You know I love F1, right? I wouldn’t be writing for the fabulous Badger GP if I didn’t. As an avid follower of the sport for some 20-plus years, I know some races can be (in the words of our dear friend Ron Dennis) ‘sub-optimal.’ This was one of those races. Singa-bore. Singa-snore. I could go on. Fortunately, this column is about singing the praises of the drivers. I may have resembled a nodding dog at times during those seemingly endless 61 laps, but I still saw plenty of reasons to be cheerful. So which mongrel caught my drooping eyelids around the floodlit streets of Marina Bay? Who is our top Singapore poodle? Cue those celebratory fireworks for…
Many fancied the Red Bulls to do well in Singapore. Some reckoned they would out race Mercedes and give Ferrari a run for the money too. But as the last half dozen races have shown, the form book don’t mean jack this season. Qualifying day saw Lewis Hamilton produce the lap of his life to take a ‘stardust’ pole position. He thoroughly deserves all the plaudits for his astounding performance.
Max was equally impressive on Saturday, in my humble view. He was battling a car that wasn’t playing ball all weekend long. He said as much in his post-qualifying interview. But somehow, he managed to wrestle maximum performance from his vehicle when it mattered the most. Despite the lack of horsepower in the back of his Renault-powered Red Bull, Max finished qualifying in P2, three tenths ahead of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari. He said his qualifying result felt like a victory given all the handling problems he was facing. Sure, the engine was a weakness, but Max believed he had the car underneath him to fight for victory. You could see it in his eyes. I’ve missed that look.
Unleash the Merlion
Max has had a topsy-turvy season. Reliability issues. Silly mistakes. Being too aggressive. Visits to the naughty step. Only one victory. But this later part of the season has seen him score more podiums. The consistency is back. But who wants consistency when you can have full-on unleashing of the lion?!
The lion was a little tame at the start. Max was slow off the line – later complaining of dodgy gears and all manner of ‘drivability issues’ (code for ‘WTF is wrong with my car?’). Vettel was sniffing Verstappen’s rear end by Turn 1, but Max kept his foot in and arrived at Turn 2 in front. His relief was short-lived as Sebastian managed a superb manoeuvre around the outside of the Red Bull down the back straight. After a couple of potty-mouthed rants about his gear issues, Max calmed down and focused on the long game. Unlike last year, he was still in the race and his next radio broadcast was more circumspect. The car was feeling really good. He knew the plan. Lewis may have been giving a driving masterclass up front, but Max was eyeing the second step of the podium. Could he use strategy to beat the Ferrari in his under-powered Red Bull?
We were about to find out. When his rivals pitted, Max reeled off several personal best sector times. He knew it would be tight trying to get the jump on Vettel; only personal bests would do. His own pitstop was on the sluggish side – those pesky gears again! As he exited the pitlane, Sebastian was right with him. And I mean right with him! The pair appeared to have magnetic wheels as they locked together through a couple of corners. I watched through half shut eyes (fear, not boredom!). Max kicked into the full racer mode we all love to see and came out ahead. He was pretty chuffed with himself, giving a loud and emphatic ‘Yessss!’ over the airwaves.
Let’s Go, Dutch!
His engineer told him to stay focused. Sadly, my eyes failed to do likewise as the race settled into soporific mode. Save for a few midfield skirmishes (with cheeky Checo Perez in the middle of all of them), there wasn’t much going on. Everyone settled into a rhythm from one-third distance. Gaps remained annoyingly constant. I got up and put the kettle on.
Things did perk up again as the leaders tried to lap certain cars. Max was gaining ground as he and Hamilton negotiated the traffic. Most drivers were good boys, but others were having trouble with obedience. Romain Grosjean was embroiled in an almighty tussle with Sergey Sirotkin and wasn’t going to let the small matter of blue flags get in his way. Hamilton held back for several corners for fear of getting caught up in someone else’s accident. Verstappen sensed an opportunity and was soon on Hamilton’s tail. As the pair carefully picked their way through the battling back markers, Max was looking like he might be in with a shot of an overtake. But Romain got in his way and that was pretty much that.
Max didn’t give up though. He continued to put in personal best lap times, chipping away at Hamilton’s lead and maintaining a comfortable gap to Vettel behind. The Ferrari was nowhere. Verstappen wanted that second place and that’s exactly what he got. He outclassed his team-mate, overcame a dodgy start and pitstop and dealt with all manner of technical glitches with his car. It wasn’t an easy ride and I expected him to resemble a Frying Dutchman at the end of such a hot and sweaty race. Not a bit of it. Max looked super fresh, a sharp reminder he is only 21 years old (almost) and constantly maturing as a racing driver. His performance this weekend shows he still has the talent and he still has the hunger. Here’s hoping that new Honda engine puts him at the sharp end of the grid more often. But for now, pour that boy a Singapore Sling for being this week’s Top Dog. Nice work, Max.
This week’s Deputy Dog is Sergey Sirotkin. Yes, you heard right. I swear I forget he’s in the field most of the time, but he certainly made his presence felt today. He was in a race long battle with Perez and did a grand job of defending against the hard charging (some might say, reckless) Mexican. Their coming together was inevitable, but the Russian fought on valiantly and showed there’s actually a pretty handy racer inside that race suit.
Speaking of Russia, we’re off to Sochi next. Can Vettel stop Hamilton’s momentum? He’ll have to if he wants to keep that fifth world championship crown in his sights. Hang onto your cossacks, folks – it ain’t over yet!