Written by Vyas Ponnuri
“Everything that we had to do, we did perfect” chirped a cheery Carlos Sainz after climbing out of his SF-23 at the Marina Bay Street Circuit. In the car though, he was once again humming to the famous tunes of Sade, “Smooth Operator…..” . This got us wondering: Was this the smoothest operation of his life?
And the answer to that would be resoundingly affirmative. A near-perfect weekend, in fact, having topped two of the three practice sessions, aced qualifying, led every lap, and finally won the race. The only downside of his weekend was missing out on the fastest lap, falling just short of matching his compatriot Fernando Alonso’s showing for the red team, way back in 2010.
On paper, it will be Sainz pole position and Sainz P1 in the race. However, it wasn’t the usual pole-to-victory race. Right from the off, the Spaniard was on the pace, topping FP1 ahead of teammate Charles Leclerc. He would go on to finish behind only Leclerc under the lights, in FP2. Bedding into a track as technical and tight (and now revamped) as Singapore is crucial, and Sainz did so without incident, and avoided the barriers (and Godzilla’s kid - in the words of Max Verstappen’s engineer) on Friday.
Saturday proved Ferrari’s Friday pace to be no fluke — Sainz once again topping third practice under the bright skies of Lion City. On the other hand, Red Bull weren’t to be seen near the top in any session so far — Was this a rare off-weekend for the Austrian franchise? Or would they show their true pace when it counted the most?
Nevertheless, Saturday would give us, in the words of F1 TV commentator Alex Jacques, “A seismic shock”. Having won 10 races in a row leading up to Singapore, Verstappen found himself in relatively unfamiliar territory — having to scrap to make it into the final part of qualifying. Manhandling his Red Bull around the streets of Singapore, through oversteer and other travails, he would improve to tenth, and on the cusp.
However, an unlikely contender in three-race old Liam Lawson would knock the reigning champion out, much to the gasps of the crowd — and viewers on television.
The Red Bulls outside the top ten meant two fewer contenders for pole position. The race for pole was hotting up, with Sainz laying down the early benchmark time in the low 1:31s, quarter of a second ahead of teammate Leclerc. They were on course for a front row lockout, an unbelievable result considering their tough 2023 season.
Finally, it was time for the final runs. Who would grab the coveted pole position at Singapore? Leclerc wouldn’t, as he failed to match his teammate’s time. Oversteer in the final sector cost him a shot at a hat trick of Singapore poles.
Sainz, though, was on a flier, having aced the first sector. Despite a slower second sector than before, his strength all weekend, he was still up on his previous best. And a sensational final sector (the best of anyone in the session) saw Sainz dip into the 1:30s, the only driver to do so all session. He’d held onto pole position, but had to keep an eye on Russell’s Silver Arrow behind, who had aced the tricky, technical second sector, to be marginally ahead of Sainz’s time.
However, going all-in at the treacherous final two left handers would pay off for Sainz, and he would grab pole by the slender margin of 0.072 seconds from Russell. His second pole in a row, and ahead of a qualifying ace in teammate Leclerc, this could be considered Sainz’s best qualifying session, considering the challenges of Singapore’s humidity, and the tricky street circuit.
Yet, converting this into a victory would be a tall order, especially looking at the race pace Ferrari had shown all season. Tyre wear is Ferrari’s Achilles heel, and it would be the biggest challenge on race day too. Add to that, the previous two Singapore Grands-Prix weren’t won from pole position, although the pole sitter had won eight of the previous 13 races here.
Tyres available would be another factor in the mix on Sunday — while both Mercedes drivers had an extra set of fresh medium tyres at their disposal, the drivers around them didn’t have this option. This would give them more strategic options, a pivotal point adding to the excitement of the race.
Off the five red lights, Sainz would ace the start, while teammate Leclerc would use the soft tyres to jump ahead of Russell. It would be tricky to overtake in the narrow confines of Singapore, and the leading pack would hold station. The biggest gainer would be Verstappen, moving up to eighth from 11th.
Safety Cars have always been a variable to factor in, when referring to the Singapore Grand Prix. Each edition of the race has seen either a full Safety Car period or a Virtual Safety Car period. And bar Zhou Guanyu, all drivers and teams were playing the waiting game, for the inevitable safety car appearance.
And it would be on lap 20 when Singapore would see Bernd Maylander make yet another appearance on the streets. A crash by Logan Sargeant, reminiscent of teammate Albon’s incident at turn eight in 2022, would bring out the safety car. It was an opportunity too good to miss, and most drivers pitted. Only the Red Bull drivers stayed out on track, and Sainz emerged from the pits just ahead of Verstappen.
This would be a crucial move for the Spaniard, who aced the safety car restart, pulling away from the old hard-tyred Red Bull. The hunters would have a challenge in their way, in the form of Verstappen, and would have to clear him to get to the Ferrari. Clear him they did, in little time.
Once again, the race would shift to the top five, the gaps hovering around the one-second mark in the middle of the race. Tyre conservation would be key, especially around a racetrack of Singapore’s nature, traction being the important factor.
The Mercedes drivers would get their big break during the lap 45 virtual safety car period, deployed due to Esteban Ocon’s stationary Alpine at turn two. The Mercedes drivers opted to gamble on strategy, and use the extra set of medium tyres to mount a victory challenge. They’d dropped to fourth and fifth, but would have a massive tyre advantage.
The race was well and truly on, as the field went back to green flag running. Sainz and Norris had managed to pull away from Leclerc, whose tyres were starting to drop off, and power unit starting to overheat. He would remain a sitting duck to the oncoming Mercedes, dispatched by Russell and Hamilton easily. With under ten laps to go, Russell had to bridge six seconds to the leading pair, and he duly did so in under five laps.
With only a handful of laps to go, the top four were separated by mere metres of space on the track; the win was still up for grabs, and anyone in the leading quartet could snatch it.
This is where Sainz’s street smarts and awareness came into play. Allowing second-placed Norris to get within a second of his Ferrari, he duly allowed Norris to benefit from the DRS, which gave the McLaren more tools to keep behind the charging Mercedes.
Only once did Norris have to get his elbows out, which he duly did, on lap 59. In a beautiful defence, he thwarted Russell’s attempts to pass, despite losing out in a traction race onto the new section of track.
He would duly be offered DRS once again, a tactical measure by Sainz, and kept the Mercedes behind for two more laps.
One of Formula One’s famous sayings goes as follows, “In order to finish first, first you must finish.” If you do wish to finish strong, you must first cross the chequered flag. And for Russell, this would be the case, as all his efforts went in vain.
On the final tour, he would clip the wall jutting out at turn 10, and go into the barriers. This effectively ended the challenge for the win, and handed a podium to his teammate Hamilton.
Sainz would remain unchallenged for the remaining eight corners, and take a very special victory, arguably his finest in Formula One, ahead of his pal Norris, and Hamilton.
A near-perfect weekend, one he showed tremendous pace all through, whilst displaying tremendous awareness and street smarts, coupled with splendid racecraft, as he used all his experience to take a special win. In addition, he was focused, and his judgement was on song, as he kept away from the barriers of the tight Singapore circuit.
A truly deserving victor of the race, showcasing every quality a Formula One racer possesses. This will indeed go on to be, in his words, “The smoothest operation of his life”. His magnum opus, indeed.