Team Vodafone McLaren Mercedes have won the last three races. With Hamilton winning in Hungary and Monza, Button taking the win in Belgium. The team last won three back to back races in 2008, when the British, German and again, Hungarian GPs were won. Their pace over this latter part of the season was In part due to technical developments on the car. But as the last races were high speed low downforce tracks, there was a question if the cars new pace would translate to a street circuit on high downforce. McLaren are confident the car will ride the kerbs around the street circuit here in Marina bay. So with a new set of front and rear wings developed for greater downforce, the team are confident for a good result this weekend.
Friday is the first day of running for the teams at a race weekend. There are two sessions of ninety minutes, one in the ‘morning’ and one in the ‘afternoon’. Despite being on a six hour time difference to Europe, the F1 Paddock works this weekend on European time, in order to keep the race on the right TV schedules. So I’ll use the European timings, despite the practice taking place at night time.
Friday practice is all about preparation, testing new parts, seeing how the car handles and gathering data on fuel consumption and tyre wear. The team will run with two different types of tyres, Pirelli supply two compounds for each race weekend, a Prime tyre, which is the harder compound tyre and the option tyre which is softer. The Harder tyre has less grip, but should last longer; it’s the reverse situation with the softer tyre. For Singapore Pirelli have a family of four compounds (from super soft to hard) to choose from, so for the most grip they made their soft tyre the ‘Prime’ compound and the super soft the ‘Option’. Drivers will have to run both types in the race.
Morning practice (known as Free Practice 1 – FP1) was preceded by a heavy thunderstorm. The junior series GP2 had their practice before the F1 cars went out, so the track was drying, but still too wet for slicks of intermediate (lightly grooved) tyres. All the teams started the session on Full wet tyres (heavily grooved). With standing water and wet patches off line it was a while before the drivers could switch to slick tyres. This will have delayed their scheduled programme of runs, but with more wet weather expected, as soon as conditions were dry enough, the drivers went out and did their practice. In the end it remained dry for the whole session.
In FP1 Hamilton had the car in hand and was setting fast times. Button was less confident in the car and spent time working on set up. As the first session is about evaluating new parts (front and rear wings in this case) and finding a good base set up, only the harder prime tyre is used. With the time difference, the session started in twilight. Less than half an hour into the session, its getting darker and the track lighting remains on all through the session, so the drivers are always presented with a perfectly lit track. At this point with the dark blue evening sky, the track comes alive. The session ended with the McLaren drivers second and third fastest. Hamilton’s confidence in the set up meant he topped the pair. Although both he and Button had changes planned to the cars after the first session. Red Bulls Sebastian Vettel ended up fastest and looks a threat for the weekend.
After first practice back at MTC, the McLaren team’s base in the UK, the technical teams are already looking at the data and may even start some computer simulations or drive laps in the simulator to understand and resolve any issues.
Second practice started in full darkness and with a dry track. Any practice session is thoroughly planned, the team have a schedule of runs to complete, all the thought and planning is done in advance and remains relatively similar form race to race. There will be longer runs with high fuel and harder tyres to simulate the race. Shorter runs on lower fuel and soft tyres to simulate qualifying. Even practice starts at the end of the pit lane. Other runs may require using KERS, DRS or engines in differing modes. Most lap times are meaningless without the background to the aim of that run. But there is still Kudos to the driver fastest in any session.
Early on in the session and even before the drivers had tested the softer tyre, the track was seeing a build-up of Marbles. Marbles are the small pieces of rubber that are flung off the edge of the tyre. The amount of marbles are driven by the softness the tyre compound, the heat and how hard the cars corner. In the heat of Singapore, the last turn is already seeing the marbles off line. The heat and soft tyres will also account for tyre degradation in the race. This is how much the tyres go off or lose grip during a run. Degradation can be driven by wear or heat, Singapore doesn’t see high tyre wear, but the tyres will lose their stickiness from being too hot. This issue will be a key feature in the team’s race pace.
Both drivers had changes to the car to understand in FP2, before trying qualifying and race practice runs. Another clean session for McLaren and the drivers ended up second and fifth, this time Button being the faster around Marina Bay, again Vettel was fastest. Hamilton felt his fastest lap could have been faster as he ran wide at the final corner and lost some time
Lewis commented to the press “Our car has quite a nice balance but we still need to make some further set-up changes”, he went on to explain “My race pace didn’t feel great from inside the cockpit, but my engineers tell me it was quite promising.”
Jenson said “I don’t feel like I’ve found my flow yet” underlining his search for a better setup, he put the issue down to “the track surface wasn’t very grippy in either session because of the morning’s rain.” But one the less he was confident, adding “There’s still a lot of work to do – but, if we can fine-tune the balance, we should be competitive.”
So as the drivers meet the press and debrief with their engineers, the work is already underway to ready the cars for the final practice session and qualifying tomorrow. Saturday morning practice session is just one hour and is largely race preparation and understanding the on low fuel and softer option tyres for qualifying. But the first job will be the installation run. This is just a single lap run a reasonable pace to make sure the car is working as it should do. This is necessary as the cars will have been rebuilt overnight. Just an hour after the end of FP2, the cars were stripped and the engine and gearboxes were coming off, KERS batteries being removed and other parts taken off for inspection or replacement. The cars will be rebuilt with a different engine, but the same gearbox, they will take part in this configuration for the rest of the weekend. After the installation run the car will be checked over before further run are completed.
With work having to wrap up at 1.30pm at the track to meet the FIA enforced curfew for the mechanics, work will again kick off at MTC. Oliver Turvey will be running laps in the McLaren Simulator. This will allow alternative set ups to be tested, these virtual set ups can then be transferred to the actual car and the results should be matched. Other simulations will also continue into the evening. This work will wrap up about 9.30pm as the team do not need to work all night.
So it will all be off to bed for the driver and team ready for the weekends first big event, qualifying.