(L to R): George Russell, Mercedes, Carlos Sainz Jnr, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Singapore, 2023

Why Sainz is wary of Red Bull, and Pirelli doubt Mercedes’ two-stop plan can work

Formula 1

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Midway through one of the most brutally dominant stretches a Formula 1 team has ever enjoyed, Mercedes arrived at Singapore in mid-September 2015 boasting a tally of 10 wins from the first 12 rounds.

Despite no major change to the car, no ‘mass damper’-esque FIA intervention or obvious act of sabotage, Mercedes’ untouchable pace simply evaporated in the humid Singapore heat that weekend. Neither Lewis Hamilton nor his team mate Nico Rosberg qualified on the front two rows of the grid in qualifying and, on race day, only Rosberg finished – three places and 24 seconds behind winner Sebastian Vettel in fourth.

Mercedes admitted they were mystified as to what caused their pace around the Marina Bay circuit to vanish. In the next round at Suzuka they resumed their monopoly over the top two positions once more like nothing had happened.

As bizarre a blip in form as that Singapore weekend was for Mercedes eight years ago, Red Bull’s loss of performance in the thick of their all-time record winning streak is even harder to fathom. The RB19 is the only Formula 1 car ever built to arrive at its 15th grand prix unbeaten. Even if Red Bull decide not to show up to the remaining seven rounds, the RB19 will still go down in history as one of the best racing cars of all time.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Singapore, 2023
Incredibly, both Red Bulls fell in Q2
Yet, despite making no major changes to their car this weekend, both Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez were both knocked out of Q2 in qualifying like they were also-rans, not the team who have owned the top step of the podium all year long.

“We tried a new aero part in practice, but what we went into qualifying with is tried and tested,” team principal Christian Horner admitted after their worst qualifying performance in recent memory. “For whatever reason, the car just hasn’t responded at this circuit.”

Singapore could not be more different from the hallowed asphalt of Monza F1 visited just two weeks ago, yet despite both Ferrari drivers insisting that the SF-23 was likely better suited to the Italian circuit than Singapore, Carlos Sainz Jnr stormed to a second straight pole position that even he had not expected heading into the weekend.

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” the pole winner admitted. “Because at our last high downforce track, we’ve really struggled. We’ve haven’t been on the pace.

“We’ve done a lot of work to try and understand our high-downforce package and the team has done a very good job to put it together for Singapore. I think it’s a good job well done.”

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But while Sainz’s pole appeared to validate his practice pace after going quickest in the final two sessions, he had been a little fortunate to end up fastest of all. Heading down Marina Bay’s newly fashioned straight approaching turn 16 on their final laps, Sainz had been a tenth of a second slower than Ferrari team mate Charles Leclerc. But as he exited turn 17, Leclerc lost traction and momentum, losing time all the way to the timing line and allowing both Sainz and George Russell to just squeeze ahead of him at the finish.

George Russell, Mercedes, Singapore, 2023
Russell crucially split the Ferrari drivers
“A small mistake in turn 17 which cost me too much, but apart from that I’m happy with the lap,” Leclerc accepted. “It wasn’t enough today, though.”

Russell’s clean lap was rewarded with his first front row appearance since Melbourne back at the start of April. After telling RaceFans in Zandvoort that he had changed his approach to qualifying after some disappointing results before the summer break, it is Russell’s third consecutive top four grid position since the season resumed. But admitted Mercedes were had expected to be in the fight for pole this weekend.

“We know that on the high-downforce circuits we tend to go better. So this is a great opportunity, this weekend, to get a victory.”

Russell is underselling the enormity of the open goal Mercedes and Ferrari are both staring down thanks to Red Bull’s stumble. While there’s no doubt this is the best chance for either team to break Red Bull’s streak all season, there’s also every chance that this could be their only opportunity to win a grand prix in 2023. The question is, which team will capitalise.

Going by Friday’s long run data under the lights, it’s likely to be a close battle between the Ferraris and Russell’s Mercedes. On the mediums, Lewis Hamilton ran the fastest pace on the high fuel runs, lapping at an average of a 1’38.3 over his eight-lap stint. Sainz was just over a tenth of a second per lap slower than Hamilton, with Russell almost identical to the pole winner and Leclerc lapping around three tenths a lap off his team mate. Lando Norris was faster than all four in the McLaren, but his runs in second practice were carried out on the soft tyres.

Even if Mercedes look to have the pace to truly fight Ferrari for victory, team principal Toto Wolff is refusing to get ahead of himself and declare his team as race win contenders just yet.

“I would never, after such a season, because we are in the front row call ourselves the favourite,” Wolff said. “I think we need to be humble about the situation. The result genuinely came as a surprise that we are P2 and P5, but fighting for a win is a different story.”

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Ferrari have not had the strongest race pace relative to their rivals through most of the season, with Sainz ultimately being caught by both Red Bulls despite holding onto the lead at the start in the last round at Monza. Even Sainz is remaining cautious as he looks to lead the field away for the second successive start.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Singapore, 2023
Norris is also in the mix at the front
“I really have no idea how we’re going to be,” Sainz admitted. “Looking at long run data from Friday. the Mercedes, the Aston Martins and the Red Bull did look a bit quicker than us in tyre degradation and race pace, so it could be that tomorrow we have to run, yet again, a bit of a defensive race.

“I don’t discount that even around this track we could hold on to a P1 because it’s a lot more difficult to pass than other tracks this season. But our race pace still looks like our weakest point.”

No team has had stronger race pace all season long than Red Bull. However, the champions’ struggles are confirmed to be more than superficial. But with all of Verstappen’s experience making his way up the order after starting in the lower half of the field, he seems unusually pessimistic about the idea of making his way to the front on Sunday.

“Normally our car is always a bit better on degradation, maybe to some people around us, but I don’t think that matters a lot in Singapore where it’s very hard to pass,” Verstappen explained. You need to be one-and-a-half, two, three seconds faster which clearly we are not. Also now with the car performance and balance we have, it will be a very tough, long afternoon.”

Sainz may have the benefit of pole, but even with nine cars between him and Verstappen at the start he insists on considering the Red Bull as a threat to be wary of.

“I don’t think you can ever discount Max and Red Bull,” Sainz said. “They might turn up tomorrow with a race pace that they’ve had there all season, and still managed somehow to make through the field. But, for sure, around here, they have a much more difficult task.”

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Mercedes believe they have an ace up their sleeve in the form of an extra unused set of medium tyres – the hope being that it could open up their strategy options during a race where a sudden Safety Car or red flag is as high as it is anywhere on the calendar.

Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Singapore, 2023
Ferrari will have to play a defensive game
“I think it’s going to be very close between a one and a two-stop,” Russell explained. “With our mediums we can put Ferrari in a difficult position and try and force them into an error and get the upper hand. So that’s what we’re looking for.”

However, Pirelli’s head of motorsport, Mario Isola, does not quite share Mercedes’ perspective on how pit strategy will likely play out over the course of the race. “I believe it’s a one-stop, to be honest,” Isola said. “Because when you lose 27, 28 seconds in the pit lane, it’s difficult to recover this time on track.”

Pirelli expect that teams will shy away from the soft tyre in the race, leaving the vast majority of drivers to start on mediums before a single stop for hard tyres, around a third of the way into the race on lap 20. That is, of course, if the race starts on a dry track. However, the risk of rain that was foreseen earlier in the week has reduced as race day has approached, leaving just a 20% chance of rain for the start of the grand prix.

Even with a slightly shortened track, the Singapore Grand Prix will remain the longest race of the season where the physical challenge to drivers will be at its highest. For once in 2023, it’s genuinely unknown who will cross the line first in the race. But whoever wins, they will have to work very, very hard for it.

“I think it will be a tough race to manage, a tough race to put together,” said pole winner Sainz. “But I think if we nail it, we have a great opportunity. And that’s the target tomorrow, of course.”

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Qualifying times in full

PositionNumberDriverTeamQ1 timeQ2 time (vs Q1)Q3 time (vs Q2)
155Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’32.3391’31.439 (-0.900s)1’30.984 (-0.455s)
263George RussellMercedes1’32.3311’31.743 (-0.588s)1’31.056 (-0.687s)
316Charles LeclercFerrari1’32.4061’32.012 (-0.394s)1’31.063 (-0.949s)
44Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’32.4831’31.951 (-0.532s)1’31.270 (-0.681s)
544Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’32.6511’32.019 (-0.632s)1’31.485 (-0.534s)
620Kevin MagnussenHaas-Ferrari1’32.2421’31.892 (-0.350s)1’31.575 (-0.317s)
714Fernando AlonsoAston Martin-Mercedes1’32.5841’31.835 (-0.749s)1’31.615 (-0.220s)
831Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’32.3691’32.089 (-0.280s)1’31.673 (-0.416s)
927Nico HulkenbergHaas-Ferrari1’32.1001’31.994 (-0.106s)1’31.808 (-0.186s)
1040Liam LawsonAlphaTauri-Honda RBPT1’32.2151’32.166 (-0.049s)1’32.268 (+0.102s)
111Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda RBPT1’32.3981’32.173 (-0.225s)Missed by 0.007s
1210Pierre GaslyAlpine-Renault1’32.4521’32.274 (-0.178s)Missed by 0.108s
1311Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda RBPT1’32.0991’32.310 (+0.211s)Missed by 0.144s
1423Alexander AlbonWilliams-Mercedes1’32.6681’33.719 (+1.051s)Missed by 1.553s
1522Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda RBPT1’31.991
1677Valtteri BottasAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’32.809Missed by 0.141s
1781Oscar PiastriMcLaren-Mercedes1’32.902Missed by 0.234s
182Logan SargeantWilliams-Mercedes1’33.252Missed by 0.584s
1924Zhou GuanyuAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’33.258Missed by 0.590s
2018Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’33.397Missed by 0.729s

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Sector times

PositionNumberDriverSector oneSector twoSector threeUltimate lapDeficit to ultimate lap
155Carlos Sainz Jnr26.717 (1)38.477 (3)25.768 (1)1’30.9620.022
263George Russell26.785 (4)38.406 (1)25.865 (3)1’31.056
316Charles Leclerc26.754 (2)38.428 (2)25.881 (4)1’31.063
44Lando Norris26.756 (3)38.666 (7)25.848 (2)1’31.270
514Fernando Alonso26.915 (5)38.628 (6)25.909 (5)1’31.4520.163
644Lewis Hamilton26.924 (6)38.599 (4)25.962 (6)1’31.485
720Kevin Magnussen26.959 (8)38.606 (5)26.01 (8)1’31.575
831Esteban Ocon26.986 (9)38.703 (8)25.984 (7)1’31.673
927Nico Hulkenberg26.926 (7)38.738 (10)26.144 (12)1’31.808
1022Yuki Tsunoda27.177 (14)38.747 (11)26.067 (11)1’31.991
1111Sergio Perez27.042 (10)38.814 (12)26.195 (14)1’32.0510.048
121Max Verstappen27.144 (12)38.896 (13)26.022 (9)1’32.0620.111
1340Liam Lawson27.285 (18)38.716 (9)26.145 (13)1’32.1460.020
1410Pierre Gasly27.178 (15)39.003 (14)26.022 (9)1’32.2030.071
1523Alexander Albon27.131 (11)39.309 (17)26.214 (15)1’32.6540.014
1681Oscar Piastri27.161 (13)39.293 (16)26.242 (16)1’32.6960.206
1777Valtteri Bottas27.239 (16)39.211 (15)26.359 (17)1’32.809
182Logan Sargeant27.245 (17)39.523 (20)26.466 (18)1’33.2340.018
1924Zhou Guanyu27.319 (20)39.339 (18)26.6 (20)1’33.258
2018Lance Stroll27.289 (19)39.507 (19)26.518 (19)1’33.3140.083

Speed trap

PositionNumberDriverCarEngineModelMax kph (mph)
155Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrariSF-23303.8 (188.8)
216Charles LeclercFerrariFerrariSF-23303.4 (188.5)
323Alexander AlbonWilliamsMercedesFW45303.2 (188.4)
444Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedesW14303.2 (188.4)
518Lance StrollAston MartinMercedesAMR23303.1 (188.3)
611Sergio PerezRed BullHonda RBPTRB19303.0 (188.3)
720Kevin MagnussenHaasFerrariVF-23302.6 (188.0)
84Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedesMCL60302.4 (187.9)
91Max VerstappenRed BullHonda RBPTRB19302.1 (187.7)
1027Nico HulkenbergHaasFerrariVF-23302.0 (187.7)
1114Fernando AlonsoAston MartinMercedesAMR23301.5 (187.3)
1281Oscar PiastriMcLarenMercedesMCL60301.3 (187.2)
132Logan SargeantWilliamsMercedesFW45301.2 (187.2)
1463George RussellMercedesMercedesW14300.4 (186.7)
1531Esteban OconAlpineRenaultA523300.2 (186.5)
1610Pierre GaslyAlpineRenaultA523299.6 (186.2)
1724Zhou GuanyuAlfa RomeoFerrariC43299.0 (185.8)
1840Liam LawsonAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04298.5 (185.5)
1977Valtteri BottasAlfa RomeoFerrariC43297.8 (185.0)
2022Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04297.2 (184.7)

Over to you

Can Verstappen and Red Bull win from 11th on the grid? Which team is best placed to take advantage of their poor starting position?

Share your views on the Singapore Grand Prix in the comments.

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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13 comments on “Why Sainz is wary of Red Bull, and Pirelli doubt Mercedes’ two-stop plan can work”

  1. Could well be some opening lap incidents so it really depends whether Verstappen gets caught up in them or benefits. If the start is miraculously incident-free – with so many drivers suddenly jostling for a race win on this track, seems unlikely – then Verstappen could make it up to 6th okay (Lawson, K Mag, maybe Ocon). Alonso seems to be more than generous with Verstappen, so maybe he’ll let him by without much fuss. But after that, difficult to see how he passes easily and gets to catch the front 3. Still one thing this race is certain to be is entirely unpredictable.

  2. I wonder if Mercedes will try split strategies or will they have both drivers on the same tyres plan. I think they should try the former, but I suspect they will take the latter.

    1. It really annoys me how conservative most of the top teams are, particularly when usually the non-RB teams know that they need some kind of variable to have a chance of a race win this season. So you’re probably right, but I think Mercedes should definitely try putting Hamilton on the hards at the start. Ferrari could also split strategies, but I bet they’ll go with the standard medium/hard one-stopper for both cars.

    2. They had a chance to keep Russell out in 2nd and bring Hamiltion in for fresh rubber, instead they brought them both in.

      Dumb call. Giving up position when they only need to bring Hamilton in to cover any other driver coming in for fresh rubber.

      1. Also, if Russell was have the driver they say he is, he should have at least go fatest lap, instead it was Hamilton proving again he was the faster driver.

  3. Can Verstappen and Red Bull win from 11th on the grid? – No or maybe with several SC interruptions if things happen to go his way.
    Which team is best placed to take advantage of their poor starting position? Red Bull normally or if the question is supposed to be interpreted differently, Mercedes.

    1. They definitely mean the 2nd, it’s supposed to be who can take advantage of the fact red bull starts so far back, and I agree, considering ferrari’s expected race pace and pit wall performance.

  4. I’m impressed by the speed trap, only 303 kph and that is by cutting corners as well this year? I surely expected higher speed in the dry.

  5. Ferrari’s best hope is a Schumacher/Barrichello-era approach from them – use one driver to hold up the field while the other one sprints off into the distance. Even if Leclerc doesn’t get Russell at the start it might still be worth slowing the rest of the pack down and giving Sainz only one car to worry about.

    1. Sainz has been very good at defending his position.

      George looks to have gone with a bit more downforce so is slower through the speed trap.

      Where the best opportunity is for an overtake I don’t really know but it looks like it will be tough for the Mercedes.

    2. @red-andy Not sure about that strategy in this case, because having Sainz go flat out means that Russell would at some point be given a gap to pit into without traffic and undercut. More likely I think Ferrari will ‘park the bus’ in the first stint to protect their tyres, since they are weak on deg, which will keep the field bunched and reduce the options for the teams behind to pit into gaps.

    3. @red-andy I expect Russell to try to grab the lead off the grid start. It’s his style. What happens after that, who knows. Ferrari could well go for the classic Ferrari block (which when they qualify 1 and 3 tends to happen a lot) which provides even more possibility for mayhem.

    4. The most blatant example of that was probably the Nürburgring race in 1998, where Irvine in 2nd was massively slowing down Häkkinen while Schumacher build a huge gap. For a while… and then Häkkinen quickly clawed back the gap, and won anyway.

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