Sunday 21 January 2018

Hamilton keeps head after first-lap chaos

Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen (right) crashes as Sebastian Vettel leads yesterday’s race. Photo: Getty Images
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen (right) crashes as Sebastian Vettel leads yesterday’s race. Photo: Getty Images

Oliver Brown

The "miracle" Lewis Hamilton said he needed to win the Singapore Grand Prix was presented to him at the very first corner, all gleaming, gift-wrapped and tied up with a red Ferrari ribbon.

Of all the novel ways by which he imagined he might vault from fifth on the grid to first at the finish, few were as fancifully fortunate as watching Sebastian Vettel, his main title rival, fall off his Prancing Horse inside 300 yards.

Rarely can Hamilton, fond of invoking the Almighty at these moments, have been so tempted to believe in divine intervention.

"Great strategy, guys," Hamilton told his garage, dutifully, after profiting from the German's opening-lap crash to win his third straight grand prix and assume a 28-point championship lead with six races left. Truth be told, there was no strategy, or at least nothing like the one Mercedes envisaged.

Once Hamilton had emerged with the lead through a cloud of sparks and cartwheeling debris, as Vettel took out team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull's Max Verstappen in one fell swoop, his only priority - as race engineer Pete Bonnington put it - was to bring the car home in one piece.

Never in the 10 years of this glittering night race has Singapore seen the chain reaction of chaos that unfolded here in the first minute.

Vettel, whose mastery of Marina Bay had been showcased by a wondrous pole lap, darted to his left to cut off a charging Verstappen, only to destroy Raikkonen's car in the process.

Apologetically

Vettel made it through a couple more corners, but the radiator damage was irreparable. His Ferrari spun into a wall, lost its nose cone, then rolled apologetically backwards past the oncoming traffic. An apt metaphor for the retrograde motion of his title hopes.

The blame game was instant and ferocious. "Verstappen took #Kimi7 out and then he went to #Seb5," Ferrari tweeted. Well, not quite. The blame rested largely with Vettel, who was inexplicably reckless in trying to shut off Verstappen, a figure of no significance in the larger battle he was waging with Hamilton.

Christian Horner, Red Bull's team principal, was incredulous at the suggestion his driver was at fault.

"How the hell you can work that out, I've no idea," he said. "Sebastian came aggressively left, Kimi went right, Max held a straight line. He was just desperately unlucky."

With Verstappen the meat in a Ferrari sandwich, Hamilton took his chance with gusto. Knowing he needed to hold off his pursuers for 61 laps, through over 1,400 corners on this notoriously hard-braking layout, he did not blink. A race where he had been intending merely to minimise the points gap to Vettel ended in his 60th victory - only Michael Schumacher has more.

On an evening where he had expected to be in arrears to his German rival, he surged 28 points clear. A duel of endless ebbs and flows has, thanks to his hat-trick of wins since the summer break, switched decisively in his favour.

"It's working, the approach that I have," Hamilton said. "It's a perfect balance of being aggressive but cautious.

"I was going into the race trying to limit the loss. If I'd still been sitting behind Kimi after Turn One, I'd have been fifth. To come out completely in the other direction is a shock. We were lucky with the conditions, but we capitalised."

Hamilton had been relieved to see a hard tropical rain start falling during the grid-walk. On this complex, winding track, the weather represented about his only hope of threatening the pole-sitter. Until the lights went out, and Vettel committed his act of self-sabotage.

Vettel received no sanction from the stewards, but he had already taken the worst possible penalty, tossing away 25 points when he should have prevailed at a canter. "Yeah, not ideal is it?" he said, with some understatement. "I saw Max and then next thing I knew, Kimi was hitting the side of me."

Since F1's midsummer hiatus, Hamilton has looked unassailable, save for Saturday's qualifying session in which he could not extract the best from his Mercedes, which has struggled on high-downforce tracks. Here, he did not have to be at his best, needing to adopt the tactics of containment rather than all-out attack. He won with plenty in reserve.

It was no small feat, controlling a Formula One field despite sopping humidity and multiple safety-car deployments, but he managed it with aplomb. Better still for Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas also steered a path through the maelstrom to secure third, ensuring the team eclipsed Ferrari by the margin of 40 points to zero.

"I can only imagine how bad it feels for them," said head of motorsport Toto Wolff, looking not in the least sorry.

Ricciardo, in second, was as impressive as ever with a seventh podium in 10 grands prix. Race by race, he is cementing his standing as a champion-in-waiting.

Still, the night belonged to Hamilton. As he rounded the final bend, a vast collection of fireworks exploded off the tops of the grandstands, lighting up the marina and its signature ferris wheel. It was a stirring display, even if nothing could quite rival the first-lap pyrotechnics that turned this engrossing title fight around. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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