SINGAPORE — Red Bull’s record-breaking run of victories was always going to come to an end eventually, and with it there was always going to be a heady mix of drama and emotions.
Carlos Sainz’s victory in Singapore was special for many reasons, but above all else because the idea of anyone other than a Red Bull driver winning this season had seemed so remote for so long.
Prior to Sunday’s race, George Russell’s victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix last November was the last time Red Bull failed to win a grand prix and before that it was Charles Leclerc’s win four months earlier in Austria.
Red Bull’s sudden and unexpected loss of performance in Singapore (more on that later) presented rival teams with a rare opportunity to win, and in the final laps there were four drivers from three different teams queuing up to make the victory theirs.
“We have to be extremely proud of the weekend that we’ve put together,” Sainz said after securing victory ahead of Lando Norris and Lewis Hamilton. “We’ve had one opportunity this year to win the race, which was here in Singapore, and we nailed it.
“We didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend and yeah, there was a lot of moments out there where we were a bit under pressure and we kept it calm, we kept our plan, our strategy.”
Sainz’s joy on Sunday night was contrasted by George Russell’s despair. Russell was the Ferrari driver’s biggest threat in the final laps but the Briton’s race ended in the barriers at Turn 10 on the final lap.
Russell and teammate Lewis Hamilton were the fastest two drivers on track in the closing stages after they pitted for new tyres under a Virtual Safety Car period with 17 laps to run. The superior performance of their fresh Pirellis saw them haul in Sainz and Lando Norris in first and second, setting up a thrilling showdown.
Russell was driving the lead Mercedes, had passed the Ferrari of Leclerc with ease, but was struggling to get close enough to Norris to complete an overtaking move. Sainz knew Russell’s fresher tyres made him a bigger threat to his lead than the orange McLaren filling his mirrors, and therefore slowed his pace to keep Norris within a second of his rear wing and afford the him the use of his Drag Reduction System (DRS) overtaking aid – something a leading driver would usually try to avoid.
As long as Norris could use his DRS on the long straights, he would negate any advantage Russell might gain from his own DRS and therefore stand a better chance of providing the physical buffer Sainz needed to the faster Mercedes. It was a fine balancing act: drive too slow and Norris might attempt a move for the lead of his own, but drive too fast and Norris would lose the use of his DRS and be easily passed by Russell, who would then be able to attack Sainz.
On top of the precision driving, tyre management and physical resilience Sainz showed inside his Ferrari’s cockpit, it was arguably the most pivotal factor in his victory.
“I had to give Lando a bit of a cheeky DRS boost, and that helped us to keep them behind and win the race and get the get the win for Ferrari that feels great,” he said. “It’s always tricky — you always put yourself under extra pressure, no?
“Because you know that then you cannot have a lock-up. You cannot have a single mistake or a snap because it means that then Lando’s going to have a chance to overtake you if he’s on DRS.
“So yeah, at that point you decide to give him the DRS, hoping that that’s going to be enough to keep the Mercs behind.”
On lap 59, Norris lost time defending from Russell, dropping him over a second off Sainz and out of DRS range. It looked like Russell had finally cracked the McLaren driver and would pass him on the run to Turn 7 on the next lap, but Sainz significantly slowed his pace through the first sector of lap 60 to allow Norris to catch him again before the next DRS detection point.
“There was in particularly one lap that I think Lando defended into 16-17, and then I had to slow down a lot into T1-2-3 to give him DRS again,” Sainz added.
“I think that move actually, saved my race, saved also Lando’s P2 because I feel like there, if not, I would have been also dead meat, if the Mercs would have passed Lando, I think they could have got passed me pretty easily.”
Russell’s race came to an end on the final lap when he followed Norris on an aggressive line into Turn 10 but hit the barrier on the outside where the McLaren had glanced it.
“It’s incredible how quickly the mind thinks,” Russell said after the race, “because I saw Lando brush the wall, and in that split-second I thought ‘oh, he’s just hit the wall!’ and two tenths of a second later I’ve hit the wall. It definitely wasn’t because of Lando’s brushing that it that caught me off guard, but you definitely do tend to follow.
“The victory was gone by that last lap anyway. I’m not going to beat myself up, if it was for the last lap, for victory, I wouldn’t be standing here right now. It’s a very very simple error, it’s a street circuit, these things happen.
“Pushing the boundaries, went down fighting. As I said, I was proud of the job that we did, up until that moment, and I’m not going to let one corner, from the whole weekend, cloud what’s been such a positive weekend.”
The win topped off an impressive run of form for Sainz, who has looked like the better of the two Ferrari drivers since Formula One returned from its summer break last month. While teammate Leclerc has struggled to find his form at the last three races, Sainz has secured a fifth-place finish against the odds in Zandvoort, pole position and a podium in Monza and memorable pole and victory in Singapore.
“I think in terms of car and driving understanding [I have improved],” Sainz said. “I just sat down with my engineers in the summer break and we said okay, what can we do to start putting the whole weekend together? Because clearly we have a lot of pace, we were doing some good things but we are never putting the whole thing together, so let’s see what we can do to improve that and start having consistent performances in the second half of the year, because the potential is clearly there this year.
“And yeah, Zandvoort was a very good weekend, Monza was almost perfect and here I feel like it was the perfect one. Makes me very happy and proud that when you work, you analyse, and you also have the speed like I’ve had the this weekend. It is it is always paying off and now we managed to put everything together and, yeah, very happy for the engineers, for the mechanics, the team, everyone.
What happened to Red Bull?
At any other circuit this year, the battle between Sainz, Norris, Russell and Hamilton would have been fought over second place at best. Red Bull’s run of 15 straight victories means the absence of one of its drivers on the podium was by far the biggest surprise from Sunday’s race.
The team had signalled its concern about its performance heading into the Singapore weekend, but even its own simulations had not predicted anything as bad as the reality. For the first time since 2018, neither Red Bull made the top ten in qualifying, with Verstappen complaining about the car’s behaviour under braking as he struggled to the 11th fastest time in Q2.
“We got into qualifying and the first big problem I had was that I couldn’t brake late and hard, because I would bottom out and it would unload the front tires,” he explained.
“On a street circuit, that is something that is very crucial, to be confident on the brakes and attack the corners. So I couldn’t do that, and besides, also just the low-speed corners, where I think we have been struggling the whole weekend, I just had no rear support.
“So I kept on having mini-slides, or in my final lap, a big one at Turn 3. When it’s like that, there is no lap time.”
Red Bull wouldn’t go into detail about the reason for the issue, but by Sunday evening the team appeared confident it knew where it had gone wrong. The most likely theory, although undoubtedly simplified, is that the characteristics of the Singapore street circuit meant it could not run the car at its optimum ride height, and when it tried it resulted in a lack of stability in corner entry.
It’s been a common complaint among rival teams since F1 introduced new regulations in 2022 that put an emphasis on downforce generated by the floor of the car. But while drivers and engineers further down the grid have struggled to get the balance right, it’s fair to say Red Bull has never looked this lost.
“I don’t know what they struggled with this weekend but when I watched his onboard yesterday, I kind of laughed because I’ve never seen a car that bad before,” Norris said on Sunday evening. “But yeah, Max also laughed about it. So, we’ll see next weekend. I think they’ll probably be back at the top.”
Red Bull brought an updated floor to Singapore but only ran it in Friday practice before reverting to the previous iteration in the hope that it would eliminate one of the variables at play. It was unlikely a factor, but represented the first stutter in an otherwise imperious march to this year’s title.
“I think we have got a much clearer understanding of the issues in the race, which is primarily a setup problem,” Horner said. “If we raced here again next week, I think we’d have a much clearer picture of what we would do differently.”
Some observers were keen to point out that another variable was at play this weekend. The FIA introduced a rule clarification in the form of a technical directive (TD018) ahead of Singapore to clamp down on the use of flexible bodywork to gain a performance advantage, something Red Bull (and other teams) has exploited in previous seasons.
The governing body was keen to stress that it wasn’t targeted at any individual team, and Horner said several times over the weekend that Red Bull had not changed a single part on its car in order to comply with the directive.
So could it just be a simple coincidence?
“It’s all engineering stuff,” Horner said when asked to elaborate on the reasons for his cars’ lack of performance. “There’s no silver bullets in this business.
“I know all of you would love to blame the TD, but unfortunately we can’t even blame that because it has not changed a single component on our car.
“So, I think circuit characteristics are different here and we haven’t optimised the car in the right window to extract the most.”
Even Red Bull’s fiercest rivals were doubtful the technical directive had any impact on the absence of Verstappen at the top of the timesheets, unless, of course, a similar trend appears this weekend in Japan.
“It’s so difficult to say, we have one set of data now in Singapore and then we go to a totally different track where that plays a role. Let’s wait,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said.
“We’ve seen those one-off bad races with Mercedes in the past and that’s why I’d rather concentrate on us than figure out if that could have had an effect.”
More likely is a return to Red Bull domination this weekend in Suzuka and more of the same at the six remaining rounds beyond that. Sainz, however, can be satisfied with the fact he took advantage on the one occasion F1’s top team got it wrong.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re still winning the last few races of the season,” he said on Sunday night. “I think Singapore gave us the chance and we just did well. But I still think the Red Bull is going to be up there in the remainder of the season and they’re going to be very, very, very, very difficult to beat.
“I just think it’s great for F1 if Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, Aston [Martin] would be that two, three-tenths quicker every race, to challenge them in race pace. I think the racing this year would be incredible and it would be eight drivers fighting for wins, a bit like we saw today with four or five guys out there fighting for a win around a street track.
“So it just shows the potential F1 has to create an incredible show. But it’s true that if Red Bull have nailed the car this year and they were doing such an amazing job they deserve to win everything that they’re winning. So yeah, obviously dreaming a bit about what F1 could be if we would all catch up a bit on them and in this second half of the season and next year.”