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Match point in Singapore for Verstappen

Match point in Singapore for Verstappen

FORMULA ONE: Max Verstappen has his first chance to win the championship this weekend, but given his run of form, he could just be winding up to achieve a more impressive feat before the end of the year.

By Michael Lamonato

Friday 30 September 2022, 02:15PM

Max Verstappen could be celebrating a second consecutive Formula One world championship with victory in Singapore on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Max Verstappen could be celebrating a second consecutive Formula One world championship with victory in Singapore on Sunday. Photo: AFP

At last Formula 1 returns to Asia with the Singapore Grand Prix. It’s been a long time coming.

Three long years have elapsed since F1 last visited Marina Bay, where the non-stop corners, bumpy public roads and sweltering humidity combine to form one of the sport’s harshest challenges.

A lot’s changed in the meanwhile.

The 2019 Singapore Grand Prix is best remembered - indeed perhaps destined to forever be remembered - as Sebastian Vettel’s last race. The German was locked in a power struggle inside Ferrari with new teammate Charles Leclerc, who’d just taken a famous victory at the team’s home Italian Grand Prix, his second win in a row.

Vettel was finally able to take one back in an emotional return to the top step. He wasn’t to know at the time that it would be his last before his career inexorably slid into its twilight years.

But it’s hard to fault Ferrari’s instinct even then. It decided Leclerc was its coming man, and three years later the Monegasque arrives back in Singapore as the team’s undisputed leader.

Unfortunately he’ll line up on the grid with the taste of defeat already embittering his mouth.

This weekend is Verstappen’s first match point of the campaign. He leads Leclerc by 116 points and needs a 138-point advantage by the end of the weekend to seal the deal.

It would take disaster for Leclerc to score just two points at a circuit expected to suit the Ferrari car, but with three retirements already to his name this season, it’s not improbable.

But even if he slings to mathematical contention for another round, the Japanese Grand Prix one week later will surely be fair accompli for the title. The only question for the Dutchman is whether the coronation comes with four or five races to spare.

Red Bull Racing’s form is irresistible in the second half of the season. Verstappen is on a five-race victory streak, and so sparkling has his form bean that he hasn’t really looked challenged for months.

He needs just two more race victories to equal the all-time record for wins in a single season - 13, currently held jointly by Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel - but the real question is: will he even stop there?

The RB18 has been developed into a formidable machine. It’s lost a lot of the excess weight that held it back early in the season and has been honed into an aerodynamically efficient package such that it excellent in the likes of Hungary, Belgium and Monza, all track with broadly different demands.

Could the Dutchman actually have his sights set on the longest single-season streak in the sport’s history, standing at nine in a row?

“That’s a massive ask,” Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner said. “There is a huge variance in [upcoming] circuits.

“I mean, Singapore compared to [Monza] - it’s got the most corners on the circuit, it’s bumpy, it’s a street track. It’s a much different challenge.

“Were in a great position in the championship but we’re going to attack every race and do the best we can, and the point will take care of themselves.”

Ferrari ought to figure well, but the SF-75 has lacked its edge for months. Instead it could be Mercedes that takes up the baton of second-best team in Singapore. Despite this having been a bogey track of the German marque throughout its dominant years, the tight, slow-speed nature of the circuit will help to minimise the worst of its vices, so much so that it’s being targeted as one of the team’s best remaining chances to score an elusive first win of the season.

“The track layout should suit our car, the bumps not,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “On the simulations, it says it should be one of our better tracks but I’m trying to stay on the careful side with any predictions for Singapore.”

But first the teams will have to master Singapore in their brand-new cars and for the first time in three years. The new-for-2022 aero packages are expected to need a great deal of honing around the sport’s most extreme street track. Nothing can be taken for granted before the chequered flag falls on Sunday.

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