“One day we’re going to get beaten. That’s inevitable and guaranteed. It’s just a question of when.”Max Verstappen’s record-setting tenth consecutive grand prix victory, it would’ve been too easy to accuse him of tempting fate.
Not even Horner, who has presided over the entire span of Red Bull’s rise from midfield misfits to the fifth most successful make in Formula 1’s long history, would have expected his team to arrive in Singapore for the 15th round of the 2023 season without suffering a single defeat. Nor that Verstappen would do so having eclipsed Red Bull’s other world champion – Sebastian Vettel – to become the sole record holder for the longest grand prix-winning streak.
But as certain as the heat death of the universe, Red Bull’s run would always expire. As it turned it, when the time came, it was not due to a mechanical mishap or mayhem on track – but simply because, for one weekend, they were just not quick enough.
Red Bull’s qualifying performance on Saturday had proven their practice pace was no smokescreen but cold, clear reality. Both Verstappen and team mate Sergio Perez wrestled their RB19s around the revised Marina Bay circuit but could not even break into the top half of the grid. Seemingly lacking their horns, the Bulls were vulnerable – who would be the ones to take advantage?
Carlos Sainz Jnr had been little more than a supporting character over the first half of the 2023 season. Of the six drivers racing for the sport’s three biggest teams – Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes – Sainz was the only one who had not reached the podium over the first dozen rounds. But after three weeks away over the August break, Sainz had returned recharged, reinvigorated and revitalised.
With Red Bull falling in Q2, Sainz set his sights on pole position in Singapore. He did not miss. For the second straight race, he would be the one to lead the field away from the grid, knowing that pacing himself over the longest race of the season would be critical if he wanted to deliver a first win of the year for the Scuderia. George Russell, another driver with just a single grand prix triumph to his name, lined up alongside Sainz on the front row.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
Unlike the two Ferraris of Sainz ahead and Charles Leclerc behind him in third, Russell sat on the grid knowing he had an extra set of medium tyres available to him in the garage. If the race played out in conventional fashion, the chances were Russell would have no need for play that card from Mercedes’ hand. But if anything was to happen…
Leclerc was the only front-runner to start the race on a set of used soft tyres from qualifying. An intriguing strategic split by his Ferrari team, but one that would certainly grant him superior traction off the line. So it proved as, when the lights went out, both Ferraris leapt off the line more quickly than Russell beside them, Leclerc nosing ahead of the Mercedes before they had even drawn level with the pit exit.
Sainz took his line into the first corner with his team mate behind. Russell filtered into third with Lando Norris’ McLaren a car length behind him.
But as Norris hit the brakes, Lewis Hamilton suddenly flew by on his starboard side, bailing out of the second turn to take to the escape road and rejoining ahead of both Russell and Norris by the exit of turn three. Sprinting down the longest straight for the first time, Russell drew alongside his sister Mercedes but Hamilton did not yield despite having committed a blatant off-track pass. “I got pushed wide by George,” Hamilton insisted. “Do I need to give that place back? Let me know.”
Hamilton was eventually instructed to allow his team mate through during lap two. He offered no protest and by turn eight, the job was done. But Norris was denied the same courtesy offered to Russell.
“He committed to it,” Norris argued, invoking memories of Russell pulling a similar move at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix. “We spoke about this at Barcelona with George. He just committed to braking way too late and going off. He needs to give the position to me and George.”
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
By lap four, Mercedes had come to the same conclusion as Norris. “We’ve been instructed to give the place back to Norris as well,” race engineer Peter Bonnington informed his driver. “Okay,” Hamilton replied. “I was definitely ahead of him going into the corner, but…” he trailed off before blending out of the throttle on the way into turn 14 and surrendering the place.
While all this high-octane action played out behind them, Sainz on his medium tyres was leading by less than a second over his soft-shod team mate. Singapore is routinely the longest race of the season and the removal of four corners this year did little to change that. Ferrari were well aware that making a one-stop strategy work would require sensible and extensive tyre management throughout the 62 laps. Sainz therefore kept a steady pace in the low 1’40s over the first 14 laps of the race to nurse his mediums through the early phase.
“I could go forever at this pace,” the leader admitted. “I have more than a second in hand.”
But with both cars leading the race, Ferrari looked to take advantage of their strength in numbers and use Leclerc to build a buffer for his team mate.
“Target gap to Sainz, we need three seconds,” Leclerc was informed by race engineer Xavier Marcos Padros. “Yeah copy, Leclerc replied. “I’ll try to slow down.”
Mercedes warned Russell that it looked as if Ferrari were planning to “sacrifice” Leclerc, encouraging him to try and stick with Leclerc as much as possible as they all continued to cruise around preserving their tyres. Just 10 seconds behind Sainz in eighth place, Verstappen had gained three places on his starting position on his hard tyres and was also being encouraged to bide his time. Red Bull knew that the time to be aggressive would come later in the evening.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
Entering lap 16, Ferrari decided the time had come to pick up the pace. Sainz suddenly made use of that spare second of pace he was holding in his back pocket and began lapping in mid-to-low 1’39s as Leclerc was set a revised target gap of five seconds to his team mate. Leclerc duly obliged, dropping around half a second a lap to Sainz.
But on lap 19, the dynamic suddenly changed. Approaching turn eight, 16th-placed Logan Sargeant misjudged his braking for the slow right-hander and simply drove directly into the outside wall. His front wing was wiped out by the collision and as Sargeant recovered back to the track he did so with his front wing scraping along underneath his floor, grinding flecks of carbon fibre which were deposited around the Marina Bay circuit as he recovered to the pits.
With the debris, the risk of a Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car sent teams into standby on the pit wall. Sainz, with his lead almost at five seconds, insisted “the track is safe,” but Russell was eager to pit and lobbied for the Safety Car to be deployed.
“It’s ridiculous, there’s shitloads of debris!,” he exclaimed as he passed through the crash site. “I might have a puncture – check my fronts.”
Moments later, Russell was granted the Safety Car he was fishing for. Ferrari did not hesitate to call both drivers in, with the reduced speed meaning Leclerc had an 8.5 second buffer in which the Ferrari mechanics could service their drivers in quick succession. Sainz was easily out of the box by the time Leclerc arrived, but while almost all the field had followed him into the pits, the two Red Bulls remained out on their hard tyres. Sainz narrowly beat Verstappen to the Safety Car line to retain his lead, but Leclerc was delayed by a couple of seconds as Hamilton followed his team mate into the Mercedes pit box, which allowed Russell and Norris to leap ahead of the second Ferrari.
Behind the Safety Car, Sainz continued to lead the field with Verstappen second on used hard tyres, Russell ran third and Perez fourth on his original set of tyres, with Norris, Leclerc and Hamilton behind. The Safety Car was withdrawn on lap 22, with Sainz timing his restart for turn 17.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
Verstappen had little answer for the Ferrari on his older tyres and was already a second behind Sainz by the time they joined the straight leading to turn seven. Instead, the Red Bulls were under immediate pressure behind, with Russell swarming all over the back of Verstappen, hoping to clear him quickly to stay in touch with Sainz.
Russell cleared the championship leader into turn 16, while Norris also picked off Perez to gain fourth. The next lap, Hamilton pulled to the outside of Perez into turn seven and drove around him to claim fifth, but appeared to run outside the white lines on the exit. Puzzlingly, race control saw no need to acknowledge Hamilton’s second suspicious pass of the day, but Norris’s pass on Verstappen into turn 14 to take third place was indisputable.
As the Red Bulls filtered down the order, the top five consisted of Sainz leading, Russell second, Norris third, Hamilton fourth and Leclerc completing the group in fifth. Despite Sainz being isolated out front without the protection of his team mate, Ferrari again asked him to manage his pace.
Over the next 20 laps, Sainz rigidly stuck to his own pace. Just over two seconds covered the leader to fourth-placed Hamilton, but despite the latter three having the benefit of DRS they seemed content to remain as they were and not take too much life out of their tyres. All, that is, except Russell, who couldn’t help but think back to his spare set of unused mediums sitting in the Mercedes garage.
“How many cars would we fall behind if we pitted?,” Russell casually enquired. “I want to go for this win.”
But Mercedes knew Sainz’s slow and steady approach meant the field was far more compact than a typical race. By lap 37, the entire field were still covered by just over half a minute – approximately the same time loss for pitting under green flag conditions. By dictating the pace, Sainz was effectively killing off any chance of a two-stop strategy being viable for the Mercedes drivers behind.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
Red Bull would be forced to take the 30-second hit of pitting on lap 40 and 41 when they finally brought in Verstappen and Perez to switch out their worn hards for new mediums. But almost as soon as they had, fate mocked the champions as Esteban Ocon’s gearbox suddenly refused to swap cogs as he began the 43rd lap, putting an end to an otherwise strong afternoon for the Alpine driver.
As Ocon pulled over to the inside of the circuit just after the pit exit, triggering double-waved yellow flags, Russell immediately anticipated another Safety Car intervention and, with it, the perfect opportunity to box for those shiny new mediums. But once again, the leaders were already passing the pit lane entry when the Virtual Safety Car was deployed.
Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren each had a full lap at reduced speeds in which to consider their move, but Russell was determined to make his team’s mind up for them.
“Box opposite,” Russell commanded over the radio, desperate to go aggressive. “I want to go for the win.”
Ferrari and McLaren both warned their drivers to pit if the VSC was upgraded to a full Safety Car, but by the time they all approached the pit entry, there was no sign of Bernd Maylander in the Aston Martin Vantage, meaning Sainz and Norris both remained out on track. The two Mercedes pitted, with both Russell and Hamilton taking their unused sets of medium compound tyres. Russell emerged in fourth and Hamilton fifth.
Just 30 seconds later, the VSC was lifted. Russell was now 18 seconds away from Sainz with 18 laps remaining – giving him a clear and simple target of taking just over a second a lap out of the Ferrari to take the victory. Mercedes handed Russell a target of 1’36.6, which he managed over the initial laps to eat away at the gap to Sainz ahead.
Within five laps, Russell was within 10 seconds of the lead. With 10 laps remaining Russell had caught the first of the trio ahead and immediately attacked Leclerc. A look to the outside into turn 14 did not work, but it allowed Russell to power out of the corner and past the Ferrari on exit to move up into third place. Just half a lap later, Hamilton followed his team mate through the Ferrari to put two Mercedes into the top four once more.
With Leclerc offering little resistance, Sainz could be forgiven for feeling nervous. Especially as he tried to pick up the pace in response, only to fall out of the 1’39s on his over 30 lap old hards.
“It surprised me quite a lot how quickly the Mercs managed to pass Charles and close the gap on Lando and me,” Sainz admitted after the race. “At that point, I thought ‘okay, it’s not going to be easy and these last five, six laps is going to be a fight.’”
Russell was over five seconds behind Norris’s second-placed McLaren after clearing Leclerc, but by the end of lap 57 he was almost within DRS range of Norris. Those who so often lamented Red Bull’s stranglehold over the 2023 season due to the intense competition behind them now had the prospect of a thrilling final five laps with the race win on the line.
Knowing how vulnerable Norris would be to the Mercedes, Sainz backed off enough to offer his former team mate and good friend “a bit of a cheeky DRS boost”, negating the advantage that Russell would get from the system himself. Sainz’s tactics appeared to work until just four laps remaining, when Russell got a strong slipstream behind the McLaren on the exit of turn 13 and pulled alongside Norris to the outside of turn 14. The pair ran side-by-side through the left-hand kink on exit and along the straight, but Norris edged ahead just enough to close the door into turn 16 and keep Russell behind.
With the two behind him fighting, Sainz was moving further ahead. Knowing he needed to give Norris DRS to protect him, the leader lifted off significantly through the opening sequence of corners, ensuring Norris would cross the DRS detection point within the second that he needed to negate Russell’s DRS along the longest straight on the circuit.
“I think that move actually saved my race,” Sainz later explained. “It saved also Lando’s P2 because I feel like there, if not, I would have been also dead meat if the Mercs would have passed Lando. I think they could have got passed me pretty easily.”
Despite Russell applying further pressure on the McLaren, Norris positioned his car where he needed to frustrate any chance the Mercedes had to gain a decent run on him. As the four front runners crossed the line to begin the 62nd and final lap, just 1.7 seconds was all that covered them. Fatigued, dehydrated and under intense pressure, all four drivers were being stressed beyond anything they had faced all season long.
Russell continued to fill Norris’s mirrors and was within half a second as they exited turn nine for the final time. Sitting directly behind the McLaren, Russell positioned himself as squarely as he could behind Norris. But as they approached the braking zone for turn 10, Norris moved just a little too far to the right and just brushed the outside wall. As he moved, Russell followed him behind but struck the same section of wall with greater force, cracking his right-front suspension and sending him skidding into the barrier and out of the race, just three kilometres from the chequered flag.
A stream of expletives escaped from Russell helmet as he immediately recognised the enormity of his error. After all that effort chasing a victory with an aggressive strategy, he would not just be going home without a win, but with no points at all.
“It was such a nothing of a mistake,” Russell lamented after the race. “If I’d spun off, or had a lock-up and ended up in the wall, I’d be feeling very different. But to clip the wall on the last lap, it’s such a pathetic mistake.”
With Russell eliminating himself from the race, all Sainz needed to do was get to the chequered flag. No longer in need of using Norris as a rear gunner, Sainz only had to navigate the simplified final sector to secure not just his and Ferrari’s first win of the 2023 season, but end Red Bull and Verstappen’s record streak of grand prix wins.
The pyrotechnics erupted trackside as Sainz crossed the line to complete his stunning victory – the fireworks a fittingly red hue as he was greeted by his mechanics hailing him from the pit wall.
“That was perfect guys. Perfect weekend,” Sainz praised his team as he took his second career victory, before acknowledging the role Norris played in his triumph. “And a bit of ‘CarLando’ action there also, to protect from the Mercs…”
Norris was only eight tenths behind Sainz at the flag, but was far more delighted with holding onto second than he was disappointed not to be the one on the top step of the podium. “It was an amazing race, a stressful race from start to finish,” Norris said. “A lot of management, but perfectly executed.”
Despite being the second Mercedes for most of the race, Hamilton was his team’s sole representative on the podium. “We rolled the dice this weekend, we went on with a different amount of tyres into qualifying, with the option to be able to do what we’ve done today,” he explained. “I felt like it was a two-stop but I think the team did an amazing job today to really get us back up there. And, of course, extremely unfortunate for George. But I know he’ll bounce back. He’s been phenomenal all weekend.”
Leclerc faded heavily in the final laps as Verstappen, who had gained nine places after his stop, had charged him down. By the time Leclerc crossed the line to take fourth, Verstappen was only three tenths behind him, his first taste of defeat on a grand prix Sunday for 140 days. Despite his record win streak coming to an end, Verstappen was in no way bitter. “I knew that this day would come,” he said. “So for me it’s absolutely fine.”
Pierre Gasly took sixth for Alpine with Oscar Piastri rising from 17th on the grid to finish seventh in the only McLaren without upgrades. Perez was eighth despite a five-second time penalty for punting Alexander Albon at turn 13 in the closing laps, while AlphaTauri’s rookie Liam Lawson secured his first career points and his team’s best finish of the season in ninth. Kevin Magnussen gave a boost to Haas by scoring the final point in tenth.
And so, just as Horner has stated back in Monza, Red Bull’s pursuit of a perfect season had reached its inevitable end in the most enthralling race of the year so far. But rather than mourn the ending of his team’s record run, Horner was only grateful for having achieved it to begin with.
“To win 15 in a row is insanity when you consider that the variance of circuits that we’ve come across, the conditions, et cetera,” Horner said. “It’s been a hell of a run for the team that we always knew was going to come to a stop at some point.”
But while the season will again belong to Red Bull, the day and the weekend belonged to Ferrari and Carlos Sainz Jnr. Pole position, leading every lap and holding off a group of formidable opponents to win, he had given his team, the Tifosi, the millions watching at home and himself a victory to truly savour.
“We didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend,” the winner said. “There was a lot of moments out there where we were a bit under pressure and we kept it calm, we kept our plan, our strategy. We had to play with tyre degradation, with pit-stop gaps, with DRS, and playing with all that, and managing to keep everything under control, we managed to bring home a win that was never easy, but that definitely feels incredible.”
Bringing the F1 news from the source
RaceFans strives to bring its readers news directly from the key players in Formula 1. We are able to do this thanks in part to the generous backing of our RaceFans Supporters.
By contributing 1 per month or 12 per year (or the equivalent in other currencies) you can help cover the costs involved in producing original journalism: Travelling, writing, creating, hosting, contacting and developing.
We have been proudly supported by our readers for over 10 years. If you enjoy our independent coverage, please consider becoming a RaceFans Supporter today. As a bonus, all our Supporters can also browse the site ad-free. Sign up or find out more via the links below:
2023 Singapore Grand Prix
- How Ocon’s “extreme” height for an F1 driver is helping other tall racers
- Steward’s admission Verstappen should have had penalty frustrates his rivals
- Drivers back Singapore qualifying tweak as rule changes again for Japanese GP
- Piastri “much more comfortable” at new circuits than at start of rookie season
- Ferrari decided before qualifying to sacrifice second-place car in Singapore GP