Sebastian Vettel powered back to the sharp end of the championship title fight with a storming victory at the Singapore Grand Prix after Lewis Hamilton failed to finish due to a technical problem. Mark Webber, meanwhile, finished 10th.
With Jenson Button second and Fernando Alonso third at the Marina Bay Street Circuit, Vettel rises from fourth in the championship standings to second place. He now sits on 165 points, just 29 adrift of Alonso. Kimi Raikkonen holds third place in the standings after taking sixth place in Singapore.
“It’s one of the toughest races of the year to be honest,” a breathless Vettel said afterwards. “It’s very long; the full two hours. The circuit is a killer. There’s no space for mistakes and the race just seems to go on forever. I had a good start, which got us into second and in the hunt and the pace was there so... Obviously we benefited from Lewis’ failure. A couple of laps before that he lost some oil and then after that I think we generally we had very, very strong pace. I’m just incredibly happy and proud because this is a such a tough race.”
Vettel made his first inroads as soon as the start lights went out, hustling his way past second-on-the-grid Pastor Maldonado through the second corner. He then set about chasing down pole winner Hamilton.
Initially the McLaren driver had the upper hand, matching Vettel for pace through the first stint. Red Bull Racing then brought Vettel in before Hamilton, perhaps hoping to pass the McLaren with greater pace after the stop on lap 10, but when the champion rejoined he briefly found himself bottled up behind Raikkonen and Hamilton was able to hold the lead through his first stop.
After that, the pair slowly drew away from the chasing pack and the race settled into a close duel, with Vettel harrying the McLaren driver throughout. The stage was set for a fascinating endgame but suddenly on lap 22, Hamilton was forced to bow out, the Briton cycling through the gears but only finding neutral.
“It's heartbreaking not to have finished the race,” said Hamilton afterwards. “We definitely had the pace to win this weekend. In fact, before I retired, I was cruising; just managing the gap back to Seb. Then I started to experience difficulty with the gearshift, then I lost third gear, and then the gearbox kept dropping into neutral.”
Despite the setback, Hamilton vowed to continue his battle for the Drivers’ Championship battle.
“The good thing we can take away from this weekend is that we have extremely good pace,” he said. “As a result, I think we can really attack in the next few races. It's going to be hard to close the gap to guys like Fernando and Sebastian, especially when they keep finishing race after race, but I'll never give up. There are six more races, and I need to go and win all six. I'll fight until the end.”
Vettel powered past the stricken McLaren to take the lead and began to stretch away from Maldonado and third-placed Jenson Button. The comfort zone was brief, however, as the field was soon bunched up when Narain Karthikeyan crashed out under the Bay grandstand on lap 31. The champion faced the prospect of carving out a lead all over again.
Behind him Maldonado had been disadvantaged by a pit stop during the safety car spell and had dropped back into the midfield, allowing Button and Alonso to moved forward. Maldonado though was soon in greater trouble, his team telling him to retire his car because of a hydraulic problem.
Vettel’s chance to build a lead over his immediate rivals was again brief. The safety car left the track at the end of lap 37 but within two laps was being deployed again, after Michael Schumacher ploughed into the back of Jean-Eric Vergne’s car as the Toro Rosso driver tussled with Sergio Pérez. Schumacher was later handed a 10-place grid penalty for the next race in Japan.
But it was the final drama for Vettel. Once the pace car peeled off track again last year’s Singapore winner settled into a solid rhythm and slowly built up a comfortable six-second lead over Button.
With time running out on the race, Vettel began to control his pace, gradually slowing so that the clock ran out just as he entered the final sector of his 59th tour. He duly took the chequered flag for his second win of the year, ahead of Button and Alonso.
For the Ferrari driver, the result, his eighth podium finish of the year, was another boost to his championship chances.
“I think it’s a very positive weekend; a very good weekend,” he said. “Of the four or five contenders, we lost points to one, but against the other three we increased our advantage, so obviously, as I said, when we are not quick enough to win more points against three of our opponents, I think it’s positive.”
Further back Mark Webber endured a rough and tumble Singapore Grand Prix. Starting seventh, the Australian was disadvantaged by the safety car periods and dropped back into the midfield. He attempted to claw his way back from there and eventually climbed to 10th after a no-holds-barred battle with Kamui Kobayashi but there Webber stayed, bottled up behind compatriot Daniel Ricciardo, who defended robustly until the flag.
“Pretty fruitless really,” said Webber. “We weren’t too bad pace-wise. We weren’t electric, but we were certainly giving Paul [Di Resta] the hurry-on in both stints. We tried a slightly different strategy obviously and just missed him at the first attempt.
“I think we were doing OK, the strategy was alright but the second safety car really hurt us,” he added. “That put us to the back of the queue where it was all about fighting, looking after your tyres, fighting, so a bit of mess. It’s a shame. We got some good points, though. Seb won for the team so that’s good. I’m just looking forward the next few and just trying to break this mini poor run I’m having.”
Webber was later summoned to the stewards’ office for an incident in which he briefly made contact with Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber during a passing maneouvre but the Australian was convinced it was a racing incident. “The incident with Kamui? We were racing hard and fair. I think it was a good clean fight.”
The stewards, however, didn’t see it that way and Webber was handed a time penalty of 20 seconds, which dropped him to 11th and out of the points. The penalty means Sergio Pérez picked up another point to add to his season tally of 65. The stewards revealed that in passing Kobayashi, Webber went off track and gained an advantage.
Ricciardo, meanwhile, was pleased with his his race to ninth and his second points finish from the last three races.
“I’m really happy with the way I finished the race today – and getting a bit of a push from Mark as well was a bit of extra motivation to finish strong,” he said. “I’m really pleased with the end result. I think we’ve really made some progress.”