Nico Rosberg has surged back into the lead of the Formula 1 World Championship standings with a hard fought third straight win in the Singapore Grand Prix after resisting the late advances of a charging Daniel Ricciardo.
The German looked on course for a dominant lights-to-flag win as he managed a small but static margin over Ricciardo from the start, only for the race to be brought alive in the closing stages as Red Bull pitted with 12 laps remaining to launch a punt on super-soft tyres.
Ironically, Red Bull’s fight-back was triggered by Mercedes in the first place as it attempted to haul Lewis Hamilton back up to third position at the expense of Kimi Raikkonen on lap 45, the defending champion’s stop from fourth having the desired effect of forcing Ferrari into a response the following lap.
As a result, Red Bull was given the opportunity for a free stop with no risk of losing position to those behind, either forcing Mercedes to respond with the race leading Rosberg or give it a shot at catching up on the significantly faster super-soft tyres.
With Rosberg electing not to stop, Ricciardo went into the final 11 laps with a 22secs gap to break down and quickly set about doing so as he took as much as three seconds a lap out of the Mercedes.
However, Rosberg would take full advantage of track position to keep his pace consistent and though Ricciardo would catch him before the race was over, he would run out of laps to make a convincing pitch for the race win, the Australian ending up just 0.4s shy.
Despite his late advance over Raikkonen, Hamilton laboured to a relatively lacklustre third place, a result that sees him cede the championship lead to his Mercedes team-mate. Rosberg now leads by 8 points with six races remaining.
If the final ten laps were a thriller, the majority of the race looked set to follow a more familiar script as Rosberg escaped into a comfortable lead early on over Ricciardo, while Hamilton struggled to keep pace and spent the majority of the second stint fending off the challenge of Raikkonen.
Indeed, while Rosberg’s lead over Ricciardo was never substantial, it didn’t change much either, the German establishing much of the margin with a rapid few laps after an early safety car.
That safety car was deployed at the end of the opening lap to clear the wreckage of Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India after the German was turned around moments after the start after being clipped by Carlos Sainz, who had jinked to the right to avoid the very slow starting Max Verstappen ahead. Though a racing incident – one that was lucky not involve more cars -, Hulkenberg’s race would end with a heavily damaged car in the pit-wall.
With just two laps needed to clear the car – barely time for a marshal to run off the track as the race restarted -, Rosberg got to work quickly, with Ricciardo attempting to give chase but steadily slipping away throughout the first stint. Hamilton, meanwhile, was struggling to keep pace, his cause not helped by being told to manage his overheating brakes, an issue that would also hamper Rosberg.
The braking issue would come to a head on lap 32 when he locked up and ran wide at Turn 9, allowing Raikkonen a run on him into Turn 10 to snatch third position.
With Hamilton unable to challenge Raikkonen on equal terms, Mercedes told him to switch to ‘Plan B’, which would involve him pushing until lap 45 before pitting for super-soft rubber, giving him a shot at catching Raikkonen for third or forcing Ferrari to pit too.
Unexpectedly, Ferrari elected for the latter but Hamilton had already done enough on his out-lap to get the jump on Raikkonen when he came back around, promoting him back up to third.
Unintentionally, however, this would simply allow Red Bull to attempt a similar move on Mercedes as it pitted Ricciardo immediately and fitted super-soft tyres. With Ricciardo only five seconds behind before the stop, Mercedes would be forced to act fast but would instead instruct Rosberg to stay out and attempt to hold position from the swiftly looming Ricciardo.
In the end it would prove a shrewd decision, Ricciardo’s indifferent route through the traffic leaving him an agonising 0.4s shy at the chequered flag and leaving Rosberg to savour an eighth win of the year in his 200th grand prix.
With Hamilton following home in third, himself just 7secs behind in the end, Rosberg nonetheless retakes the championship lead for the first time since the British Grand Prix.
Behind Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel put in a fine charge up the order from last position on the grid to finish just 27.6secs off the lead to salvage a strong result for Ferrari, a contrast to Verstappen, whose awful start from fourth – which placed him eighth initially – left him playing catch up all evening, even if it did give him the chance to pull off more than one impressive overtaking manoeuvre en route to sixth.
Running as high as fifth initially, Fernando Alonso produced the maximum for McLaren in seventh with a run to seventh position, holding off the attentions of Sergio Perez, who hauled himself up from 17th on the grid to charge up to eighth position in the Force India.
His first points for Toro Rosso since the British Grand Prix, Daniil Kvyat enjoyed a feisty race – particularly in a battle with Verstappen – to claim ninth, making up for Sainz’s disappointment after the Spaniard sustained damage in his start-line clash with Hulkenberg.
A big beneficiary of the start-line drama, Kevin Magnussen ran inside the top ten from the first lap to complete a much-desired tenth place finish for Renault, his and the team’s first points since the Russian Grand Prix.
Elsewhere, Williams endured a dismal race as Valtteri Bottas got caught up in the start problems before eventually retiring, while Jenson Button exited with technical issues. Romain Grosjean failed to start after developing problems before reaching the grid.