For much of its first half, the 15th round of the F1 world championship was more ‘Singa-bore’ than Singapore, but the race was enlivened by the unlikely coupling of Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber and Bruno Senna’s HRT, which precipitated the second safety car of the evening.
Prior to its re-appearance, the field was becoming strung out, with leaders Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel comfortably ahead of their rivals, but with Mark Webber having taken advantage of an early tyre stop to vault ahead of the two McLarens when Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button made the switch to the harder rubber approaching half distance.
The bunching of the field, however, allowed Vettel the chance to close in on Alonso and, more crucially, brought Hamilton and Button back under Webber’s rear wing. When the Australian was momentarily baulked by Lucas di Grassi’s Virgin, Hamilton pounced, scything inside the Red Bull at turn six. Turn seven was against the Briton, however, and Webber responded by leaving his braking later – with the inevitable outcome that the pair made heavy contact.
Hamilton was out on the spot, his second accident-induced DNF in as many races, but Webber managed to carry on, back up to pace after a few visual checks via the datascreens, but with Button now closing in courtesy of his fresher tyres.
The race had first been curtailed on lap two, following repeated contact between the Sauber of returnee Nick Heidfeld and the Force Indias of Tonio Liuzzi and Adrian Sutil. While Heidfeld needed a new nose, Liuzzi’s race was over, the Italian attempting to find safe haven for his car in order NOT to require the pace car.
Alonso was safely in front, having beaten Vettel off the line without needing the aggressive swerve he put on the German, while Hamilton, Button and Webber followed at a distance, having maintained their grid positions despite Button appearing to make a better getaway than his team-mate.
Further back, Felipe Massa, relegated to the very back of the grid after his qualifying gremlins, had already made up a handful of places, but Ferrari opted to pit the Brazilian in an effort to get his mandatory tyre change out of the way and give him some clear track to make up further ground. The safety car mitigated against that strategy, but Red Bull still decided to pit Webber as the pace was slowed, dropping the championship leader out of the points, but with the advantage of having stopped while those ahead of him soldiered on.
Quickly disposing of the stubborn Timo Glock – who would go on to hold up a train of others to have stopped under the safety car – Webber made steady progress back up the order, clinically disposing of Kobayashi and Schumacher to reach eighth, even as Alonso opened his advantage over the Australian to 16 seconds. Webber then came close to collecting the wall at turn 18 as he chased a stubborn Rubens Barrichello, but survived the scare to remain in contention for a podium.
Alonso, meanwhile, was controlling the gap back to Vettel, who had emerged as his only real rival for victory as the McLarens began to lap a full second slower than the Ferrari, but would not have known that his pursuer was suggesting that he had more pace in hand for when he needed it.
McLaren’s escalating lap times were allowed to continue for several tours before Hamilton was finally summoned for fresh rubber on lap 28, and the team’s worst fears were realised when the 2008 world champion emerged in eighth, behind Webber. It was the same story when Button stopped next time around, the sizeable gap between the Briton and his team-mate accounting for Hamilton’s elevation to seventh despite hitting traffic on his out-lap.
Alonso and Vettel both stopped a lap later, Red Bull somewhat strangely opting to cover the Scuderia instead of allowing its charge to get a couple of laps in clear air out front. The decision appeared to have scuppered Vettel’s chances of victory, especially as the German’s car stuttered as it was released.
Kobayashi’s exit, which helped precipitate the second safety car, came a lap or so after the Japanese rookie had made heavy contact with Michael Schumacher as the pair diced over ninth place. Like McLaren, both teams appeared to have left their pit-stops too late and put themselves in danger of being passed by the early stoppers once they had been released by Glock being heaved over the kerbs by an aggressive Nico Hulkenberg, but Kobayashi’s determination to pass Schumacher put the seven-time champion broadside and instantly demoted him to 15.
Even as Schumacher was pitting, however, Kobayashi found the limit as he turned to go under the grandstand at turn 18. Clipping the wall with his right rear, the Sauber then nosed into the barriers and, although a couple of others managed to avoid the wreck, its damage was completed by the unsighted arrival of Senna’s lapped HRT.
Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg, promoted to fourth and fifth by the McLaren stops, took the opportunity to pit, dropping back behind the silver machines as the championship contenders again massed in the top five – albeit with the two Virgins between them – approaching the restart.
The incident between Webber and Hamilton drew the attention of the stewards but, like that which subsequently saw Schumacher exact some measure of revenge on Sauber by putting Heidfeld out at the same corner, no action was deemed necessary.
Although Button briefly closed on third place, Webber had enough of car – and tyres – underneath him to remain ahead of the world champion, while Rosberg proved no threat to either as he settled into a lonely fifth ahead of Barrichello and Kubica who, following a surprise second stop, charged back from 13th in the space of six laps.
There was more of a battle at the very front, however, as Vettel closed right under the rear wing of Alonso’s Ferrari as the lap count vied with the clock to see which could expire first. In the end, the race went the scheduled 61-lap distance, but Alonso could not relax until he saw the flag, having closed on the battle for eighth – involving Sutil, Hulkenberg, Massa and Petrov – halfway around the final tour.
There was a moment when it appeared that the race may have to finish behind the safety car, as Heikki Kovalainen’s car caught light after contact from Sebastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso and the Finn was obliged to perform his own fire marshal duties after parking alongside the pit-wall. Such was the Finn’s ability with the extinguisher, however, the race finished without interruption – and Alonso was able to see the chequered flag he so craved.