Formula One: Vettel set to keep the rest at bay
3-time world champ in red-hot form, but pole-sitter likely to win race
Singapore has been a bull pen for the Red Bull team the last two years. One that the Prancing Horses from Ferrari have tried but failed to break into.
And there is little to suggest that the status quo will not continue at the Marina Bay Street Circuit this year.
For Sebastian Vettel has arrived with six race wins and three straight world titles to his name.
More significantly, the German also has a massive 222-169 lead over Fernando Alonso, a gap of 53 points or, in more practical terms, more than two race wins.
Those alone are reason enough to feel bullish about Vettel's chances of dominating this weekend's SingTel Singapore Grand Prix.
Having won half the races this season - Singapore is the 13th round in the 19-leg championship - and on both fast and slow circuits, it is hard to see who can stop the 26-year-old's march towards a fourth world title.
Still, he is not taking victory for granted, warning that there is "no guarantee" even though Red Bull "have a strong package".
"We have to work hard to be in the front to finish in a good position on the podium or if a win is up for grabs," he added.
Ironically, the situation was exactly the opposite last year.
In 2012, it was Alonso who had arrived as the dominant driver of the season, with Vettel struggling slightly with the Red Bull.
But the German won the Singapore race and the next three to overhaul Alonso for the world title.
This time, it is Alonso who has landed in the Republic as the clear underdog, despite having won the race twice, like Vettel.
Worse, he is under a cloud of controversy after he criticised the team over the performance of the F138 race car.
There have also been reports of his unhappiness at the impending arrival of 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, a development which threatens to undermine Alonso's status as the undisputed No. 1 at Maranello.
But he had this assurance for Ferrari's fans: "The motivation is always to do my best all the time. I don't think anyone can push me more than I push myself now."
Still, it remains to be seen if Alonso, 32, the most successful driver in Singapore with four podium finishes, will be able to ignore the chatter around the Paddock.
The sport's return to a maximum downforce track is expected to suit not just Vettel and Red Bull, but also Lewis Hamilton, who is the only other driver in the 22-man field to master the tricky layout.
The Briton, champion here in 2009 and currently third in the standings on 141 points, will certainly fancy his chances after pushing his Mercedes to top spot at first practice, timing 1min 47.055sec to lead Red Bull's second driver, Mark Webber (1:47.420), and Vettel (1:47.885).
Qualifying on pole is critical as the track is narrow, although the introduction of a second Drag Reduction System (DRS) zone, along the Pit Straight, should increase the number of overtaking opportunities this year. The pole holder has won three of the five races.
Hamilton has always done well over a single, flying lap here, never qualifying outside the top four on the bumpy, dusty surface.
The only other major change this year is the reconfiguration of the Singapore Sling - the notorious triple-apex chicane at Turn 10 that he had famously panned as "the worst corner" in F1 - into a simple left-hander, a move which should please the Briton.
The dark horse who could break into the cosy triumvirate of Marina Bay champions is Raikkonen, whose best finish here has only been sixth. But it bears remembering that the Lotus man has finished second five times this year.
He said: "I have some unfinished business after my three Grands Prix there so far, as I enjoy the circuit but have not yet had a podium.
"Obviously, the podium is a target again. We've had two races without scoring any points so we need to score as many as we can in the remaining races this season."
Singapore Grand Prix
- Qualifying (8.55pm) Live, MediaCorp Ch5
- Practice 3 (5.50pm) & qualifying (8.45pm) Live, StarHub Ch209 & HD Ch210 and mio TV Ch115 & HD Ch117, 9.20pm