It had been a long time since Sebastian Vettel last took the top step of the podium, but it seemed as if he had never been away. Last Sunday, the Red Bull driver became the first back-to-back winner of successive Singapore night races, but unlike last year, this time he is the outsider in the race for the champion’s crown.
Last year, Vettel’s victory was his ninth of the season and he ultimately went on to score eleven wins, as well as the title. This year the Singapore Grand Prix was just his second win, having endured a frustrating five-month wait since last seeing the chequered flag in Bahrain in April.
The season is far from a disaster however. Although his Red Bull is not the dominant force of last season, Vettel has failed to score championship points in only three races, once when he was frustrated by a puncture after a collision with Narain Karthikeyan in Malaysia and twice as a result of alternator failures, in Valencia and Monza.
Those non-finishes mean that Vettel currently lies 29 points behind championship leader Fernando Alonso in the title race. While Vettel’s season has been erratic, one of the secrets of Alonso’s success this season has been an almost metronomic points scoring ability.
After the Singapore Grand Prix, it was notable that Vettel recognised the Spaniard’s consistency. Asked about his championship challenge, the German replied that he “still had a good chance except for that man”, he said pointing to Alonso. “He just keeps appearing on the podium.”
Apart from the Belgian Grand Prix when he was harpooned by Romain Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton at the opening corner, Alonso has scored points in every race this season. Such has been the Ferrari’s reliability, even taking into account the Belgian accident Alonso has scored championship points in 24 of the last 25 races.
Another driver whose winning performance has been irregular, is of course Lewis Hamilton. Since mid-season McLaren is clearly the fastest car on the track, but non-finishes have cost both Hamilton and team-mate Jenson Button dear.
Hamilton looked to have the Singapore Grand Prix under control, dominating the race from pole position before his gearbox failed on the 22nd lap. Hamilton’s retirement dropped him from second to fourth in the championship standings. He now trails Alonso, Vettel and Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen.
Alonso is clearly relieved that split scores and reliability issues affecting his rivals are allowing him to maintain his championship lead. While both the Red Bulls and McLarens have frequently outpaced his Ferrari, Alonso has concentrated on steadily pulling in the points.
Perhaps Fernando has heard of American tennis player Brad Gilbert, who coined the phrase “Winning Ugly”. Gilbert played with a slow, grinding rhythm that would destroy an opponent’s pace.
As a result he beat more stylish opponents including Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, to become champion. By grinding out championship points with his steady stream of third, fourth and fifth placed finishes, Alonso could be creating his own form of “Winning Ugly” on his way to the title.
Meanwhile, as Vettel, Button and Alonso celebrated on the Singapore podium, some may have missed a superb performance by Paul di Resta and Force India. Not only was their fourth place finish a career best for the Scot, it was the team’s best result since Giancarlo Fisichella’s sensational second place at Spa back in 2008.
It could perhaps have been even better too. Di Resta was unfortunate that his pit stop strategy was compromised by one of the Singapore GP’s signature safety car periods, which negated his mid-race pace. Without that, di Resta is sure that he could have battled Alonso for a place on the podium. What a battle that could have been!
Steve Slater is an F1 race commentator on STAR Sports