Max Verstappen might have nine fingers on the championship trophy, but he can’t be accused of cruising to the finish line.
It’s clear on the track, where he seemed certain to snatch pole position at the death.
But it’s clear off track too, where he gave both barrels to his team for hauling him into the pits moments before he was set to take the flag and make that lap official.
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Charles Leclerc, still technically his title rival, was free to collect his P1 start instead.
It was an all-round odd qualifying hour at the Singapore Grand Prix. It was neither wet nor dry, and the results weren’t particularly revealing of any certain balance of power.
Three different teams are represented in the top three places, and only Ferrari has both its drivers among the frontrunning pack. The championship leader starts eighth, and one of the Mercedes is way down in the bottom half of the grid.
It’s a grid that sets up a potentially fascinating race, and with more wet weather on the radar, Verstappen’s first shot at clinching the championship is unlikely to play out as anyone imagined.
LECLERC AIMS FOR SINGAPORE REDEMPTION
Charles Leclerc became the first Ferrari driver to take nine pole positions since Michael Schumacher scored 11 of them in 2001.
It not only puts him into rare air among the Scuderia’s servants but also underlines how dominant he’s been on Saturdays this season. Verstappen would have to take all five remaining poles to match him on nine by the end of the season; one more pole would cement Leclerc as the season’s single-lap specialist.
He couldn’t have chosen a better place to score his ninth — half his 18 career poles have been chalked up this year — than the Singapore streets, where overtaking is difficult and qualifying order is crucial.
It therefore puts him in powerful position to take just his fourth win of the year. But it also gives him a chance to correct some history.
Leclerc started the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix from pole position ahead of Lewis Hamilton. Then, as now, the race pace of the frontrunning cars was unclear, so Ferrari had Leclerc lap extremely slowly to keep the pack bunched up and prevent the Briton from finding an undercut window.
But it accidentally opened the door to then teammate Sebastian Vettel doing exactly that in what the team thought would be a battle for second place. Once the pit stops shook out, Vettel was in the lead with Leclerc in second, and despite the Monegasque’s best efforts, they finished in that order.
It’s the last win of Vettel’s career to date and was one of several flashpoints generated by tension inside the team that season.
“Obviously that was frustrating that day,” Leclerc said. “I remember it very, very well.
“Looking back, it was probably the right choice for the team because it helped us to do a one-two, which probably wouldn’t have been possible without that.
“Having said that, if it happens again tomorrow, I will probably be as frustrated as in 2019, because I’m here to win, and the only thing I want to do is to win tomorrow.”
And then of course there’s the third prong to all of this: the championship battle.
With Leclerc starting well ahead of Verstappen, the Ferrari driver has a chance to delay the coronation.
“It is important for me to win as many races as possible to the end of the season,” Leclerc said. “We’ll just focus on ourselves and try to use these last races in the best way possible, maximise our package.
“This is important to me. The rest, I don‘t care.”
RED BULL RACING UNDER THE BUS IN VERSTAPPEN FUEL CRISIS
It’s somewhat uncharitable to say Leclerc’s pole was won by a mistake on Red Bull Racing’s part, but it wouldn’t be completely inaccurate either.
The end of Q3 had a lottery feel to it, with grip improving all the time and positioning on the circuit and timing over the line proving influential to a driver’s pole chances.
But even taking that into account, Verstappen clearly had more to give.
His penultimate flying lap had him set for pole when he was told to slow to create a gap to Pierre Gasly ahead for his final flying lap.
That final attempt was similarly solid, albeit fractionally slower, and looked likewise quick enough to put him at the top of the pile — but again he was told to abort, this time ending his session.
“Why?,” he wailed on the radio. “What the f*** why?
“What the f***? What the f*** are you guys saying? Unbelievable, mate. I don’t get it, what the f*** is this about?”
The tirade continued, but you get the gist.
A lack of fuel was the team’s reasoning. The car didn’t have enough for Verstappen to complete what would’ve been his pole lap and supply the sample for the FIA for scrutineering. Taking the flag would’ve assured Verstappen of a back-of-grid start instead of his comparatively better eighth.
Speaking afterwards, Verstappen dispensed with the win-and-lose-together mantra.
“It is incredibly frustrating and it shouldn’t happen,” Verstappen told Sky Sports. “Even when you underfuel it or don’t plan to do those six laps then at least you track that throughout the session to know you aren’t going to make it. We should’ve seen that way earlier.
“I am not happy at all at the moment, I know of course it is always a team effort and I can make mistakes and the team can make mistakes, but it is never acceptable.
“Of course you learn from it but this is really bad. It shouldn’t happen.”
At least there’s no risk of Verstappen phoning in the final phase of the season with the title practically won.
Part of his visceral disappointment is that this won’t be like any of the recent comebacks that formed part of his live five-race victory streak. Unlike Monza or Spa-Francorchamps or even Budapest, overtaking will be very difficult on Sunday without the intervention of rain.
“It is a bit like Monaco,” he said. “At the moment I am not really in the mood to think about the race tomorrow.”
The frustration is real. Still, you wouldn’t write anything off from Verstappen in light of his recent form.
HAMILTON’S BEST START OF THE SEASON WITH AN EYE FOR VICTORY
It’s taken 17 rounds for Lewis Hamilton, Formula 1’s most prolific qualifier, to qualify inside the top three this season.
It was so nearly a 104th pole position too. The Briton was at the top of the timing board early in Q3 but ultimately fell short by an agonising 0.054 seconds.
Perhaps it was the reinsertion of his nose stud that briefly caused a kerfuffle in the stewards office. The sport’s jewellery ban — thankfully no longer a top-line issue — had him remove it ahead of races in recent months, but medical advice in light of an infection has had him put it back in, which the FIA has now accepted, hopefully closing the matter for good.
But in actual fact this circuit has been the scene of some of Hamilton’s most impressive moments, high among them his pole lap here in 2018.
With Russell down in 11th — albeit with a technical problem — Hamilton’s unlikely pole crack was just another example.
“This is his place, and I think it wasn’t an easy-to-drive car today,” team boss Toto Wolff said. “I think he just outdrove the car today. It was really good.
“It was on a knife’s edge. I think if he put the lap together, then we are on pole. I think we can be very satisfied with the performance.”
Mercedes is still cautiously optimistic of a strong result, though Russell starting so far out of position leaves Hamilton under-resourced strategically, especially with two Ferrari cars in the mix for the podium.
But just as Leclerc has a score to settle with this track, Hamilton has a score to settle with this season, which is shaping up as his first ever without at least a win. Mercedes too is desperate to score at least one victory this season, but time is fast running out.
Singapore has been earmarked in recent months as one of its last best shots.
“It is one of the tracks that as per our simulations would suit us more, albeit the bumps,” Wolff said. “That was exactly the comments of the drivers, that the ride is really bad, the car is too stiff, but the aero seems to work.”
“We’re looking better than on many other circuits.”
Good enough to win? Starting from third, you can be sure Hamilton will hold nothing back off the line.
ALONSO OUTSTANDING AHEAD OF 350TH START
The great tend to rise to the top when the going gets tough, and there are few conditions in Formula 1 tougher than a damp Singapore Grand Prix track.
It’s little wonder Fernando Alonso was right there near the top of the field.
The Spaniard is of course limited by his machinery in how high he can climb up the field, but lapping only half a second down on Leclerc around a lap this long is seriously impressive. His 0.6-second advantage over the rest of midfield further emphasises the fact.
Alpine is running an upgraded car this weekend, and while that certainly played a role, in a session like this Q3, with cars circulating perpetually in search of grip, it’s the driver that made the difference, and Alonso made a massive difference.
“It was unbelievably difficult today,” Alonso said. “The street circuit, changeable conditions, the track keeps damp forever in a couple of corners, turn 17 standing out.
“It was not enjoyable to drive — I guess quite okay to watch on TV — but very happy with the result.
“I think we maximised these conditions. In dry or wet we would never be top five, so I think we put a good lap.”
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It’s all very impressive, but especially given the Spaniard is on the cusp of making history as Formula 1’s most experienced driver.
He’s currently tied with Kimi Raikkonen on 349 starts. Sunday will be his 350th, the all-time record. With at least two seasons coming up with Aston Martin, he’ll likely crack 400 grands prix before the end of his career.
His prospects for a commensurately good result are strong too. Alpine looked comfortably best of the midfield on race pace during practice, and if conditions are mixed, there are few you’d put more money on to excel.
On Alonso’s record-breaking race weekend, we’re being treated to some quintessential Alonso performances.