The Scuderia resumed from the mid-season break with two back-to-back victories in Belgium and Italy to banish memories of 12 painfully fruitless races in the first half of the season. The super-fast nature of these circuits handsomely rewarded Ferrari’s powerful engine and forgave its lack of downforce, allowing the Italian team to nose ahead of Mercedes at both, albeit only just.
But here the red resurgence ends. Formula One is embarking on its final run of seven races, and Singapore, the first among them, will only bring out the worst in Ferrari’s SF90.
Whereas the preceding two races barely penalised Ferrari’s inefficient aerodynamic package, Singapore’s 23 corners will punish it heavily, and with less than half of the lap taken at full throttle, its engine has little opportunity to claw back any of the lost time.
The similarly slow Monaco and Hungarian grands prix make for a grim preview. In Monte Carlo the fastest Ferrari was 0.781 seconds off pole and behind both Mercedes and Red Bull Racing, and though in Budapest that margin had shrunk to half a second, both drivers finished more than a minute behind race winner Lewis Hamilton.
“We need to stay realistic,” Leclerc admitted. “We expected that Spa and Monza would be very good races for our car, but we also know that the next few races will be a lot more difficult.
But whereas Ferrari has taken a step backwards since last season, when it started the Singapore weekend as favourite, Red Bull Racing remains a constant danger.
The Austrian team has sent at least one of its drivers to the Singapore podium in the last nine years, and in 2018 Max Verstappen was a race-long threat to Hamilton’s win, having run the Briton close in qualifying despite suffering engine problems.
“The track is very demanding… but it’s one of my favourites,” Verstappen said. “We’re aiming for maximum points and I’m really looking forward to it.”
In the sister car Thai driver Alex Albon will make his debut Singapore appearance, but the 23-year-old is unfazed by his best opportunity yet to claim a maiden front row and podium finish.
“Singapore is also kind of a home race for me as it’s the closest grand prix to Thailand, so I’ll have extra family and sponsors coming to support me which makes it even more exciting.”
Only Mercedes stands in its way, but despite winning the last three Singapore grands prix, the German marque can’t expect an easy weekend.
The ever-present South-East Asian heat and humidity make the Singapore Grand Prix the most physically demanding race on the calendar, and the seemingly endless string of corners and bumpy public roads taxes the drivers’ concentration to its limits over 61 laps, but it’s equally challenging for machine as for man. With so few straights, engines and brakes have little opportunity to cool themselves, threatening technical failure.
This is a particular difficulty for Mercedes and its aggressively packaged bodywork. The Austrian Grand Prix, run in the height of the European heat wave, exposed the German marque’s inadequate cooling, leaving Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton to limp home third and fifth.
It’s all music to the ears of Red Bull Racing in its quest for a third win in 2019.