After Fernando Alonso had waved to the thousands of adoring Tifosi crowded below the podium platform at Monza, Formula 1 said goodbye to Europe for another season. The sport now heads to the Far East for the first of five races that will determine the victor of the title battle, which is raging between five protagonists.
This weekend is the third race around the Southeast Asian city. The grand prix takes place in a glamorous setting – the cars meander around towering skyscrapers and speed alongside a grand marina – and spectacular illuminations provide an added element of ambience. The 5.073km circuit is lit by 1,600 light projectors, which have a total power requirement of 3,180,000 watts.
In its short history this event has managed to attract more than its fair share of intrigue and controversy. The inaugural event in 2008 was won by Alonso, in what spectators thought at the time was a fortunate series of events, contriving to give the Spaniard his first victory at Renault since leaving McLaren on awkward terms.
Of course, it emerged last year that Renault's managing director Flavio Briatore and director of engineering Pat Symonds were involved in telling Alonso's teammate, Nelson Piquet Jr., to crash his car after Alonso had made an early pit stop. The plan, which was executed to perfection, was that Piquet's crash would force the deployment of the safety car before rivals had made their pit stops, hugely enhancing Alonso's chances of victory.
The plot emerged when Piquet was dropped by the team midway through the 2009 season and Renault had dismissed the pair even before the World Motor Sport Council hearing. The Brazilian driver was granted a whistle-blowers amnesty after disclosing the deceit to the FIA, but Briatore and Symonds were given a lifetime and five-year ban, respectively, from FIA-sanctioned events. The sentences have since been overturned in the French courts.
The so-called Crashgate story reached its climax, conveniently, just as F1 was making its second visit to Singapore last season. The race was won by Lewis Hamilton, taking his second victory of a difficult year. Mark Webber's title challenge came to an abrupt end has his brakes failed on Lap 45 of 61, whilst the remaining contenders Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button, and Rubens Barrichello finished fourth, fifth and sixth respectively. Vettel got a penalty for speeding in the pit-lane last year, the kind of foolish mistake that he will need to avoid this time round.
Red Bull are expected to have the fastest car this weekend, and it would be a brave person who would bet against something other than an RB6 taking pole on Saturday. The two McLaren drivers have said this week that they are optimistic that they will be able to compete with Webber and Vettel on pace though.
The Red Bull duo was supremely dominant at the Hungarian Grand Prix in July, about two seconds faster than McLarens. The Marina Bay Circuit in Singapore has similar low-speed high-downforce characteristics, but McLaren believe the major aerodynamic upgrades that will feature on the MP4-25 should narrow this gap.
Also in the mix this weekend will be Alonso and Ferrari. The Spaniard will not have a team around him cheating their way to victory on Sunday, but even without underhand tactics Alonso did manage third place last year in a difficult Renault. He likes this circuit, and has momentum behind him after taking victory in Monza. Ferrari also has less of a deficit to Red Bull to overhaul: they were only about 0.5 seconds off the pace in Hungary.
While the direction of the title battle will hog the headlines next Monday morning, there are other scores to be settled up and down the grid. A quick look at the constructor's standings not only shows that just three points separate Red Bull and McLaren, but that other team are closely matched going into the final stages of the season. Ferrari may require a miracle to finish any higher than their current third position, but only 31 points separate Mercedes from Renault in fourth and fifth. Force India is far from guaranteed their current sixth place, with Williams just 11 points behind. Toro Rosso will want to finish above Sauber and there is of course the battle of the new teams.
Neither Lotus, Hispania nor Virgin is likely to score their maiden point in the final five races, and either Hispania or Virgin will need a twelfth place finish to rise above Lotus in the standings. Hispania have Karun Chandhok's two fourteenth place finishes to thank for being ahead of Virgin, and the cash-strapped team would like to remain there and avoid the ignominy of finishing last.
Michael Schumacher will be looking for some good results to round off the first (and possibly only) season of his F1 return. He has never raced at Singapore, but as a five-time victor in Monaco, he will be looking to impress on a similar circuit.
There are also drivers hoping to secure a race seat for next year, including Vitaly Petrov, Nico Hulkenberg, Tonio Liuzzi, all of whom are still waiting to hear whether they will be retained by their existing teams for 2011. Other drivers, such as Lucas di Grassi, Bruno Senna, and Sakon Yamamoto, don't yet know for certain if their teams will still be around next year, if paddock rumours are to be believed. They will also be looking to impress other potential employers.
In other news, Nick Heidfeld makes a return to racing after sitting out the first fourteen rounds of this season, first as Mercedes test driver, and then as he tested tyres for Pirelli. The German will take the wheel of the Sauber previously occupied by Pedro de la Rosa.
For an idea of the atmosphere, the goings on around the track, and for a view of the race from a fans perspective, follow me on Twitter (see name below). I will be leaving for Singapore later this week and, wifi-access permitting, will be able to share my experiences from the Far East.