Lewis Hamilton eased his way to an effortless victory at the Singapore Grand Prix to stretch his championship lead over Sebastian Vettel to 40 points.
Pre-weekend expectations were for Ferrari to cruise to victory, but the Italian team’s race-day outlook became substantially bleaker when Vettel qualified only third behind polesitter Hamilton and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen in third.
With overtaking difficult on the serpentine Singapore streets, the start of the race and the pit stop window were the Vettel’s two opportunities to revive his fortunes, but unfortunately for the German and his championship cause, neither he nor his team capitalized on either.
Hamilton got the perfect start and sprinted away from the line, leaving Verstappen and Vettel to squabble over second place.
The Ferrari driver had executed the better launch only to have his advances rebuffed at the first turn, but he trailed the Dutchman closely all the way to Turn 7, where he swept around Verstappen’s outside and into second place.
Behind the podium battle Force India teammates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon tangled at the exit of Turn 3. The Mexican ran wide, nudging the Frenchman into the barrier and ending his race, triggering a safety car that ran until the end of lap four.
Hamilton aced the restart to resume the race, but the first stint proved tepid at best while the top 10 cars tried to extend the life of their delicate hypersoft tires as far as possible.
It took until Lap 13 for Hamilton to pick up the pace, opening a three-second gap on the field. Ferrari, pre-empting a Mercedes stop, pitted Vettel at the end of Lap 13 for a new set of ultrasofts in preparation for what was expected to be a two-stop race.
Vettel was instructed to give it “everything you have”, and in response Hamilton was told to stop at the end of the following lap.
Hamilton’s hypersofts were swiftly changed for a new set of tires — softs, which would allow him to run to the end of the race — and he returned to the track comfortably ahead of Vettel.
But worse than losing its gamble for the lead or choosing the wrong set of tires was that Vettel had become caught behind Force India’s Perez, costing him valuable time. Red Bull Racing, sensing an opportunity, responded by bringing in Verstappen at the end of Lap 17, also switching him to the softs, and as he exited the pit lane he was neck and neck with the hampered Ferrari.
Vettel attempted to hang around the outside of the 20-year-old at Turn 3, but it was no good, and he was forced to concede the position.
“No chance,” he radioed his team moodily.
The race returned to its steady rhythm, but Perez was providing some action further down the field. The Force India driver had gotten himself stuck behind Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin and was complaining vociferously about the strategy that landed him there and for what he perceived to be dirty defending on his Russian rival’s part.
For 14 laps Perez toiled behind the Williams until he managed to pull alongside on lap 34, but as the battling drivers exited Turn 18 he inexplicably steered into Sirotkin’s side, damaging both cars and earning himself a puncture.
The stewards immediately opened an investigation into the crash and awarded Perez a drive-through penalty for his behavior.
At the front of the field race leader Hamilton continued to control the gap to Verstappen in second, the pair delicately navigating their way through some recalcitrant lapped traffic that briefly threatened to hand the Dutchman an opportunity to make a pass for the lead, but behind them Vettel had fallen back significantly as he attempted to nurse his ultrasoft tires to the end.
Working in the Ferrari driver’s favor was that Bottas in fourth place was struggling badly to wade through lapped traffic, providing him a buffer with which to manage his pace. He crossed the line third, but almost 40 seconds off the pace.
Hamilton, now with one hand on the 2018 championship, was ecstatic with the result.
“I feel super blessed,” he said. “The team have just never given up faith and belief in me.
“They [Ferrari] put up a good fight this weekend, I’m not really quite sure where their pace disappeared to. Max put up a good fight as well. What a day, what a weekend!”
Verstappen was similarly pleased, scoring Red Bull Racing’s highest finish since June’s Austrian Grand Prix.
“I think the team had a great strategy,” he said. “We did our own race, tried to follow Lewis a little bit, but in the end we knew second was the best result, so we brought it home.”
Vettel emerged from his car dejected and facing an almost insurmountable 40-point title comeback.
“I think overall we were not fast enough,” he conceded. “I think we tried to be aggressive in the beginning, and obviously it didn’t work out.
“With the way we raced we didn’t have a chance. There might be something extra in the fact that maybe we weren’t quick enough…
“I said before the weekend we can only beat ourselves, and this weekend we didn’t get everything out of our package.”