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SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX PREVIEW

19 Sep, Singapore - That’s how McLaren Mercedes star Jenson Button describes the Singapore Grand Prix – and the urbane Englishman has had more experience of the Marina Bay Street Circuit than most.

Button, 33, is one of just three drivers to have completed every racing lap in Singapore – that’s 303 laps of the track in the five races so far – and he loves coming back.

“I remember the first time we raced at Singapore [in 2008]; it seemed incredible to think that we could hold a Formula 1 race at night,” says Button.

“I must say, the thrill and novelty of racing through spot-lit streets is just as intense for me today as it was when we first raced there – it’s a unique spectacle, and one that I think is brilliant for F1. In fact, the Singapore Grand Prix is one of the wonders of modern sport.”

Button and his 21 colleagues face no fewer than seven ‘fly-away’ races to complete their annual globe-trotting marathon. Starting – already! – its second five-year stint as a World Championship venue, Singapore is ready for the 13th round of the year with two-time Marina Bay winner Sebastian Vettel again leading the drivers’ standings for Red Bull Renault.

With two straight wins in Singapore and six victories in 2013 so far, Vettel’s #1 Red Bull Renault is again the form horse coming to the Marina Bay Street Circuit.

“I think it’s one of the toughest races of the year to be honest, so to win is an amazing moment and you feel you deserve the champagne!” says the German, now equal with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso on 32 Grand Prix victories.

“It’s a very long race; the full two hours so the race just seems to go on forever. The circuit itself is a killer because there are so many bumps, there’s no room for mistakes,” Vettel adds.

Despite podium finishes in 2010 and 2011 Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber has never really felt at home on the SIngapore streets but the popular Aussie wants a top result to say farewell in this, his final F1 season.

“Hot, bumpy and night!” is how the 37-year-old veteran sums up Singapore. “The last sector is probably the toughest to get right, it’s a very demanding last sector and the rhythm is very important over the bumps and the curves.”

Paul Hembery from sole F1 tyre supplier Pirelli is keenly aware of the Singapore challenge, particularly after two ‘traditional’ high-speed tracks like Spa-Francorchamps and Monza: “There’s lots of street furniture such as painted white lines and manholes that compromise grip and traction,” Hembery explains.

“We’re racing at night, which presents a unique set of parameters for the tyres to deal with when it comes to the way that track and ambient temperatures evolve. The cars also carry the heaviest fuel load of the year, which again has a direct effect on tyre wear and degradation. It’s a long race, and that gives the teams plenty of scope to come up with some interesting strategies at what is a truly spectacular event in every sense.”

Now that the frenzy of speculation over his future has settled down – he’s going back to Ferrari – Kimi Raïkkönen is ready to kick-start his last few races as a Lotus Renault driver with a best-ever result in the Lion City.

“I really like going to Singapore,” says the 33-year-old Finn, who hasn’t won since the opening round of the year in Australia. “It’s a great place to be, I love the local food, and I don’t mind the unusual times we run in the car as it means I don’t have to get up so early!

“I have some unfinished business after my three Grands Prix there so far, as I enjoy the circuit but have not yet had a podium.”

That could be because Raïkkönen has never started on pole here. As a street circuit, and one where overtaking opportunities are at a premium, Singapore puts the spotlight on a good performance in qualifying: start near the front, stay out of trouble and maximise your chances of a top result. Proof of that pudding is in the Singapore statistics.

The first year, 2008, was an anomaly for reasons which subsequently became notorious: Fernando Alonso came through from 15th on the grid to snatch an unlikely win for Renault. And pole-winner Felipe Massa was a strong contender for victory until his team released him with the fuel hose still dangling from his Ferrari…

In the next three seasons the man who claimed pole also claimed victory: Lewis Hamilton in 2009 for McLaren, Alonso in 2010 for Ferrari, and Vettel in 2011 for Red Bull. And while the German didn’t start from pole on his way to winning again last year, he was up near the front on the second row.

Speaking of Massa, who is leaving Ferrari at the end of the year, he knows just how hard it is to do well at Marina Bay: “Everything counts here,” he says.” If you make the slightest mistake at a corner, then you pay a high price. You have to take care at every corner and it’s a long track – one lap here is like two at Monaco, so precision and consistency are important, especially in qualifying when you have to put everything together perfectly. In fact, I’d say it’s harder to win at Singapore than Monaco. The track is longer and more complicated, a lap is around 1m 48s while Monaco is much shorter.”

We started with an Englishman, so let’s finish the same way. Unlike Button, Marussia’s Max Chilton had his first Singapore outing only last year, putting it to great effect by winning one of the two GP2 support races.

Max, 22, is back as a fully-fledged Grand Prix driver, and he shares his compatriot’s enthusiasm. “Working to European hours is always interesting,” says Chilton, “but I’ve seen the floodlights first-hand so I know that while it feels like night-time in the Paddock, it’s like daylight on the track.”

And that, for millions of F1 fans around the world, is the Singapore Grand Prix in a nutshell…

Singapore: The stats that matter

It’s just as well today’s F1 drivers are super-fit athletes: the Singapore climate and the demands of the 23-turn Marina Bay Street Circuit mean each of them will lose up to 3 litres of fluid in the course of the 61-lap race. Caterham’s Charles Pic has only been here once but knows what he needs to do: “My fluid intake over the week will increase each day to the point where I’ll take on up to five or six litres of liquid before the race starts,” says the young French driver. “That’s one of the keys to performing to the maximum – being properly hydrated means you can focus 100% in the car, and that’s vital around a circuit as technical as Singapore.”

Only three drivers have completed every racing lap of the five Singapore races staged so far: Fernando Alonso for Renault (2008-09) and Ferrari (2010-11-12), Jenson Button (Honda 2008, Brawn GP 2009, McLaren Mercedes 2010-11-12) and Sebastian Vettel (Toro Rosso 2008, Red Bull Racing 2009-10-11-12)

Singapore is such a challenge that only World Champions have ever won here! Alonso in 2008 and 2010 (he was World Champion in 2005-06), Lewis Hamilton in 2009 (World Champion in 2008) and Vettel in 2011012 (he was World Champion in 2010-11-12).

The narrowest winning margin in the five-race history of the Singapore Grand Prix is 0.293 seconds, the gap that separated winner Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari from the Red Bull Renault of Sebastian Vettel in 2010. The widest margin of victory is 9.634s, the gap between Lewis Hamilton’s winning McLaren and the Toyota of Timo Glock in 2009.

The official lap record is held by Kimi Raïkkönen, whose Ferrari clocked 1:45.599/172.740 km/h in 2008. Just for the record, however, Fernando Alonso, also in a Ferrari, recorded a time of 1:47.976s in 2010, an average lap speed of 169.137 km/h – which is actually the fastest race lap since the circuit was slightly modified to 5.073km in 2010. But…

… there is another twist to that tale this year. Turn 10, the so-called ‘Singapore Sling’, has been modified for 2013. What was Turns 10a-10b-10c with a left-right-left kink is now a single left-hander. The straightening-out process means the official track length is now 5.066km – so we should see a new lap record set this year if that change is taken into official account. Alonso himself has been doing some simulator work and the Spaniard says the lap time will come down by a second or so. A Formula 1 car at 300 km/h travels 83 metres a second.

Singapore places heavy demands on every component of the Grand Prix car. The only ones in contact with the ground are the Pirelli tyres, and the Italian company is bringing its Supersoft (P Zero Red) and Medium (P Zero White) compounds to Marina Bay. The Supersofts, last seen at work in Canada earlier in the season, offer traction and grip while the Mediums are more durable; this is one step harder than the Soft compound used as the ‘Prime’ tyre last year.

Two of the 22 drivers are new to Singapore: Finn Valtteri Bottas at Williams and Frenchman Jules Bianchi at Marussia. Three others are also F1 rookies but raced in GP2 here last year: Britain’s Max Chilton at Marussia and Dutchman Giedo van der Garde at Caterham won the GP2 races; Mexican Esteban Gutiérrez at Sauber was the other, who finished second and sixth.

Singapore’s is the longest Grand Prix of the year: last year the Safety Car interventions pushed race-winner Vettel’s overall time out beyond the two-hour limit, and the race was cut by two laps to 59. The top three drivers all two-stopped on their way to a podium finish.

It’s also the race where the cars start with their heaviest fuel load, due in part to the stop-start nature of a 23-turn layout and the almost constant acceleration out of corners.

The youngest driver in the 2013 field is Sauber’s Mexican, Esteban Gutiérrez, born in August 1991, which makes him 22; the oldest is Aussie Mark Webber of Red Bull, born in the same month but 15 years earlier, meaning he is 37. This is Webber’s final F1 visit to Singapore before he moves to endurance racing with Porsche in 2014.