Most weeks this Formula One season, we have to dig to think about who counts as winners or losers. Red Bull and Max Verstappen usually race into the sunset, leaving a trail of dust and trophies in their wake.
Not so this week: for the first time in 2023, Red Bull lost to Carlos Sainz and the Ferraris. Hampered by a poor-handling car, Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez started on the back foot in practice. They didn’t recover until the grand prix on Sunday when it was too late. The result was a race with more strategy and wire-to-wire thrills than you could shake a wheel gun at.
So, let’s try something new and sift through the winners and losers from a wide-open Singapore GP weekend.
Category #1: Aggression
At times this season, Mercedes have let caution get the best of them. Not so on Sunday. With Red Bull out of the picture and Ferrari ahead, the Silver Arrows opted for an audacious double-stack pit stop late to bolt on fresh medium tires. The move cost Russell two positions but set him up for a late-race pass and win.
“It was definitely worth it,” Russell said. “I was willing to lose a position or two if that gave us half a chance of winning the race. We knew that with the same (tire) strategy as Carlos, we weren’t going to be able to overtake on track. And, you know, we were bold.”
It was a risky call, but one that almost paid off. Russell dispatched Charles Leclerc but couldn’t get past Lando Norris in time to run down Sainz for the win. And it was the kind of call teams should make at this point in the season. The fight for either championship is long over, but Mercedes is now 24 points ahead of Ferrari in second place. Prize money and wind tunnel time are at stake in the second-place battle. Mercedes could’ve justified a safer call and tried to secure P3 and P4.
But Mercedes and Russell saw a window to bring home a win, and they threw themselves through it. Unfortunately, Russell also threw his car into the wall on the last lap, leaving Hamilton to play garbageman and pick up third place. Mercedes gambled on the win and lost out on 12 extra points. But they gambled.
“The team did an amazing job,” Russell said. “The car was great, strategy was bang on. We were aggressive. We were bold, it was exciting, you know? It was really exciting out there.”
Loser: George Russell
Russell said his last-lap crash “kind of sums up the season I’ve been having.” Glimpses of glory undone by mistakes. When the younger Mercedes driver makes mistakes, aggression is usually the culprit. Take his contact with Hamilton during qualifying at Spain or his chicane-to-barrier adventure at Canada. Russell always drives like he has something to prove, something essential to gain if he just pushes harder.
The thing is, he did on Sunday. A win slipped through his fingers when he clipped the wall and planted his Mercedes into the wall on the final lap. Russell looked downright haunted after the race.
“I don’t know what the hell happened there,” Russell said. “Whether it was a lack of concentration, maybe frustration, knowing that was our opportunity gone. You know, a mistake of one or two centimeters is just such a shadow over the whole weekend, one of which would have been an amazing weekend.”
We shouldn’t begrudge a driver for binning it while pushing for a win. Neither should he.
Category #2: The “No. 2” Guys
Winner: Carlos Sainz
Is Carlos Sainz the “No. 2” at Ferrari? The team would say it has no such ranking system, and Sainz certainly doesn’t consider himself a second fiddle to Leclerc. But Leclerc is a Ferrari Driver Academy product and earned the team’s F1 seat beside Sebastian Vettel at 21. Ferrari treats both drivers with respect, but Maranello has invested a lot of time and money into Leclerc.
So, if Sainz is a “No. 2,” he’s done a fine job the last two weeks reminding everyone that he’s a 1B to Leclerc’s 1A. Throughout his career, Sainz has not had the car or the opportunity to flex his driving intelligence consistently. But the tactical display he put on at Singapore was something special.
Stuck on old tires with Russell catching up, Sainz used the only trick he had left: Slow down enough to give Norris DRS behind him so the McLaren could delay the Mercedes just long enough for the Ferrari to win.
”Lando 0.8 behind with DRS”
”Yeah, it’s on purpose”
Sainz ??? pic.twitter.com/Rx9MddGvqq
— Formula Gravel (@FormulaGravel) September 17, 2023
Separating the great from the merely good often depends on what kind of information a driver can process behind the wheel. I once heard someone say something like: good drivers can think about the car ahead, great drivers can think about the cars around them, but the best drivers can think about everyone on the track at any given time.
Only some drivers have the patience, skill, and foresight to use the P2 car’s speed to protect the lead from a P3 or P4 car. Underestimate Sainz at your own risk.
Loser: Lance Stroll
It was a weekend to forget for Aston Martin’s non-Fernando Alonso driver.
Stroll admitted he “couldn’t find the pace we needed” in practice (he ran 11th in FP1 and 14th in FP2 and FP3). That left him on the edge of elimination in Q1 of qualifying. He probably pushed too hard to salvage the day and crashed in the final turn.
Stroll’s crash from the stands pic.twitter.com/02nN4LTMQG
— Mahir ???? (@ScrewderiaF1) September 16, 2023
Stroll exited the car, to everyone’s relief, but bowed out of the GP. Aston Martin cited the “huge” repair job and said Stroll was still “feeling the after-effects of such a high-impact crash.” The team says he’ll be ready for Japan this week.
The Canadian would like to forget the 2023 season for many reasons. It started with a bike crash and two broken wrists and has yet to really improve, as the gap between Stroll and teammate Alonso has continued to grow. The only points gap wider than the Aston Martin drivers is between Verstappen and Pérez – and, I mean, yeah.
|Team||Teammate Points Gap|
*AlphaTauri has used four drivers in 2023
The goal for Stroll over the final few races should be to bank a few points finishes and maybe even a surprise podium. No “No. 2” on the grid more badly needs a strong, face-saving finish to the season.
Category #3: A world without Red Bull
Red Bull’s struggles finally laid bare what most have suspected all season. If you peel away the Verstappen and Pérez layers from the 2023 grid, the racing gets exponentially more tantalizing.
It started in Bahrain when Alonso raced wheel-to-wheel with Lewis Hamilton. Since then, nothing behind the Red Bulls has remained fixed – lucky for us since the turmoil has given us plenty of other things to talk about.
That said, I’m not sure how repeatable this particular Singapore race was. Four cars jostling for the win on the final lap at Marina Bay? Almost unheard of in this track’s brief existence. It took the right combination of safety cars, strategy, and Red Bull’s disappearance to manifest that four-way fight.
I’m not here to argue that Red Bull’s dominance is a blight on the sport. (Some fans will – you might have heard them.) I also don’t get the sense that the rest of the paddock does. For the most part, when you ask drivers and team principals about Red Bull’s performance, their tone sounds like a dispirited shrug. Red Bull have simply beaten them. And they will again – Sainz said that Red Bull will be “very, very, very, very difficult to beat” the rest of the season.
“I just think it’s great for F1 if Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, Aston would be that two, three-tenths quicker every race, to challenge them in race pace,” Sainz said. “I think the racing this year would be incredible, and it would be eight drivers fighting for wins, a bit like we saw today with four or five guys out there fighting for a win around a street track.
“So it just shows the potential F1 has to create an incredible show.”
Exactly. Even if Singapore returns to its processional ways in 2024, this race showed how regulations and team development have brought most F1 teams closer together. If and when teams close the gap to Red Bull, more weekends will look like Singapore than Spain. There’s been a competitive fire burning behind the Red Bulls this season. For one stellar night under the lights in Singapore, it finally broke free.
Loser: F1, next week
Verstappen will obliterate the field in Suzuka, won’t he?
(Photo: Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)