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Sainz plays tactics to perfection to win Singapore GP thriller

Carlos Sainz claimed victory in the Singapore Grand Prix after a thrilling late Mercedes chase fell short. The Ferrari driver’s triumph ended Red Bull Racing’s undefeated streak for 2023 and the team’s hopes of F1’s first perfect season.

Pole-getter Sainz had nailed his getaway and spent the rest of the evening setting a slow pace around Marina Bay to ensure his preferred one-stop strategy would work.

Charles Leclerc had put himself up to second at the start to act as his teammate’s chief defender against front-row starter George Russell, but an early safety car — for a Logan Sargeant wall-banging incident on lap 19 — dropped the Monegasque down to sixth, leaving Sainz vulnerable to Mercedes.

Sainz leads the field at the start. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

Russell tried to harry Sainz into an error, but the Spaniard was astute in his defense, giving the Briton no opportunity to show him a wheel.

By lap 44, with 18 laps remaining, Russell had had enough, and Mercedes brought him and fourth-placed Lewis Hamilton into the pits for a last-gasp switch to a new set of mediums. They fell to fourth and fifth and 18 seconds and 23 seconds off the lead respectively, but their significant tire life and compound offsets helped them slice through the leading pack.

By laps 53 and 54 the Mercedes duo were past Leclerc into third and fourth, and with five laps remaining they were within a second of Lando Norris in second place and targeting victory.

It should have been an easy pass, but Sainz tactically slowed to keep the Briton within DRS range to give him a crucial defensive tool against the faster cars behind — and give himself a useful buffer.

For five laps Sainz delicately strung along his three pursuers, occasionally growing his margin to more than a second before drawing his rivals back into the DRS train to ensure they never had the chance to race at their own pace. It was a tactical masterclass for the cerebral Spaniard, who ground out a fraught 0.8s victory.

“An incredible feeling and incredible weekend,” Sainz said. “We nailed the weekend, we nailed the race. Everything that we had to do we did perfectly.

“It was quite tight at the end, but we gave Lando a bit of DRS to help him, and in the end we made it P1. I’m over the moon right now.”

The battle for second place ended in Norris’s favor on the final lap when Russell struck the outside wall braking for the left-handed Turn 10. It sent him spearing into the barriers and out of the race and let Norris off the hook.

“Carlos was very generous trying to help me get DRS,” Norris said. “It helped my race; it also helped his.

“We knew it was going to be tough as soon as Mercedes boxed. We held them off. We did everything we needed to do and more. Super happy.”

Hamilton capitalized on his teammate’s error to collect the final podium place, ensuring Mercedes saw at least some return on its strategic gamble.

“We rolled the dice this weekend … to do what we did today,” he said. “The team did a really amazing job today to help get us back up there.

“Extremely unfortunate for George, but we were pushing so hard to catch those guys and our tires were so hot. I know he’ll bounce back.”

Leclerc ended a subdued fourth, his race ruined by the safety car that took him out of the lead fight. He held off the recovering Max Verstappen in a drag over the line by just 0.264s.

Verstappen had qualified a lowly 11th but had set himself up for a contra strategy starting on the hard tires to try to put himself in the frame for victory. He was up to eighth after six laps and was told to settle into place to play the long game, having started on the hard tire with the intention of offsetting the rest of the pack.

But the long-shot strategy was undone by Sargeant nosing the barrier at Turn 8 on lap 19. The American extricated himself and returned to the pits with his front wing stuck underneath the car, but a safety car was required to clear the track of debris.

Everyone bar Verstappen, teammate Sergio Perez and Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas — all having started on the hard tire — made their mandatory pit stops onto hards with a view to racing to the end.

Verstappen took the restart in second behind Sainz, but warm-up was poor on his 20-lap-old tires, and he sunk helplessly to sixth after six laps of racing.

“It’s like driving on ice,” he radioed to his team, but he was committed to waiting for another safety car to rescue his recovery.

It never came, and on lap 40 the team called the championship leader in for his sole stop, dropping him to 15th and 45s off the lead. From there, fifth was the best he could achieve — his worst result of the reason.

Pierre Gasly headed the midfield in sixth after teammate Esteban Ocon retired with a suspected gearbox failure and Fernando Alonso uncharacteristically spun off the road at Turn 14.

Alonso’s error moved Oscar Piastri up to seventh, while Perez, who had dropped to last after his own pit stop, recovered to eighth.

Perez, however, faces a post-race investigation for causing a collision with Alex Albon that put the Thai driver in the wall at Turn 10, costing Williams a shot at the points.

Liam Lawson drove an excellent race to score his first points in just his third grand prix. It also marks the first occasion the second AlphaTauri car has scored points this season.

Kevin Magnussen ground out 10th place ahead of the recovering Albon, scoring Haas’s first points since May’s Miami GP. Albon finished ahead of Zhou Guanyu, Nico Hulkenberg, Sargeant and Alonso.

Valtteri Bottas retired with a technical issue, while Yuki Tsunoda’s race lasted just one lap after contact with Perez.

Story originally appeared on Racer