x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Night delight for Alonso

Spaniard takes pole for today's race Vettel has to be content with second, while championship leader Webber is back in fifth Simon Arron Formula One correspondent SINGAPORE // The forecast rain never came - and nor, ultimately, did Red Bull-Renault's anticipated bolt of lightning. This year's Formula One pace-setter might have been quickest during practice for the Singapore Grand Prix, but Fernando Alonso and Ferrari had a fractional edge when it mattered in a pulsating night time qualifying session under the floodlights at the Marina Bay Street Circuit yesterday.

After conducting back-to-back tests in practice, Ferrari opted to run without their F-duct - the cockpit-activated vent that reduces aerodynamic drag - because the circuit has so few straights. Both their championship rivals Red Bull and McLaren will be using their F-ducts though. Qualifying began badly for the Italian team, however, when an electronic problem brought Felipe Massa's car to a halt before he had managed a timed lap. Consequently, the Brazilian starts last.

"We had some experimental parts this weekend," Alonso said. "But after Felipe's problem we reset my engine to minimise any risk of a repeat." The team took an even more cautious approach for the final part of qualifying, restoring standard programming to Alonso's engine, but that did not stifle the Spaniard's progress, a lap of 1min 45.390secs and enough to beat Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull by 0.067secs.

Vettel described qualifying as "messy". On his first run in Q3, he allowed himself to get too close to Michael Schumacher's Mercedes, which he was then obliged to follow. "I simply misjudged the gap," he said. "I was about three seconds behind him at the start of the lap, which I thought would be enough, but I caught him within about five corners." That left Vettel one last chance - and he almost wasted that, too, gently clipping the wall at Turn 13. The time loss was minimal.

"The car was definitely good enough for pole," Vettel said. "But I just didn't get it together." Mark Webber, Vettel's teammate and the championship leader, said much the same thing. The Australian has struggled all weekend to put clean laps together and never looked like challenging for pole. He lines up fifth, behind the McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, as the quintet challenging for this year's title locked out the top five places.

Alonso secured pole five years to the day after clinching the first of his two world titles. The Spaniard's main target in the race is to reduce the points deficit to Webber and Hamilton - but he accepts that outside factors might play a part. Intermittent showers have been a feature of the weekend - and the region's dense humidity means that parts of the circuit are likely to remain damp several hours after any rain has stopped.

"Today's conditions weren't easy because we've had very little running in completely dry conditions," Alonso said. "To be on pole is good news, and I was a bit surprised to see the Red Bulls behind, but if it rains tomorrow anything could happen." Hamilton, winner here last season, is confident he can repeat that performance from third on the grid. "I can't complain," he said. "I lost time on my first run, because I got a bit too close to Jenson, and then simply didn't do a very good job on my second. I'm on the clean side of the grid, though, and we've been making good starts of late.

"I'm expecting an extremely tricky race, especially if it rains at some stage, because we've seen how long it takes for the track to dry. I think the Red Bulls are beatable, though - Fernando has proved that and we tend to be quicker in the race than we are in qualifying." Like most street circuits, Singapore offers few genuine overtaking opportunities - and there is a motor racing adage that qualifying is 90 per cent of the battle. Does Alonso expect that to be the case?

"Hopefully," he said. sports@thenational.ae