September 23rd, 2012 (F1plus / Graham Keilloh).- So Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull are back. At today's Singapore Grand Prix they finished up on the top step of the podium, a place they know well. This is despite Seb not having won a race since the Bahrain round in April. There always seemed something a little wrong about that fact. But back on a high downforce track the Bull looked just like it was again on its ever-so-familiar full charge.
Once again today's race gave us a galling demonstration of the folly of counting one's chickens before they are hatched in F1. Yesterday, it looked rather like Vettel had blown it. He and Lewis Hamilton had the legs of the field almost from the very start of Friday practice in Singapore, but Seb's pace mysteriously faded in the final part of qualifying, and his resultant starting two places shy of Lewis looked a decisive advantage to the McLaren man.
Indeed, although Vettel immediately cleared Pastor Maldonado in the opening corners of the race and broadly kept pace with Lewis it wasn't at all clear how he was going to usurp him. But the problem was solved for him when Lewis's gearbox failed after 22 laps, thus putting the race into the palm of Seb's hand. And he never let it go nor looked remotely like letting it go, winning with a flawless drive the likes of which we've seen plenty from him before.
Lewis's retirement was therefore the pivotal moment of the race, and it couldn't have been worse timed or more unlucky for Lewis. I've been saying for a while that for all that F1 is an intricate science, dumb luck will have a say in who takes the title honours this year. And dumb luck had a massive say today.
The gearbox failure was also shrouded in some intrigue, in that on the radio Lewis's engineer seemed to imply that it was a problem that the McLaren team knew about yesterday. If so, then it suggests that the team rolled the dice somewhat, staking starting from pole (and thus not taking a grid penalty for a gearbox change) against risking a gearbox that they knew might not last the race distance, and they got snake eyes.
On one hand, while chasing down a 37 point deficit the team felt presumably that they had to live on the edge a little. But on the other hand (and with the benefit of hindsight) something is better than nothing, and Lewis along with all the others chasing Fernando Alonso really cannot afford major setbacks.
Alonso and Vettel shake hand at parc ferme (Mark Thompson / Getty)
Nevertheless, from Seb's perspective, he'll probably see it as some kind of payback for the Valencia race earlier in the year when his own mechanical problems denied him a probable win.
And, just quietly as always, Alonso brought his Ferrari home in third place behind Jenson Button in second, to protect his championship lead as much as possible, now 29 points over Vettel. Alonso and the Scuderia will have mixed feelings on the Singapore race however.
On one hand, they likely see Lewis and McLaren as the biggest threat to their title aspirations on pace, given they've been quick everywhere since mid-summer, and now the gap over Lewis is upwards of two clear wins with only six races left. But the Ferrari's lack of pace (in qualifying at least) at Singapore, where Alonso is a specialist, will be a worry (Alonso admitted as much) though Fernando seemed able to match the pace of the leaders in the race. And Vettel chipped into Alonso's lead this weekend and next up is Suzuka, a track which must surely play into the hands of a Adrian Newey machine. Additionally, we know that Vettel has previous for late-season championship charges. But if nothing else, Ferrari can't claim that Alonso isn't buying it time to get it right technically given his persistent points-gathering this season.
And before we wrap up a couple of worthy shout outs are due. First up, Paul Di Resta claimed a best ever fourth place finish with a typically unobtrusive but consistently quick effort. He even kept Alonso honest in the late laps. And it's all timely for Di Resta, given that McLaren and Mercedes vacancies may be opening up soon, as well as that the star of team mate Nico Hulkenberg has threatened to rise higher than his in recent times.
And last but not least to Pastor Maldonado, who while his run of not having scored since his Barcelona win continued today it was through no fault of his own as his hydraulics failed, bringing to a premature halt a quick and combative drive wherein he ran with the front runners like he was born to do it and went wheel-to-wheel plenty of times without clumsy errors. Without this technical malady he was looking good for a major points haul. And this follows on from another trouble-free run in Monza, and out of the car he's making all the right noises in terms of learning his lessons. Whisper it, but are we seeing the very beginnings of his path to redemption? Let's hope so, as if he ever calms down we'll have an excellent driver on our hands.
Sebastian Vettel of course is another excellent driver we have on our hands, today bouncing back from previous setbacks to remind us all he's still a real contender for this year's drivers' title. And this is only the latest twist in that story; I'd wager there will be a few more in the remaining six rounds.