What we learned from Friday F1 practice at the 2023 Singapore Grand Prix
A brace of 1-2 results in Singapore Grand Prix practice capped off a strong Friday for Ferrari, as both Red Bull drivers uncharacteristically struggled with their Formula 1 cars' handling.
Charles Leclerc rocketed to the top of the order in the opening free practice session to beat team-mate Carlos Sainz by just 0.078s, albeit in an unrepresentative session in terms of track conditions as daylight had yet to subside.
The FP1 session was notable for a series of track visits from Singapore's lizard population which interrupted some of the drivers' laps, although one of the reptilian interlopers was arguably too brave and was claimed by one of the cars at Turn 9. This did not persist into FP2, while night fell and circuit temperatures began to drop.
Although Leclerc attempted to capture the fastest time once more, his bid to beat Sainz to the punch on soft tyres faltered at the final two corners, where a wayward moment cost him the slender advantage built over the previous two sectors. This left the Monegasque to cross the line just 0.018s short.
Ferrari's control over the sessions contrasted with Red Bull's relative struggles, where neither Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez appeared particularly at ease with their RB19 machinery throughout the Friday sessions. Although Verstappen secured the third-fastest time in FP1, he dropped to eighth in the second session while Perez was seventh-fastest in both.
Here's the lowdown of what we learned from Friday's practice sessions in Singapore.
The story of the day
Of the two Friday practice sessions on a night-race weekend, the second is usually the more useful; by then, track temperatures have fallen once the sun slips down the horizon and thus reflect the climatic conditions of the race. That's not to say that FP1 didn't have value, particularly in this instance where drivers needed to get used to a new circuit layout following the deletion of the four 90-degree corners at the back end of the circuit.
That, and acclimatising to the heat; 32C weather might not sound too outrageous to the Londoners who faced the UK heatwave last week, but imagine coping with that while hurling a 200mph monster around a track - and without the air conditioning mod-cons of a standard road car. It's sweaty work.
Leclerc found inspiration amid the perspiration in that opening practice session having clocked in with a 1m33.350s, just under a tenth clear of his team-mate, as Ferrari managed to carry over its Monza form into the early Singapore reckoning. But the two were far more closely matched in the second session, having managed to step up their performance on the cooler track surface.
Sainz beat Leclerc's benchmark from FP1 on a set of mediums, and then ratcheted up the pace further with a 1m33.213s. But Leclerc managed to eclipse the Spaniard at the conclusion of the runs on the middle compound and became the first driver to break into the 1m32s. Although Sainz was to overhaul that lap with his first run on the softs, Leclerc was tracking faster in the opening pair of sectors and three-tenths up before the final four corners of the circuit.
Here, he lost two-tenths in the Turns 16-17 chicane at the end of the new acceleration zone freed up by the removal of the corners below the underpass. A stab at the throttle into the last two turns led to the Ferrari indulging in a burst of waywardness, which was enough for Sainz to keep top spot.
In the meantime, Red Bull endured one of its worst Fridays in recent months as Verstappen and Perez were both beset by uncertainty at the wheel of their respective RB19s. Verstappen had to back out of a fast lap on the mediums having avoided the apex at Turn 13, and a corrective pump of the throttle produced a rear-end slide that killed off his effort. Perez later complained that he felt that he was going to put his car into the wall into every braking zone, as balance proved to elude the early set-up options at Red Bull.
Although Red Bull can mathematically sew up the constructors' title this weekend should Mercedes falter, the Brackley outfit proved to be the faster package out of the box at Marina Bay. George Russell claimed the third-fastest time of the session, although his deficit to Ferrari was largely due to straightline performance.
He was able to claw back time in the second sector and dip below Sainz's lap time around the bridge section, but the faster sector three abraded at his time once more. This was cemented by a moment at the final corner that Mercedes estimates cost him a tenth.
Is this the weekend that ends Red Bull's streak?
There's no argument that Red Bull found itself in a spot of bother at the end of Friday's sessions, and its occupation of seventh and eighth on the timing boards may be of concern. Of course, overnight sim work may offer opportunities to rectify its difficulties in the realm of one-lap pace, as the longer runs appear to be less of a concern. But this comes with caveats.
All teams except Alpine explored the medium tyre, as the French outfit chose to focus its efforts on understanding the hard tyre. The harder pair of compounds are expected to be the preferred race tyres, as the still-hot temperatures would serve as a disadvantage for the soft rubber on a race stint. In the case of the Red Bulls, Perez demonstrated the better average overall time relative to Verstappen but, with a smaller sample size, his average representative lap of a 1m38.219s has been left off the top of the medium-tyre stint order.
This is, per the table, where things get somewhat interesting. Ferrari has shown to have the better one lap pace and, despite its inconsistency, has trailed only Red Bull over the season in the supertimes rankings - where the best race laps of each team are collated and compared to the fastest lap overall.
As things stand, Leclerc and Sainz look to be the two key duellists for pole position barring any Red Bull overnight reprieve, and Mercedes probably has an edge over Aston Martin over a single lap. Fernando Alonso did well to split the Mercedes duo, but his and Aston's strengths are skewed towards the race - where the numbers suggest some promise.
Discounting Perez's six-lap run on the mediums, Alonso held the best average race lap (discounting any outliers) over the FP2 race simulations. Mercedes is close behind and, according to data shown to Autosport, may see that advantage shrink when corrected for fuel. With overtaking expected to be at a premium despite the changes to the track, Alonso's hopes of securing a first win in a decade may rely on his ability to beat the Mercedes duo in qualifying.
But Sainz's defensive efforts in Monza suggest that, if Ferrari can lock out the front row, the team will be well equipped to fend off the cars behind - even if it requires the full duration of the race to cement a first win of the season. Furthermore, Russell reckoned that Ferrari wasn't running at full power over the Friday sessions; there may be even more pace in the Scuderia's tank.
And then there's Red Bull. If Perez's pace - fuel-corrected - suggests that the team can battle on Sunday even if qualifying pace remains off-the-mark, then there could very realistically be a four-team scrap for a Singapore Grand Prix win. Equally, either Jake Dennis or Sebastien Buemi could yet perform their usual overnight shift in the Red Bull simulator and find the key to the RB19's early struggles in Singapore.
But the medium tyre pace suggests a close-run battle. A different winner could just be the tonic that many are looking for after Red Bull's crushing domination of proceedings in 2023, and there's five different drivers who could realistically manage it.
What they said:
Max Verstappen: "A little bit worse than expected today. I just struggled a lot with balance of the car. We tried quite a few things in FP2. Some worked, some didn't but never really got the car together. So quite a few things to figure out for tonight. Just a few things that we don't understand, so that's what we have to look into. We'll try of course to improve but it's quite a big gap. Ferrari is very fast, I think we're just way worse than we expected."
Fernando Alonso: "It was fun. I think it was an improvement from the past. It's a little bit faster, and you get the rhythm into the lap. So, yeah, I like the change. It was a normal Friday in Singapore, hot, and we got some tests done on the car and the tyres. Let's see tomorrow, I think today was just getting confident with the car and the track. I think Ferrari is probably out of reach again, like Monza, they are little bit too fast. Red Bull will be fast tomorrow when it counts, so yeah, it's very tight."
George Russell: "Ferrari are looking favourites at the moment. I don't think they were [at their] maximum power unit as well. So they've probably got a couple more tenths in the pocket. So the fight is probably for the second row. But we never know what's going to happen. And the tyres are key: when we have the C5, the softest compound [is] just getting it in the sweet spot. You can find tenths of a second so easily. So as I said, we just need to find that sweet spot. Try and nail every single lap and find ourselves in a good position."