How Mercedes and Hamilton might just win the race they weren’t meant to

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Lewis Hamilton smiles confidently in the paddock for the Singapore Grand Prix.

Since Formula 1’s return from its infamous summer break, Lewis Hamilton has dominated the world championship with two superb victories in Belgium and Monza.

And although all good things come in threes – repeating victory in this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix is going to be far easier said than done for the current points leader…

In fact, Mercedes’ own Team Principal Toto Wolff explained coming into this weekend just why the Silver Arrows will really have to have their wits about them in Singapore’s stunning Marina Bay.

“Singapore is the kind of circuit that should favour both Ferrari and Red Bull,” Wolff said in a statement.

“Both have shown strong performance on low-speed circuits demanding maximum downforce, and we have found life more difficult at those places in 2017.”

Most importantly, Wolff’s not wrong; Mercedes has struggled at downforce sensitive circuits such as Monaco and Hungary in 2017 – with Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari taking crucial victories during both weekends.

So, how do you prepare to win a race that you’re simply not supposed to?

Lewis Hamilton admitted he had a “clean day” during Friday in Singapore. The first session in the afternoon brought him P4 whilst he improved to P3 for FP2, which was held in the evening to mimic conditions expected in the race.

With FP2 being the only practice session for drivers to experience conditions akin to that of qualifying and the race, it’s no surprise that Hamilton ran three different simulations throughout the ninety minutes.

After his qualifying run was an unimpressive seven tenths off that of Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, Hamilton proceeded with two separate long run simulations on the ultrasoft and soft tyres.

The results of these runs were a “mixed bag” said Technical Director, James Allison. “Lewis is showing some encouraging pace on the Soft tyre,” he conceded, “but we’ve got a bit more to do on the Qualifying tyre.”

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Hamilton on track during last year’s Singapore Grand Prix, where he would go on to finish P3.

According to calculations conducted by Green Flag F1, Hamilton’s long run on the ultrasoft tyre was, on average, just 0.503s behind the pace set by Daniel Ricciardo.

“Red Bull seem like they’re very strong,” admitted Hamilton.

These numbers, however, must be taken with a pinch of salt, fuel loads, ERS strategies and power unit configurations are all unknown variables which affect the aforementioned averages.

In fact, Mercedes probably consider those numbers somewhat irrelevant, because that’s not how Lewis Hamilton is going to extract the full 25 points available this weekend. Instead, it’s their long run on the soft tyre which looks to have thrown a curveball through the entire field for this weekend.

That curveball was never certain though, as it all began with a risk taken on September 5th, two days after Hamilton’s stunning victory in Monza. On that day, Mercedes communicated to Pirelli that they would take two sets of the soft tyre, the hardest compound available, to Singapore.

At the time, the choice was considered unusual; only two other drivers, Sebastian Vettel and Pascal Wehrlein, had decided to take more than one set of soft tyres to the Grand Prix.

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Hamilton celebrates his win in Monza – will it be more of the same this weekend in Singapore?

It was also a risk because throughout 2017 the hardest of the three available compounds has generally been ignored. In fact, just four of the thirteen races so far in 2017 have seen the hardest compound used – and crucially, neither of them were Bahrain, Monaco or Hungary, circuits with the most similar characteristics to Singapore’s Marina Bay Street Circuit.

Why is Hamilton’s soft tyre run so crucial?

Hamilton’s long run on the soft tyres in FP2 has two major consequences. Firstly, it means Mercedes will not have to use the supersoft tyre around a circuit that’s considered rear-limited.

During the Bahrain Grand Prix earlier this year, Mercedes were caught out by the small operating window for the supersofts – and subsequently the major drop off in the rear tyres affected both drivability and pace, handing Ferrari a somewhat surprising victory.

Mercedes addressed the rear-tyres/supersoft problems in the subsequent in-season Bahrain test – but it’s not been fully confirmed if they’ve managed to completely rectify the issue. Bahrain, like Singapore, is a night race, and the intense heat present at both circuits undeniably makes it harder to manage the temperatures.

And, that’s why, the soft tyre run is so significant; by using the softs, none of those issues will be present, because it has a higher operating window.

Plus, Lewis Hamilton has proved recently he can turn this particular compound on when no one else can. The best example of this came in Belgium, where he used the theoretically slower soft tyre to hold off the ultasoft-clad Sebastian Vettel.

But, in Singapore, the soft tyre could provide a major advantage in another way too.

Given it’s durability, the yellow-striped tyre could also be the deciding factor when it comes to strategy, changing what looks to be a traditional two-stop into a one-stop. By doing this, Hamilton would most likely be able to gain vital track position, irrespective of what other runners around him are doing.

Consequently, this would also make Hamilton’s performance in qualifying less important. Longest he can stay running toward the sharp end of the field in the opening stint, a one-stop should be theoretically faster given the increased difficulty of overtaking in 2017 (not to mention, the lack of opportunities in Marina Bay too).

Lastly, the plausibility of pulling this strategic gamble off was only heightened with Hamilton’s long run pace in FP2. Unlike his simulation on the ultrasoft, Hamilton was actually quick with the softs. In fact, according to calculations made by Green Flag F1, Hamilton’s run was, on average, over a second faster than Sebastian Vettel, the only other man to run the softs throughout the session.

But perhaps more crucially, Hamilton’s run, was on average, supposably half-a-second ahead of Max Verstappen, who was running the faster supersoft tyres.

Although fuel loads and engine modes can’t be ruled out as factors in these statistics – there’s no denying Hamilton’s pace on the soft during FP2 was sufficient enough to warrant its use on Sunday.

So, even though Red Bull might have dominated the purple-striped tyre throughout the entire Friday session, have Mercedes still got the upper hand at the circuit where no one expected them to perform?

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