Sebastian Vettel won his first race in more than a year by accidentally undercutting polesitter Charles Leclerc for the lead at the Singapore Grand Prix.
Vettel started third behind teammate Leclerc and second-placed Lewis Hamilton, but the race swung towards him at the first pit stop window, when the race’s slow pace forced him into an early tire change that incidentally worked to move him into the lead.
Leclerc had aced his start to keep Hamilton at arm’s length, but further down the grid Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg were tangling for a points finish, making contact at the first lap as the latter attempted to pass around the outside of the latter. Both were forced back to the pits for repairs and an early tire change, dropping to the back.
But with the leaders running at a restrained pace to ensure a single stop at the hard-to-pass circuit, the field remained stubbornly bunched, allowing Hulkenberg to rebuild his race, making his way back to 14th place by Lap 18. What’s more, his pace on fresh rubber was quick enough to move up into the pit stop window of the front-runners.
Ferrari, noting the threat of making a pit stop and falling behind Hulkenberg, called in Vettel on Lap 19, with Max Verstappen following suit, both for new hard tires.
But it wasn’t until the following tour that Leclerc came in for his own precautionary change, and it proved critical to his result: When he emerged from pit lane he fell behind Vettel, who had used his fresher tires to undercut him and inherit the net lead of the grand prix.
Hamilton remained up front and attempted to unleash what pace remained in his aging rubber, but the Mercedes had little more to give. Indeed so ordinary was the Briton’s pace that it became immediately clear he would not only lose places to the second Ferrari and Verstappen, but he risked falling behind teammate Valtteri Bottas, who had made his own stop shortly after Leclerc. The team intervened, asking the Finn to slow and allowing Hamilton to exit pit lane at the start of Lap 27 ahead of the sister car.
Only a gaggle of midfield cars — a side effect of the front-runners’ early stops — remained to be passed, and Vettel, his confidence boosted, was bold in his offense. First passing Lance Stroll and Daniel Ricciardo, he then launched an ambitious attack down Pierre Gasly’s inside at Turn 7. The pair made contact and Gasly was forced off the track, though both emerged unscathed and the stewards deemed it a racing incident.
The way appeared clear for Vettel claim victory, but the Singapore Grand Prix, notorious for its 100 percent safety car record, had three caution periods in store to test his mettle.
The first came on lap 36 to clean up George Russell’s stricken Williams. The Briton lost control when hit by Haas’s Romain Grosjean, who nudged his rear wheels in a botched attempt at a pass around the outside of turn eight.
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” Russell noted wryly over team radio, and the stewards summoned both to a hearing after the race.