Singapore race has found its own spark

Singapore race has found its own spark
A shower of sparks emerging from the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen during first practice at the Marina Bay Street Circuit as seen from Swissotel The Stamford on Friday. The enduring appeal of the sparks was part of the reason for the reintroduction of titanium plates under the cars.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

When Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone recently toyed with the idea of axing Monza from the racing calendar, it led to howls and hisses from the grid.

Lewis Hamilton led the jeers, calling it a "shame", and saying: "It should be here for the rest of Formula One's life. When you go to a new circuit, Ayrton (Senna) didn't drive there, (Juan Manuel) Fangio didn't drive there. The greats. There is no history there."

But where is Singapore in the hearts of the drivers? Is it an iconic race track?

While it radiates glamour and is Ecclestone's crown jewel bathed in floodlights, the Marina Bay Street Circuit is still a child born in 2008 without a killer app like Monaco's hairpin, the warp speed of Spa or the romance of Monza.

Being a tight and twisting street track also makes for less duelling among the racers. As world champion Hamilton said of the circuit: "You can't overtake for the life of you."

However, current and former drivers The Sunday Times spoke to believe the Republic is already up there with the cream of the calendar, having achieved the balance of a challenging track matched with a great atmosphere.

If there is a complaint, it strangely relates to the removal of the dreaded Turn 10, aka the Singapore Sling - a triple-apex corner labelled "the worst in F1" back in 2012 and the bane of many a driver as it shredded many slicks and caused the spines of drivers to shudder. It has since been modified into the smooth and sweeping left-hander to flow all the way to Turn 13.

Hamilton blasted after the first two practice sessions on Friday: "I don't like it, it made the track worse, the track was fine the way it was before."

Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo added: "I miss the old Singapore Sling because there was more bend to it, a true driver's turn.

"I'm a racer so going so close to the walls, especially after the white bridge (Anderson Bridge), gives me goosebumps."

Challenge. Attrition. Intensity. To win in Singapore is to put man and machine through the grinder but these alpha males of F1 do not want it any other way.

Even the annual appearance of the dreaded safety car - 10 deployments in seven races here - is not seen as a dampener.

Dripping with sweat after 58 laps during Friday night practice, Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel said: "I like the circuit. It's a good challenge, there are a lot of corners and it's a long lap. It's not easy to get everything right."

And that challenge, according to veteran motor racing columnist David Tremayne, is a collection of mind-boggling numbers.

He noted: "It is one of the toughest races. It is the most humid. There are 4,800 gear changes on average (Silverstone averages 2,000, Sepang 3,100). It has 23 corners, the others average about 17.

"The safety car has made it more complicated but that is just another factor."

Former McLaren and Red Bull ace David Coulthard billed the Republic's street circuit as "one of the top three or four" grands prix, insisting that one needs to look at the entire package on offer, not just the circuit.

"I'm not saying it to be nice because I'm here; it genuinely is fantastic," the Briton insisted.

"This is not the best circuit in the world in terms of the layout but... for example, Spa in Belgium is a track a lot of the drivers would call one of their favourite tracks. Beautiful countryside, but there's not much of an atmosphere.

"So... if you take the whole sporting event; Spa has a great track, pretty average atmosphere, Singapore has a good track and a fantastic atmosphere."

Coulthard, now an F1 commentator for the BBC, likened Singapore's package of demanding racing conditions and buzz among the spectators to that of Monaco, Melbourne and Montreal.

Similarly, after a thoughtful pause, former double world champion Mika Hakkinen concluded: "Singapore is not missing anything.

"The fans are very close to the cars. Everybody likes to come here, it is fascinating for fans. It is a very demanding track, very hot and humid. It is a physical and psychological challenge, a very tough track."

Although Singapore is no longer the only night race as Abu Dhabi and the upcoming Russian GP get in on the act, the Republic's place in F1 history is assured.

Said McLaren driver and 2009 world champion Jenson Button: "Singapore is a pretty special race. It is already the first under floodlights. You can see the flaming exhausts and disc brakes glowing at night. It is a spectacle.

"Although it is difficult to overtake, strategies come into play. For the drivers, it is always a challenging race."

Tremayne agreed: "Singapore's location as a city-state gives it character. Its status as the first night race gives it credibility. The circuit has a great and unique atmosphere. It is the proper night race. The people here get it and have embraced it."

It is not perfect. There are complaints. It has little history. But the F1 community believes that the Singapore Grand Prix is unique. Drivers hate how it saps their energy and destroys their cars but they love taking the bull by the horns.

Force India driver Sergio Perez summed it up: "It's the overall experience which makes it special. To me, it can be horrible out there because of the humidity, the G-force at the turns and the many corners we face. But that is what makes Singapore special too."

REASONS TO CHEER

1. The sights Jenson Button: "You can see the flaming exhausts and disc brakes glowing at night. It is a spectacle."

2. The challenge Sebastian Vettel: "I like the circuit. It's a good challenge, a lot of corners... It's not easy to get everything right."

3. The atmosphere Mika Hakkinen: "The fans are very close to the cars. Everybody likes to come here, it is fascinating for fans."

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

1. Little overtaking Lewis Hamilton: "You can't overtake for the life of you."

2. Missing Turn 10 Daniel Ricciardo: "I miss the old Singapore Sling because there was more bend to it, a true driver's turn."


This article was first published on September 20, 2015.
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