF of his own. Vettel could win the title anyway (if he won all the remaining races it wouldn’t matter where Hamilton finished), but with some of the remaining tracks seeming like strong prospects for Hamilton victories, it may be that the championship is now out of Vettel’s hands. He will need to start clawing Hamilton back next time, in Malaysia.