In The Driver's Seat

Mercedes lose plot and ground in twisting Marina Bay

ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Now that the streets are beginning to revert to public use and all the marbles of rubber are being swept away, and Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have savoured the last drops of champagne after their spectacular victory in the Singapore GP, one question remains.

What on earth happened to the usually dominant Mercedes?

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were blown away in qualifying by the Ferraris and the Red Bulls, and as the failure of a 50p clamp on a turbo pipe brought the world champion his first retirement since Belgium last year, the best Rosberg could do was struggle home to a distant fourth-place finish.

There were all sorts of theories even before the race.

They ranged from the ridiculous - like, for reasons that of course could not be explained, Pirelli had secretly decided to give them tyres of harder compound to everyone else - to the suggestion that the company's recent insistence on minimum front and rear tyre pressures after the incidents in Belgium, had somehow had the same effect on the silver cars as a haircut did on Samson.

The layout of the Marina Bay track also had a big influence. It has more corners than any other circuit on the calendar - 23 - and that means you have more opportunities to gain time when you get all the factors right, or to lose it when you don't.

There's never any shortage of daft ideas in the paddock, when these things happen. But the most interesting aspect is that there remains a shortage of ideas among the Mercedes engineers because, right now, they have yet to identify concrete evidence for the fall from grace.

Both drivers said their cars felt nicely balanced, but they just lacked their usual grip to be fast - or fast enough. Car performance is a blend of power, torque, aerodynamics, chassis set-up and balance, and the manner in which the machine uses its tyres.

For Singapore, Pirelli brought their softest compounds, and the supersoft is known to be an "edgy" tyre with a very limited range of operating temperature.

The layout of the Marina Bay track also had a big influence. It has more corners than any other circuit on the calendar - 23 - and that means you have more opportunities to gain time when you get all the factors right, or to lose it when you don't.

It also lacks the high-speed corners and long straights where Mercedes' traditional strengths are utilised to great effect .Here, you need good performance and stability under braking and excellent traction, and for that you need the tyres working strongly within their operating window.

Ferrari and Red Bull were both much closer to Mercedes here last year than anywhere else, and both have improved their cars significantly this season. They found the tyres' sweet spot. Mercedes didn't.

Complicating the issue, Mercedes were still the pacesetter on the streets of Monaco, but the difference here was the high ambient and track temperatures. Ferrari, in particular, have had an advantage there this year, as they demonstrated in Malaysia and Bahrain.

So, while Ferrari and Red Bull got their supersofts "switched on", Mercedes didn't.

Achieving that depends on getting a variety of factors right in the set-up of the chassis. Teams figure out a baseline before they even arrive, based on past experience and work in the factory-based simulators, and then fine-tune variables such as ride heights, camber angles, tyre pressures (and therefore temperatures) and power and torque settings.

While Ferrari and Red Bull got all of that right and thus multiplied their advantage with each of those 23 corners, Mercedes did not.

Even so, Hamilton felt that his race pace was as good at one stage on the soft tyre as the leaders' was on the supersofts, though that was skewed a little as Vettel was deliberately trying to back up Ricciardo to give team-mate Kimi Raikkonen a crack at second place.

One thing is for sure: if it turns out in Japan this coming weekend that the Ferraris and Red Bulls are still the pacesetters, it'll be red alert at Mercedes.

But on a track that plays much more to the Silver Arrows' strengths, that's unlikely. As are the chances that they won't be super-competitive again in the other remaining five events.

Singapore, it seems, is unique in more than one way.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'Mercedes lose plot and ground in twisting Marina Bay'. Print Edition | Subscribe