x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Night-time novelty will spice things up

Formula One takes a step into the unknown today when first practice begins for Sunday's Singapore Grand Prix

Formula One takes a step into the unknown today when first practice begins for Sunday's Singapore Grand Prix. The event is the first night race in the sport's history and the global attention on how things go will surely be as strong as the powerful floodlights that have been erected to keep the track well lit. Night racing has proved a hit in America with Nascar and the Indy Racing League regularly having races after dark, and even motorcycling has already seen action under the stars with this year's MotoGP meeting in Qatar taking place under the stars.

The novelty value of the different track conditions will only slightly take away from the main talking point - who will come out on top in the latest battle between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa. While the BMW Sauber of Robert Kubica and Massa's Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen both still have outside chances to win the title, realistically the champion is going to come from the main two protagonists.

McLaren-Mercedes and Hamilton may have been sidetracked earlier this week by their failed appeal in Paris to have the British driver's penalty in Belgium revoked, but come tonight all their attention will be back on the racing and the impressive looking street circuit that has been built around the Singapore Marina Bay. According to the early views of drivers who have viewed the track up close, passing will be difficult so tomorrow's qualifying session will be vital.

The other key factor will be the weather with rain expected during the race. If it is indeed wet then Hamilton will be hard to back against winning his fifth race of the season. Yes, he was only seventh at Monza two weeks ago, but without his ill-advised move on intermediates in qualifying that left him only 15th he would have at least been on the podium, if not challenging Sebastian Vettel at the front, such was his impressive pace.

If it stays dry though expect Massa to be strong and possibly repeat his majestic drive in Valencia at a similar street circuit last month, where he dominated from pole position to win. It is more than three months since Hamilton last beat Massa outright in a completely dry race (Germany) and Ferrari do appear to have the edge in those conditions. The maths for the race are simple - whoever finishes higher will lead the world championship going to Japan next month, such is the tightness of the title race with Hamilton currently only leading by a solitary point.

There are a number of fascinating duels going on down the grid. Renault are desperate to beat Toyota for fourth place in the constructors' standings, as much for pride and as much to try to persuade the double world champion Fernando Alonso to remain with them next year. With McLaren and Ferrari both a no go, the Spaniard has a tough choice to make as to whether he stays with the French team or joins either BMW or Honda, who have both made overtures to him.

There are also drivers battling to maintain their seats for next season. Sebastien Bourdais (Toro Rosso), Kazuki Nakajima (Williams), Nelson Piquet (Renault), Jenson Button (Honda) and Rubens Barrichello (Honda) do not have solid contracts to be on the grid in Australia next March and all could do with a strong end to the season to boost their standing. This weekend is going to be a step into the unknown for the teams and drivers, and undoubtedly whoever handles it best will be the ones either looking good for the championship or with enhanced career prospects.

@Email:gcaygill@thenational.ae