A 100% safety car record since the first race at Marina Bay in 2008; a track infamously problematic for drivers: the Singapore Grand Prix was always going to be one of the most highly anticipated races of the season.
The 2023 track underwent some changes that, overall, I think served the race well. Previously, Singapore was notorious for its lack of overtake opportunities – a total of 23 narrow turns and two relatively short DRS zones meant that drivers often found it difficult to get past each other, and much of the race’s result depended upon the qualifying performance. However, for this year’s track, turns 16 through 19 had been removed, resulting in a longer straight and only 19 turns.
All eyes were on Red Bull this weekend, as Max Verstappen was out to raise his record of 10 consecutive wins to 11. However, due to some issues with the car in qualifying, he was only able to qualify in 11th, knocked out by Liam Lawson who managed to qualify 10th in only his third-ever Formula One Grand Prix weekend. The Ferraris looked as though they were flying during qualifying, with Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc placing on pole and third. Close behind were the Mercedes of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton in second and fifth, and McLaren driver Lando Norris in fourth. This was a starting grid that was certainly unfamiliar – fans of F1 have been accustomed to Max Verstappen taking the lead at the start of the Grand Prix. However, starting far back on the grid has certainly never stopped Verstappen from taking the victory before, with the Dutchman managing to take the victory of the Belgian Grand Prix 2022 from 14th.
The race got off to a fantastic start for the two Ferraris, Leclerc managing to overtake Russell and Sainz pulling away into the lead. However, for Yuki Tsunoda, his race was once again ruined, this time by a puncture. For the second time in two Grands Prix, he was forced to retire before even completing the first lap.
For the first few laps, nothing much at the front of the grid changed. However, Verstappen was slowly but surely rising through the ranks, managing to gain three positions, overtaking Haas driver Kevin Magnussen into eighth. McLaren’s Oscar Piastri was also gaining places, moving from 17th to 14th by lap seven. By lap 11, there was still a Ferrari one-two lead, with Leclerc being ordered to create a three-second gap between himself and his teammate. However, Russell said over his team radio that it “looks as though they’re going to sacrifice Leclerc”, something which I am sure Ferrari fans were not particularly pleased with. Leclerc was then told to drop back even further over team radio, and on lap 17, he was told to give Sainz a five-second lead over five laps.
Russell saw Leclerc dropping back as an opportunity for him to get ahead of the Monegasque driver, asking his engineer in lap 18 what his best shot at winning this race was. He was told to keep his pace on the Ferraris, and he slowly began to close in.
During lap 19, Williams rookie Logan Sargeant managed to drive into the barriers, officially making him the most expensive driver on the grid in terms of car repairs. In true Singapore style, the safety car was brought out, and the cars began to bunch together.
Ferrari decided to do a double stop under the safety car. Sainz’s pit stop was relatively speedy at 2.5s, but Leclerc was held behind in the pit box due to traffic resulting in a slow pit stop of 5.7s and dropping into sixth after exiting the pit lane. Russell and Norris also pitted onto hard tyres, but the Red Bull cars chose not to pit, instead staying out on their old tyres. Alonso, who at this point was in sixth, managed to lock up coming into the pit lane and crossed the entry, resulting in a five-second penalty for the Spanish driver.
Lap 21 was completed under the safety car, with Verstappen now in second after Sainz. However, the Red Bulls were sliding around on their used hard tyres, and over the next few laps, Norris, Russell, Hamilton and Leclerc overtook both Red Bull drivers.
By lap 33, there was only a two-second gap between the top four drivers. Russell announced to his engineer that he wanted to go for the win, and his engineers agreed. This certainly looked possible as he was close behind Sainz and seemed very confident that he could take the lead of the race soon.
The positions at the top of the grid for now remained unchanged, however, a battle was ensuing between Ocon, Pérez and Alonso. Ocon and Alonso very nearly made contact, and Alonso had to drop back into ninth. Ocon managed to get past Pérez in lap 39 up into seventh, a fantastic manoeuvre from the Frenchman.
In lap 40, Pérez pitted onto some medium tyres and dropped down to 18th, and in the following lap, Verstappen did the same. He came out in 15th, dropping back many places – certainly a place that Verstappen has not been used to so far this season. The race seemed hopeless for the Red Bull drivers at this stage – the first half of the race had been spent sliding around on the track, Verstappen complaining over team radio that “It’s like driving on ice”. The Red Bull drivers had already been left vulnerable by their old tyres after the first safety car and had dropped gradually down the grid – it did not seem as though it could go worse for the pair.
And then it did. Esteban Ocon pulled off at the inside of turn two in lap 43 – a shame for the Alpine driver as he was celebrating his 27th birthday and was in the middle of a very impressive drive. The virtual safety car was deployed, and the Red Bull drivers were left unable to overtake at the back of the grid. Mercedes, however, took the chance to double stack and managed it perfectly. They rejoined just behind Leclerc in fourth and were gaining quickly. Alonso, however, was also apparently hit by whatever curse was plaguing the Red Bull drivers – he had a terrible pit stop, exiting in last place.
Lawson continued to impress further down the field. Verstappen had risen to ninth just behind the Kiwi driver, finding a miraculous boost of speed on his new medium tyres. The two were battling for position, and while Verstappen did eventually overtake, Lawson did not make it easy for him. The 21-year-old put up a fantastic fight against the two-time world champion and after booting Verstappen out of Q3, he was not going to let his place go easily.
By lap 53, Russell had closed in on Leclerc and managed to get past him at turn 14. Hamilton did the same and was seemingly going even quicker than his Mercedes teammate. However, it was unlikely he was going to be allowed to pass Russell – with so few laps left of the race, Russell was not going to be denied a podium or potential win.
By lap 59, the top four drivers (Sainz, Norris, Russell and Hamilton) were all in it for the win. However, those reminiscent of the Carlando McLaren days were given a treat during these final few laps. Sainz deliberately gave Norris DRS so that the McLaren could stay ahead of the two Mercedes behind him, meaning that Norris was protected from the speedy drivers behind him by keeping close to Sainz, and Sainz had his lead protected from Russell and Hamilton going faster on newer tyres behind. This is genuinely one of the most genius bits of driving I have seen all season, and it just made me very happy to see Carlando being revived once more.
By the final lap, it genuinely seemed as though any one of the top four drivers could take the win. Russell and Hamilton looked extremely strong, but the allegiance of the drivers in front made it nearly impossible for them to get past. It seemed as though it was going to be a third place finish for Russell and a fourth for Hamilton.
Then disaster struck. At turn 10 of the final lap, Russell clipped the side on the way in and drove off into the wall ahead. This was heart-breaking – Russell had been driving so strongly for the whole race, at many stages it looked as though he was going to win, but he was left with a pointless finish at the very last moment.
The top three drivers stormed around the track and past the chequered flag, with Sainz taking the victory, Norris second and Hamilton third. Leclerc finished fourth, and Verstappen – rather impressively may I add – came home with a fifth. Gasly made up for his teammate’s retirement with a strong sixth place finish, and Piastri pulled a blinder by making up 10 places to seventh. Lawson performed extremely well and finished in ninth, scoring more points than any other Alpha Tauri driver this season, and Magnussen came in 10th. Sainz was named Driver of the Day and Hamilton took the fastest lap.
This race was an absolute rollercoaster to watch. The first 40 or so laps were not particularly eventful, with most of the action being among the drivers nearer the back of the pack. However, this was still entertaining to watch – I was interested in how Lawson would perform, as well as other new drivers such as Sargeant, and how their performances would affect the 2024 grid line-up. It’s disappointing that Lawson doesn’t yet have a seat for 2024, but seeing him on the grid in 2025 would be fantastic and well deserved.
I was also hugely impressed by Piastri’s drive – after a pretty disastrous qualifying, he was able to come back to make a solid points finish despite not having the same upgrades as his McLaren teammate. It seems only right that his contract has been extended to 2026. Verstappen’s recovery was also extremely notable – he seemed to find huge amounts of pace when he changed onto medium tyres, and proved that he was not completely out of the game – he isn’t leading the season by 151 points for nothing.
However, in my opinion, the best performance of this Grand Prix was that of Carlos Sainz. His fantastic qualifying sessions put him in the best possible position for the main race, and he managed to keep the lead until the very end. He drove brilliantly, and also delivered probably one of the coldest team radio messages ever – when told that Norris was 0.8s behind with DRS, he replied “Yeah, it’s on purpose.” And as if that wasn’t good enough, our ears were blessed once more after the chequered flag with him singing his theme song, Smooth Operator, and saying “first smooth operation in Ferrari”.
In his post-race interview, Carlos said “We brought it home, that was the best feeling. I’m over the moon right now.’ As he should be – this race gave us everything we needed: rookies performing well, some masterful driving and the first non-Red Bull victory of the 2023 season.