In more ways than one, the Singapore Grand Prix was a microcosm of the 2011 Formula 1 season as a whole.
Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull produced another immaculate weekend, exploiting their blistering pace to take pole position and then quickly extend an advantage in the opening laps that they could then defend for the rest of the race, pacing themselves to their closest ‘rivals’.
The victory, the German’s ninth of the season, has effectively won him a second consecutive world title. Vettel has been either first or second in all the races bar one, in which he was fourth. To clinch the title, he needs to score only one more point in the remaining five races – and that’s only if Jenson Button wins them all.
As he admitted himself with a wry grin after the race: “Obviously, it should not be a problem.”
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It has been a quite stunning season from Vettel and his team – almost completely flawless while operating at a level no one else has generally been able to match.
He has won all the races he should have won, as well as the odd one that he perhaps should not. As every single one of his rivals was all too happy to admit this weekend, he fully deserves this title.
Vettel and Red Bull’s superiority has had an interesting effect on his rivals.
McLaren’s Button and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso have knuckled down, accepted that they generally have not had the car to challenge Vettel, and concentrated on doing the best they can with what they have.
The result is they lie second and third in the championship – ahead of Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber.
By contrast, Button’s team-mate Lewis Hamilton seems to be battling inner demons, the exact nature of which perhaps even those closest to him do not understand.
Not for the first time this year, Hamilton wrecked his race with an avoidable collision with a rival. In Singapore, it was Ferrari’s Felipe Massa.
Hamilton was trying to make up ground after losing places at the start when he was forced to back out of an attempt to pass Webber, who was slow off the line for the third race in a row.
The move on Massa was never on. Hamilton was on the outside and behind the Ferrari, and he simply made an error of judgment as they turned into the left-hander at Turn Seven.
He clipped the Ferrari’s rear wheel with his front wing, and both their races were ruined there and then. Massa’s right-rear tyre was punctured, and Hamilton’s front wing damaged – and the stewards added insult to injury by giving him a drive-through penalty.
As he battled to climb back through the field from 16th place, Hamilton’s frustration at the situation became clear in his communications with his team – again, not for the first time this season.
“Would you please give me some info on how I’m doing,” he said, “what I’m racing for?”
Most people interpreted that as effectively saying, “Is it really worth me continuing with this?” Which is a surprising thing, to say the least, to hear from F1’s most aggressive, attacking racing driver.
His team responded by reassuring him that he was fighting for a points finish, adding that there would definitely be a safety car that would further aid his cause – correctly as it turned out, although they were not to know it at the time.
Having been told that, Hamilton got his head down and produced what his team principal Martin Whitmarsh was “a great drive”.
Whitmarsh added: “He did some of the best overtaking, some fantastic driving, to get back up into the points, so I think he should be given credit for that.”
In that, Whitmarsh was absolutely right, but so, too, was he when he said: “He’s a driver who wants to overtake in a hurry. Afterwards he’ll regret that and maybe he could have waited another few corners.”
Whitmarsh initially bristled after the race when he started to be questioned by the media about Hamilton’s race, and his season.
When it was pointed out that this was not the first avoidable accident Hamilton had been involved in, and asked how McLaren and Hamilton could prevent such incidents from recurring, he replied: “If you stay in the garage, any accident is avoidable. Any serious questions?”
But as he was pressed on the same issue again and again, he finally admitted that the race “went badly”, adding: “Undeniably this has not been a good year for Lewis Hamilton.”
Indeed not. On the one hand, he has delivered two of the greatest wins of the season – his victories in China and Germany rank with any of Vettel’s.
But the same driver was over-aggressive and incautious in Monaco – a fact Hamilton has admitted himself; collided with his team-mate in Canada; crashed out of the Belgian race after misjudging an overtaking move; and got into two altercations in two days with Massa in Singapore.
The one in the race followed him barging his way past the Ferrari at the start of final qualifying on Saturday, a move that prompted Massa to say: “I think he didn’t use his mind. Again.”
After their altercation in the TV interview area post-race in Singapore, Massa implied that if Hamilton kept driving this way, he would find it difficult to win any more world championships.
To which Whitmarsh countered: “I think he’s wrong. Lewis is still a young guy, he’s learning all the time. He’ll win races and I’m sure he’ll win more world championships.”
Hamilton may indeed be young – but he is two and a half years older than Vettel, who is driving with a maturity way beyond his years. And many people in the F1 paddock feel that if Hamilton is to compete with Vettel in the future, he needs a change of approach.
No one wants to see him abandon the aggressive, charging driving style that makes him the most exciting driver in F1.
But there is no doubt he needs to find a better balance than he has done this year – or indeed in any of his seasons in F1 bar perhaps the first one. A better way, too, of coping with the frustration of not having the best car – which is what seems to be at the root of some of his behaviour this year.
Nor is it just Hamilton who has committed costly errors this season. McLaren have racked up a fair few as well.
“None of us are perfect,” Whitmarsh said in mitigation. “The team has made some mistakes; we’ll make more mistakes. We don’t want to, but that’s life. We’re pretty open and honest about that. We have to try to get better, Lewis has to try to get better as a race driver.”
The honesty and openness is admirable. The fact is, though, that Vettel and Red Bull have raised the bar this season to a level beyond their rivals’ capabilities.
Such has been their superiority that even a flawless year from Hamilton and McLaren would almost certainly not have prevented Vettel winning the title – although it would have been a lot closer than it has been.
But however quick McLaren’s car is in 2012, they are going to find it hard to beat Vettel and Red Bull if they and Hamilton keep performing like this.