Singapore Grand Prix: Something 'truly remarkable' required to save Red Bull's winning run

Rear view of Max Verstappen in the Red Bull garage with his reflection showing in the high-gloss wall
Reflective mood: Max Verstappen and the Red Bull team are expecting a difficult race from 11th on the starting grid

Whisper it for now, perhaps, but there is a grand prix this weekend, and it looks very much as though - for once - a Red Bull will not win it.

Max Verstappen headed to Singapore on a record-breaking run of 10 consecutive victories, ready for the 14th race of a season in which Red Bull have won every single one. But the runaway championship leader will start the race only 11th, with team-mate Sergio Perez two places further back.

On almost any other track, Verstappen would still be favourite for the win, so superior has been the combination of the Dutchman and his Red Bull on Sundays in 2023.

Since midway through last season, pretty much wherever he has started, Verstappen has had the pace to come back through the field. But overtaking is tougher in Singapore than anywhere other than Monaco, and Verstappen rejected any thought of making it back even on to the podium.

"For sure not," he said. And if that response generates some scepticism, remember that last year - when Verstappen was just as dominant by this stage of the season - he started seventh in Singapore and could finish only sixth.

Why are Red Bull struggling?

Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing, French Formula One driver Pierre Gasly of Alpine F1 Team, and New Zealand Liam Lawson of Scuderia AlphaTauri
Verstappen had plenty of traffic issues during qualifying and can expect more of the same in the race

Verstappen expected Singapore to be a tricky weekend - he said so on Thursday - but the extent of it has caught him by surprise. "I knew it was always going be tough to put it on pole," he said after qualifying, "but this I didn't expect."

So what went wrong? It seems the root of it, ironically, is the Red Bull's biggest strength.

The Red Bull is the best car on the grid - one of the greatest of all time. But it has an usual performance spectrum. It is far more superior to the rest of the field in races than it is in qualifying.

The reason for this is the way it uses its tyres.

The car is incredibly gentle on its rubber, which means it suffers less from what is known as tyre degradation and therefore can run faster for longer than any other car. Rivals have often talked with wonder and admiration about the car's "zero deg" in races.

But the corollary of that is that the Red Bull sometimes struggles to get the best out its tyres in qualifying, for which a driver needs to bring them up to temperature quickly, and that brings it back towards the rest of the field on Saturdays.

It's why Red Bull have swept all the races so far, but not all the qualifying sessions - before Singapore, Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton had all scored pole positions.

The circuit characteristics at Marina Bay have been exactly what Red Bull did not want - a low-abrasion street circuit added to low-speed, short-duration corners mean the tyres have a particularly easy time, which makes it hard to get them up to temperature. And with no high-speed corners and relatively few straights, the car's biggest strengths have no chance to make up for its weaknesses.

"It's very, very confusing to have dropped the amount of pace we had," team principal Christian Horner said. "The car is not responding to changes.

"It's understeer, oversteer, braking issues, it's like we haven't managed to get the tyre in the right working window. Usually when you see a gap that big, it's because the tyre is not fundamentally working. We have tried different things with set-up and different preparations and it's just not happened.

"Nothing has changed on the car. We tried a new aero part on Friday [a revised floor] and thought we would revert on it. It's a tried and tested set-up and it just hasn't responded on this circuit, on this asphalt. Trying to get the tyre in the window has been very hard for both drivers.

"Starting outside the top 10, at a track that's really hard to overtake at, we have quite a lot on."

Is a win really out of the question for Verstappen? If it's dry, the answer surely has to be yes. If it's wet, that could change things. Even then, it will take something truly remarkable to happen for Red Bull's winning run not to come to an end on Sunday.

Who will grab their big chance?

Sparks fly from the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz in Singapore
Carlos Sainz secured his fifth career F1 pole position - and second in succession

With Red Bull out of the reckoning, Ferrari were always likely to be the team to pick up the pieces. Sainz has had the edge on Leclerc all weekend, despite this being one of Leclerc's favourite circuits, and the Spaniard took a superb pole.

It was his second in succession, after he led Leclerc to a Ferrari front-row lock-out at their home race in Monza, and it underlined that Sainz has found a particular sweet spot with the car in recent races. He hit the ground running on Friday and never looked back.

Leclerc, by contrast, admits he is not comfortable with the car's behaviour at the moment. So the driver who produced one of the great Singapore qualifying laps of all time to be on pole in 2019, and started from the front again last year, finds himself third on the grid, also behind Mercedes driver George Russell.

The front three were separated by just 0.078 seconds, which points to an intriguing race. Not only is the Mercedes usually better on its tyres than the Ferrari, but Russell has a potential strategic advantage.

Both Russell and team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who starts fifth after never getting the front-end behaviour he wanted on his car, have a second set of new medium tyres available for the race.

If the race runs as normal in Singapore, it might make no difference. Usually, it's a one-stop strategy, and teams have to run two different compounds on a normal Singapore Sunday.

But Russell said: "The tyre degradation on Friday looked pretty bad. So I think it's going to be very close between a one-stop and a two-stop and with our mediums we can put Ferrari in a difficult position and try to force them into an error and get the upper hand. So that's what we're looking for.

"We're the only team who've got the chance to do a one-stop or two stops, so that really gives us a great chance. This is a great opportunity, this weekend, to get a victory."

Sainz and Leclerc did not sound too worried - Sainz pointed out that the soft tyres "didn't look too bad" if they needed to stop twice, and Leclerc said that they had two cars up front and Mercedes only one if they needed to play strategy.

As for any potential threat from Verstappen, perhaps it was the effect of being left for dead every race so far this year, but all three refused to say absolutely that he had no chance of winning.

"I don't think you can ever discount Max and Red Bull," Sainz said. "They might turn up tomorrow with a race pace that they've had all season, and still manage somehow to make it through the field. But, for sure, around here, they have a much more difficult task.

"I think the race is going to be between the top five cars [in the order] we're starting."

That also includes Lando Norris, an excellent fourth on the grid in the heavily upgraded McLaren.

Leclerc said: "[Red Bull] have never been as far [behind] as where they are starting now - on a street track also. We cannot discount them. But it's the best opportunity since the beginning of the season, for sure."

Across the BBC banner
Across the BBC banner
Across the BBC footer
Across the BBC footer