Although nine teams tried to topple Red Bull Racing from their lofty perch on top of the podium for all 2023 races, it wasn't a constructor that managed the feat. Instead, it was the Singapore Grand Prix, an event that caused F1's best act to fall over themselves across three practice sessions, qualifying, and a 62-lap race. Red Bull might be the most recent Singapore scalp, but they're far from the first to watch helplessly as their winning run ends.
While the Marina Bay Street Circuit may not have the history or glamour of Monte Carlo, the Singapore GP has cultivated a reputation as one of Formula One's most challenging tracks. The bright lights under the night sky combine with the near-equatorial heat and humidity to create a unique challenge in an already physically demanding sport. The sheer difficulty of racing around the three miles of these public roads is evident by looking back at some of the shock winners from its past.
The inaugural round in 2008, F1's first-ever night race, didn't see either of the two championship protagonists claim victory. Lewis Hamilton reached third place to extend his lead in the championship after eventual vice-champion Felipe Massa trundled home in P13 after a race to forget. Of course, the ‘crashgate’ scandal affected the results that year, but errors and mistakes played just as large a part in Fernando Alonso's surprise victory.
The 2015 race had Hamilton hunting down Ayrton Senna's record of eight consecutive pole positions with the Mercedes team in phenomenal form. Similar to this year's event, the Singapore streets ended all hopes of the champion driver extending a remarkable run. Hamilton trailed Sebastian Vettel by a staggering 1.5 seconds in Q3 as the Ferrari driver took the first pole position for a non-Mercedes engine since the 2014 regulation change 23 races earlier.
Vettel was the man to stop Hamilton in 2019, too, when he took his final F1 victory. Charles Leclerc scored pole position, but the sister Ferrari beat out the Silver Arrows around Marina Bay in one of just two races that year where Mercedes didn't feature on the podium. The German manufacturer might've strode to the World Constructors' Championship by a 235-point margin, but their Marina Bay misstep showed they weren't invincible.
Early races around Singapore had wide and wild speculation about how teams faced problems that don't exist elsewhere. For example, the city's underground metro system had some engineers pointing its way as the cause for Mark Webber's gearbox failure in the inaugural event. Where else, after all, would F1 cars pass over an in-use public transport system on a race weekend?
The suspicions about the city infrastructure resurfaced with the advent of the turbo-hybrid era's advanced energy recovery and battery storage systems. That 2015 race where Hamilton's pole position streak ended even had his team building in additional shielding on the car in fear of magnetic or electrical interference around the track. McLaren, too, admitted their sensors picked up "odd" numbers and worried their drivers would have problems during a gear change.
As wonderful as the idea that such an obscure element might be the source of a multi-million dollar operation's downfall, it doesn't hold water. The sport is a frequent visitor to the city, and the detail levels on-site engineers go into to find fine margins in performance are incredible. Even if there is some unusual electronic occurrence, the world's best problem-solving minds wouldn't let the issue remain so many seasons after its first emergence.
Fine margins, however, are the culprit for Red Bull's only nightmare race of 2023, though, in a far simpler explanation than quirky electronics. The tropical weather is one element here, with drivers jumping in ice baths and team personnel sweltering before, during, and after each session. In a sport where fine margins win and lose championships, losing a percent of focus from extreme humidity can have a huge impact. Neither the cars, drivers, nor teams are designed to run in such conditions, instead favoring the more 'standard' traditional mild-climate circuits that make up most of the calendar.
Furthermore, in Red Bull's case, the RB19's emphasis on underfloor aerodynamics means the street circuit's bumpy surfaces are more problematic than the predictable tarmac at dedicated race venues. Red Bull eased to victory in the early-season street races, but other teams have closed the gap since the last in-city Grand Prix in Monaco.
Ferrari and Mercedes have stolen pole positions, McLaren have enjoyed laps in the lead, and there even looked like the possibility of a home victory for the Scuderia at Monza in the opening laps. The days where Red Bull might have an off day in 2023 and find no one there to take their place are over, and the 2023 Singapore Grand Prix exemplified that in qualifying and the race.
In such a competitive field, losing a little time because of having a higher-than-optimal ride height could have an enormous impact. Wiping sweat out of a shirt or headphones might cause a 1% distraction for an otherwise high-performing engineer. Even worrying about a phantom electric signal from an underground metro line can cause a slight lack of focus. Combine all these together, and the mighty can — and do — fall.
Though the race-winning run is now over, Red Bull will feel confident about bouncing back after Singapore with the visit to the epitome of a dedicated circuit. Suzuka is the perfect smooth, fast, and flowing tonic to the bumpy right-angle corners of Marina Bay. The much-loved Japanese track is a staple on the F1 calendar, but the 'Marina Bay Sting' as seen in Singapore's 2023 race showed that it deserves fans' adoration just as much.