Mercedes has taken its first double podium in Singapore with Nico Rosberg winning from pole and Lewis Hamilton holding onto third, despite questions over reliability and late pressure from Ferrari and Red Bull.
Rosberg and Hamilton were both warned about brake wear early in the race and given precautionary lift and coast orders to ensure they got both cars to the end, in what seemed to be further evidence that Mercedes has yet to master Singapore’s unique demands.
But even as the tone of the Mercedes pitwall grew ever more anxious, their instructions seemed for the most part to be more caution than cause for concern, as Rosberg continued to build on a three second gap over Daniel Ricciardo and Hamilton ran a steady third.
However as the race went on this brake management phase started to hurt Hamilton, whose grip was already compromised running in the dirty air behind Ricciardo, and after changing to the slower, more durable soft tyre in his first pit stop the Briton fell back into the clutches of Kimi Räikkönen.
When the ultrasoft-shod Räikkönen swept past Hamilton on lap 33, Mercedes was forced to press Ferrari’s weakness on the pitwall: switching Hamilton to a three-stop strategy freed the Briton up to burn through as much of his second set of softs as he need to keep touch with Räikkönen, before bringing him in late on lap 46 to perform the undercut.
As Hamilton left the pits on scrubbed supersofts Ferrari urged Räikkönen to push ahead of his own stop a lap later, but despite the Finn’s best efforts he could not make up the necessary time and emerged from the pits in fourth and back behind Hamilton.
“A difficult day and a difficult weekend,” Hamilton reflected. “The brakes were near critical temperature for the most of the race, so I kept having to back off to cool them down. I then made a mistake and ran wide which let Kimi past.
“Fortunately, with the car a bit lighter I was able to bring the temperatures down, push a bit more on fresh tyres and get back past him. Pace and strategy weren’t the issue – it was all down to the brakes.”
But although Hamilton’s late stop was successful in restoring him to the podium, it almost ended up costing Rosberg the race win.
Reacting to Hamilton’s strategy, Red Bull pulled in Ricciardo on lap 48 to ensure the Australian had the tyre life to defend his second place, only to then target the lead as Ricciardo’s pace carried him away from one Mercedes and towards the other.
As Ricciardo slashed the gap to the front on his new supersofts, Rosberg was forced to sit tight and watch him come as there was not enough time for the German to pit without relinquishing track position. His lead, which had been over twenty seconds after Ricciardo’s stop, was dwindling at such a rate that Red Bull predicted their driver would catch the Mercedes with four laps to go.
But this ultimately proved too optimistic, and by a combination of keeping calm in front and getting the better hand when passing traffic, Rosberg managed to hold on by four tenths of a second to take his 22nd career victory and his first in Singapore.
“In the past the Singapore track has not treated me so well, so this win is a very special one,” said Rosberg. “The weekend started perfectly with a good qualifying session. Then, I had a good start and was able to keep the Red Bulls and Ferraris behind me.
“It was a bit tight at the end after Daniel did a clever pit stop timing wise. If I would have also pitted I would have come out behind him because I was stuck in traffic on my in-lap, so we chose the best strategy to stay out and a big thanks to the team for that.”
Rosberg’s victory – his eighth of the season – sees him retake the lead of the championship by eight points, and along with Hamilton’s third place moves Mercedes 222 points clear of Red Bull, meaning the Silver Arrows could mathematically clinch a third consecutive Constructors’ Championship at the next round in Malaysia.