Lewis Hamilton has extended his lead in the Formula 1 World Championship standings with victory in a dramatic Singapore Grand Prix after pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel crashed out on the opening lap of the race.
The Mercedes driver started from fifth position on the grid but found himself in the lead of the race by the fourth turn, which he held until the chequered flag. He crossed the finish line 4.5 seconds clear of Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo, with Valtteri Bottas completing the podium.
A heavy rain shower minutes before the start served as a sign for the drama that would come just after the starting lights went out. The top-six qualifiers – Vettel, Max Verstappen, Ricciardo, Kimi Räikkönen, Hamilton and Bottas – opted to start on Pirelli’s Intermediate tyres, while a number of others, including Nico Hülkenberg and the McLarens of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, gambled on Wet tyres in the expectation that conditions would worsen.
It was Räikkönen who made the best getaway from fourth place as the lights went out. The Finn jinked left to lunge up the inside of Verstappen at the same time that Vettel veered left towards Verstappen to cover the Dutch driver on the run to Turn 1.
The two Ferraris succeeded in pincering Verstappen, with Räikkönen tipped into the side of Vettel. Räikkönen’s car was out of control, and he slid haplessly into Verstappen a second time at the apex of Turn 1 before the pair clobbered an innocent Alonso who had made a mighty getaway from eighth on the grid.
Vettel held the lead through the first three turns ahead of Hamilton, Ricciardo and Hülkenberg, but unknown to Vettel, his left radiator was punctured and appeared to be leaking fluid on his left rear tyre.
Whether it was the leaking coolant, cold tyres or perhaps a dose of karma, Vettel suddenly speared into the wall between Turns 3 and 4 before sliding backwards to the right-hander as the rest of the field scrambled to find a way past his terminally wounded car.
For Hamilton, Christmas had come early at a circuit where he had openly admitted he would need a miracle to avoid losing his three-point lead to Vettel in the Drivers’ Championship standings after the Ferrari driver had stormed to pole position the night before.
The race was briefly neutralised behind the Safety Car so the wrecked cars of Verstappen and Räikkönen could be cleared from the Turn 1 run-off. When the race resumed, he quickly pulled out a 3.5-second lead as Ricciardo and Hülkenberg gamely gave chase.
The rain stopped on Lap 6, swinging conditions in favour of the Intermediate runners.
The race had its second Safety Car appearance when Daniil Kvyat clumsily crashed his Toro Rosso at the end of the back straight. Several drivers opted to pit for fresh Intermediates or to switch from the full Wets, but Mercedes kept Hamilton and Bottas out on track, while Williams’ Felipe Massa and Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein both stayed out on full Wets in the hope of another shower.
There would be no further rain, and as the track began to dry it was quickly apparent that a switch to dry tyres would come soon.
Ricciardo pitted for Ultra Softs on Lap 29 in a bid to undercut Hamilton, but Mercedes quickly responded to keep the Englishman in the lead. He set about extending his lead to almost 20 seconds before a third Safety Car period was brought about when Marcus Ericsson crashed his Sauber at the Anderson Bridge.
That prompted another flurry of pit stops, the most notable of which was for Hülkenberg who was removed from podium contention with a longer stop while a leaking oil system was topped up. The Renault driver would later retire in the final laps of the race as the issue became more terminal.
As the race restarted for a fourth time, Hamilton again pulled clear from Ricciardo while Bottas gave chase in third. The top three would run in that order, with the race running to its two-hour time limit instead of its allocated 61-lap distance.
Renault-bound Carlos Sainz Jr finished a career-best fourth for Toro Rosso, two spots ahead of the man he is replacing, Jolyon Palmer, who scored his first points of the season in this attrition-hit race. The pair sandwiched Force India’s Sergio Pérez in fifth.
Also achieving a career-best finish was Stoffel Vandoorne, who claimed morale-boosting points for McLaren in seventh. After being punted at the first corner, teammate Alonso tried to limp on despite a massively holed left radiator but was later forced to retire his car.
The final points went to Williams’ Lance Stroll, Haas’ Romain Grosjean and the second Force India of Esteban Ocon, who waged a close scrap for the entire race.
Hamilton’s unexpected victory helped extend his lead in the World Championship standings to 28 over Vettel, with Bottas a further 23 points adrift in third.
Images via LAT Images