The Singapore Grand Prix marked a major opportunity for the Force India team to walk away with a healthy haul of points to regain positions in the tight midfield Constructors’ Championship battle.
Yet it all went to hell. Its two drivers clashed yet again and the ‘Pink Panthers’ left F1’s night race with no points and plenty of red faces, as LUKE McCULLOUGH explains…
|FREE PRACTICE SESSION 1||FREE PRACTICE SESSION 2|
|12.||Sergio Pérez||1:42.412||25||11.||Sergio Pérez||1:40.774||30|
|15.||Esteban Ocon||1:43.177||25||13.||Esteban Ocon||1:40.870||33|
Force India brought a wealth of aerodynamic updates for the remaining flyaway races. with the VJM11 cars featuring a number of new details.
The duo could only manage twelfth and fifteenth in the order, however, the opening FP1 session runs during misleading conditions in the late afternoon that differ significantly to the floodlit scenarios of FP2, qualifying and the race.
With conditions for Saturday’s qualifying session set to mirror those of FP2, Pérez and Ocon were looking to fine-tune their cars as the second session got underway later that night. The pair rose up the order slightly with Pérez in eleventh and Ocon in thirteenth, separated by just over one-tenth of a second and five-tenths to ‘best of the rest’ leader Carlos Sainz in the Renault.
“Singapore isn’t the easiest place to introduce aero updates to the car, but we did what we could and tested all the new parts,” Pérez explained later on Friday night.
“There was quite a big change to the characteristics of the car and it’s going to take more time before we fully understand how we can maximise the set-up. The balance still needs improving and there are some decisions to take tonight to make sure we get the best from the car tomorrow. It feels as though we are in good shape so far.”
“I think the pace of the car is quite good and we can be in the mix for the top ten tomorrow,” added Ocon.
“The middle of the pack is very tight once again, so getting each sector just right is going to be especially important during qualifying. A small mistake will be very costly in terms of grid position.”
|FREE PRACTICE SESSION 3||QUALIFYING|
|8.||Esteban Ocon||1:40.073||14||7.||Sergio Pérez||1:37.985||19|
|9.||Sergio Pérez||1:40.231||14||9.||Esteban Ocon||1:38.365||20|
Strong showings in the third and final practice session from Force India proved the midfield battle was going to be tight. Getting into Q3 would be no guarantee come qualifying.
Pérez and Ocon climbed the timing screens again in the final hour-long session, reaching eighth and ninth respectively in the sunlight conditions before qualifying.
By the end of Q1, the pair managed a weekend-high sixth spot achieved by Pérez with a nimble lap time of 1:38.814.
Both drivers managed to lap faster than their engine supplier’s works team Mercedes, which gambled on preserving tyres over lap time in the opening 18-minute session.
At the end of Q2, Perez passed through the gate to finish seventh in the middle session while Ocon just snuck through in tenth position to claim the final spot in the Q3 shootout. Both drivers improved their times by around four-tenths of a second in an intense stanza of on-track action.
During the final session, Ocon began proceedings and laid down a faster banker lap over his teammate. But when push came to shove, Pérez got the better of the 21-year old and outqualified the Frenchman for only the fourth time this season.
He would start Sunday’s race from seventh on the grid with a time of 1:37.985 – around two seconds slower than poleman Lewis Hamilton’s astounding effort at the front of the field and ‘best of the rest’ status behind the top three teams.
“I think I produced a nearly perfect lap on a track where it is hard to achieve it,” explained the Mexican triumphantly.
“This is a track that normally doesn’t play to our strengths, so I was pleased at the pace we have shown.
“Tomorrow’s race is going to be a long one – nearly two hours – and there’s never a boring race in Singapore with incidents and Safety Cars influencing the end result. We need to make it to the chequered flag, avoid mistakes and hopefully I can make it eight races out of eight in the points in Singapore.”
“My Q3 lap was not ideal, I brushed the wall and it probably cost me some time,” Ocon explained.
“I feel good about tomorrow – anything can happen in the race and you need to keep out of trouble and be opportunistic. Overtaking isn’t easy around here so the first lap will be really important. I think we will have the race pace to score good points.”
|FORMULA 1 2018 SINGAPORE AIRLINES SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (61 LAPS)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result|
|16.||Sergio Pérez||Racing Point Force India Mercedes VJM11||60||+ 1 lap|
|DNF.||Esteban Ocon||Racing Point Force India Mercedes VJM11||0||Collision|
Force India had a great opportunity to collect even more points after being forced to reset their Constructors’ Championship points’ tally in the lead up to last month’s Belgian Grand Prix when it was rescued from administration.
An optimal tyre strategy complimented their drivers’ starting positions on the grid, with the potential of finishing ‘best of the rest’ behind the top three teams on Sunday night.
Instead, it would all come to a crumbling end moments after the lights went out. From the get-go, Ocon – directly behind Pérez – had a better start off the line, jinking left and right to look for space into the first corner complex.
Out of Turn 2, Ocon snuck up along the right-hand side of Pérez and attempted to sweep by the outside. That was until the Mexican propelled him into the wall, destroying Ocon’s front right suspension and leaving his car in tatters by the barriers.
The incident recalled the high-speed mess at last year’s Belgian Grand Prix last year where Ocon again tried to sneak past the right side of Pérez’s car before being squeezed into the wall just short of Eau Rouge at 280 km/h with, astonishingly, only minor front wing damage.
Pérez seemed to have escaped any damage from the accident while the TV replays showed awkward wheel-to-wheel contact between the teammates.
For Ocon, the retirement was a disaster particularly given his slender chances of remaining on the Formula 1 grid next year.
“I am not going to analyse what happened at the start, but all I will say is that I got off the line well and I saw an opportunity to go past Sergio,” Ocon bluntly described the incident when he returned to the paddock.
“I had good grip on the outside, but then I felt a hit and I was in the wall.”
Pérez, meanwhile, was able to hold station in a net seventh position through the opening stage of the race and crucially played a role in championship challenger Sebastian Vettel’s early performance.
Ferrari’s main man attempted an early undercut strategy on race leader Lewis Hamilton and emerged from the pit lane behind Pérez on Lap 15. It took the German a tedious three laps before he could get past Pérez, which not only handed an even greater advantage to Hamilton but it also allowed Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen to leapfrog him when the Dutch driver made his own pit stop.
By then, Pérez had made his own early pit stop and, similarly to Vettel, switched to the Ultrasoft tyres in the ambitious hope of making it to the chequered flag without needing to pit again. He rejoined in a lowly sixteenth behind Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams – the Russian had pitted out of sequence in the opening laps after a wheel rim from Ocon’s damaged car became lodged in his front wing.
Sirotkin, on the more durable Soft tyres, was similarly hoping to run to the finish without a pit stop and despite his Williams’ lack of speed, the lack of genuine overtaking opportunities around the Marina Bay circuit meant he was not going to make life easy for Pérez.
Pérez was stuck behind the rookie for 26 gruelling laps, with the 28-year-old becoming increasingly frustrated with Sirotkin apparently blocking him at almost every corner. Finally he found an open gap at Turn 14 and dived for the inside; the pair ran side-by-side through the next three corners as Sirotkin refused to yield.
Clownishly, Pérez veered left into Sirotkin’s path to crowd him out before the next left-hander, but only succeeded in stripping floor and sidepod elements off both of their cars and writing off the pair’s chances of a points’ finish.
Pérez was also left with an instant rear-left puncture, limping back to the pit lane for a change of tyres and returning to the circuit in last place. The eight-time podium finisher raced his way back to the end of the pack and caught up to his foe again on Lap 40 – this time he cleanly dived inside at Turn 16 to make the pass with ease.
Ironically, as the manoeuvre was happening, Pérez awful night was compounded by the FIA Stewards handing him a drive-through penalty for his contact with Sirotkin. Back through the pit lane for a third time and once again back to last place.
Again he caught up to the back of the pack and once again zeroed in on Sirotkin, who was by now blocking everyone he could in his hobbled Williams. Pérez had no such difficulty and had the help of DRS to pass the Williams on the run to Turn 7.
Pérez was then stuck behind the Toro Rosso of Brendon Hartley for the rest of the race, finally managing to get by the New Zealander on the last lap of the race. Sixteenth place was a dreadful result in a weekend that had promised so much more for the veteran of 152 Grands Prix.
“I feel very sad about the lost opportunity today,” droned Pérez.
“On Lap 1 I was coming out of Turn 3, picking up the power and all of a sudden I felt a hit. I didn’t know who it was and then the team told me it was Esteban.
“I think we underestimated how difficult it would be to overtake the Williams and Sirotkin was defending very hard and moving around under braking. When I finally got alongside him, I tried to close the door a bit too early and we made contact. It’s a weekend to forget and I am really sorry for what happened and the points we have lost today.”
The team’s management was rightly disappointed with a point-less weekend and team principal Otmar Szafnauer one again threatened not to allow his two drivers to race for position – this being the third Grand Prix in less than 18 months where they had hit each other.
“It’s unacceptable for teammates to hit each other and it has cost us dearly,” he furthered.
“They didn’t leave each other enough room and the contact put Esteban into the wall. We will therefore reinstate the rules of engagement we operated last year after similar incidents, which means they cannot race each other.
“This disastrous race is all the more frustrating when you consider the speed we showed in qualifying and the opportunity that has passed us by. These painful lows are part of racing and it’s fair to say that there are very few positives to take from tonight apart from the car pace.
“We will have some discussions behind closed doors and will learn from what happened so that we can become stronger as a team.”
The double retirement was the team’s second of the 2018 season after the French Grand Prix where Ocon crashed out early after being hit by Romain Grosjean and Pierre Gasly while Pérez retired with an engine issue later in the race. Prior to that, the team’s last zero-point weekend had been at Silverstone in 2014.
With only six races until the curtains fall this season, can Szafnauer and his group come back and reach their goal of fifth place in the Constructors’ Championship standings?
Images via Racing Point Force India F1 Team
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