Max Verstappen's stranglehold on Formula 1 came to an abrupt halt at the Singapore Grand Prix as the Dutchman's Red Bull was largely ineffective at the unique street circuit.
For the first time in five years, neither Red Bull car made it into the top-10 shootout in qualifying, and their absence resulted in a thrilling battle for victory in easily the most entertaining race of the year so far.
Having been in the championship fight for the first half of last season, Ferrari had fallen away from the front of the field over the last year.
Back-to-back wins at Silverstone for Carlos Sainz and Austria for Charles Leclerc last summer proved to be the last success the Scuderia would taste in 2022, and this season started no more promisingly.
However, pole position in Italy for Sainz, followed by the Spaniard's first podium finish of the year in the race hinted at progress having been made, and that was confirmed in no uncertain terms at Marina Bay.
Sainz led from the start while Leclerc slotted into second ahead of front-row starter George Russell. And while a dramatic race unfolded behind him, Sainz delivered a perfect tactical drive for a well deserved second career victory.
Russell was in confident mood on race day despite just missing out on pole position, safe in the knowledge that his Mercedes tends to perform much better in race conditions than over a single lap.
After an indifferent getaway, Russell regained second position during a chaotic round of pitstops when the safety car was sent out so that debris could be cleared after Logan Sargeant had crashed his Williams.
Both Russell and his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton had saved a fresh set of medium tyres for the race, and when a virtual safety car was implemented for Esteban Ocon's broken down Alpine, the Silver Arrows dived into the pits to fit fresh rubber.
Although they were now 14 seconds detached from the front three, the Mercedes pair were now two seconds per lap faster, and Leclerc was soon dispatched.
However, Lando Norris, now running second in his upgraded McLaren, proved harder to pass as Sainz had slowed down to allow his former team-mate the opportunity to use DRS to defend against the charging Mercedes.
As the laps ran down the front four ran nose-to-tail and the order looked locked in until Russell clipped the wall midway through the final lap, causing terminal damage.
That left Sainz to claim the first non-Red Bull victory of the season, ahead of a delighted Norris and Hamilton.
Leclerc held off a fast-finishing Verstappen for fourth place, as the Dutchman was at least able to extend his championship lead to 151 points by finishing ahead of his team-mate Sergio Perez.
Further back, AlphaTauri stand-in Liam Lawson claimed his first career points with a mature drive to ninth place.
Daniel Ricciardo is in the frame to return to action next week in Japan, as his recovery from a broken hand continues.
The Australian was contesting his third race weekend for the Red Bull-owned team when he crashed in practice for the Dutch Grand Prix and suffered the injury.
But New Zealander Lawson will have caught the eye of everyone in the paddock with his early exploits, and is unlikely to be out of a job for long even if AlphaTauri decides to give the seat back to Ricciardo.
|What||Japanese Grand Prix|
|Where||Suzuka Circuit, Mie Prefecture|
|When||06:00, Sunday 24th September|
|How to watch||Sky Sports F1|
|Odds||Max Verstappen 2/7, Sergio Perez 11/1, Lando Norris 14/1, Carlos Sainz 18/1, Charles Leclerc 18/1, Lewis Hamilton|
Verstappen had expected to be less competitive on the unique Marina Bay circuit, but he was shocked by just how great his handling issues were.
The car performed better in race trim than qualifying, albeit nowhere near its usual level, and normal service is expected to be resumed at the next race, this week's Japanese Grand Prix.
Suzuka is an old-school racing circuit where Verstappen sealed his second world championship last year by winning the race by 27 seconds.
The Dutch Dynamo is just 2/7 to bounce back with a 13th victory of the season, with his team-mate Perez next at .
Singapore hero Sainz is an 18/1 chance to follow up, with Norris preferred in the market at .
With Max Verstappen having won 12 of the year's 14 races including the last 10 in a row, the result of Formula 1 races have become pretty much a foregone conclusion even before they have started.
But that is certainly not the case in Singapore after Verstappen and his Red Bull team followed a troubled practice day with a disastrous qualifying session.
Neither Verstappen nor his team-mate Sergio Perez made it through to the top-10 shootout, making it the first time in five years that neither Red Bull reached Q3.
Read the Singapore GP qualifying preview here.
|What||Singapore Grand Prix|
|Where||Marina Bay Circuit, Singapore|
|When||13:00, Sunday 17th September|
|How to watch||Sky Sports F1|
|Odds||Carlos Sainz 7/4, George Russell 11/5, Charles Leclerc 6/1, Max Verstappen 13/2, Lando Norris 7/1, Lewis Hamilton 14/1|
World champion Verstappen had warned as early as two weeks ago after his Italian Grand Prix victory that Singapore may not be a strong one.
But surely he could not have been anticipating such a weekend of struggle.
The car badly lacks balance, squirming out of shape under braking and under acceleration, which is particularly harmful around a circuit as twisty as Marina Bay.
Indeed, so bad have been Red Bull's handling problems this weekend that they may be concerned about next week's race in Japan, and whether they have gone in a wrong direction with the development of their car.
Verstappen qualified 11th, but faces starting even lower down the order having caught the attention of the stewards for three separate instances of blocking other competitors. Unsurprisingly, his 13/2 odds are the longest he has been all season by some margin.
Singapore has been a happy hunting ground for Ferrari over the years.
The Scuderia won the race in 2010, 2015 and 2019, and with Carlos Sainz claiming pole position for the second race in a row the Spaniard will be hoping to deliver another victory for Ferrari, and justify favouritism.
It wasn't to be for Sainz in his team's spiritual home of Monza last time, as he was unable to hold back the Red Bull pair, but them seemingly not at the party in Singapore his task looks simpler.
But it is not just Ferrari who have a realistic chance of breaking Red Bull's monopoly of 2023 race victories.
George Russell suffered a bit of a slump in form in the middle of the season, but he has hit back by outqualifying his seven-time world champion team-mate Lewis Hamilton for three races in a row, and will be eyeing victory from second on the grid.
The Mercedes has had better pace in race trim than qualifying all season, so from his first front-row berth since Australia, where he led the early stages, Russell will be quietly confident.
The King's Lynn racer earned Mercedes' only win of last season in Brazil and he will have his supporters at 11/5.
It hasn't been a vintage season for Charles Leclerc.
Ferrari's golden boy trails his team-mate Sainz by six points and has qualified behind the Spaniard in three straight races.
The Monegasque had looked on course to snatch pole position in Singapore but made a costly error in the final sector of the lap.
Despite four corners of the usual layout being bypassed this year, overtaking will still be incredibly hard in the race, and Leclerc was unable to pass Sainz despite looking the faster of the two in the latter stages in Italy last time.
Lando Norris was also in the hunt for pole.
The McLaren driver, sporting no fewer than nine upgraded parts on his car lines up fourth, and will be encouraged by the long-run pace he showed during practice.
However, unless the 7/1 shot makes a lightning start he is likely to have to rely on strategy to finish any higher, and that has not been one of the team's strengths this season.
Fernando Alonso, a two-time winner in Singapore, is in a similar situation.
His Aston Martin was fastest of all in race simulation runs on Friday, but despite being one of the fastest cars on the straights the two-time world champion, a 40/1 shot, could struggle to land a blow from seventh on the grid.
And what of Verstappen? The Dutch ace has made a habit of winning from unlikely grid positions, but he just doesn't look to have the car under him this weekend.
Verstappen started eighth at the track last year after the team made an error in qualifying. He may well have been on pole without that, but despite that potential he could finish no higher than seventh.
It is hard to see him doing much better this year.
Ferrari gave it their all in their attempts to secure a home victory in Italy last time out, only to see Max Verstappen take the chequered flag, but they are set to renew their challenge to the all-conquering Red Bull in Singapore.
Scuderia driver Carlo Sainz delighted the Tifosi at Monza when he took pole position and held on to the lead for 15 laps before Verstappen inevitably swept past him.
The Dutchman’s victory was his 10th in a row, a record in Formula 1, but he admits his winning streak is under threat in Singapore this weekend.
A mistake in Saturday’s qualifying session last year resulted in Verstappen starting from eighth, from where he couldn’t challenge for the win.
Charles Leclerc started from pole in 2022 and while he couldn’t convert that into a win, the Scuderia look well placed to give Red Bull something to think about for the second race running, although they may not be alone in laying down a challenge.
|What||Singapore Grand Prix - Qualifying|
|Where||Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore|
|When||14:00, Saturday 16th September|
|How to watch||Sky Sports F1|
|Odds||Max Verstappen 1/1, Charles Leclerc 5/2, Carlos Sainz 7/2, Lando Norris 16/1, Sergio Perez|
Leclerc had to play second fiddle to Sainz at Monza, failing with a late challenge to pass the Spaniard and snatch third place.
But the roles look likely to be reversed in Singapore, where Leclerc’s odds to start from pole for the third race running at Marina Bay have come into after a positive pair of practice sessions on Friday.
Leclerc has turned his two previous poles into two podium finishes, but was disappointed to have lost the lead at the very first corner in last year’s race, with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez getting the better start off the line as he went on to claim victory.
Perez is another driver that may fancy his chances of ending Verstappen’s winning run having enjoyed a good deal of success at street circuits, the Mexican winning in Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan this year.
But Perez, who is to be the fastest qualifier, has produced a mixed bag of results in qualifying, while the Red Bulls were left trailing behind the Ferrari’s in both of Friday’s practice sessions as both Perez and Verstappen reported issues with their car.
The Scuderia finished one and two on the timesheets in both sessions, Leclerc and then Sainz taking it in turns to set the fastest time and they were significantly faster than the next quickest car, Mercedes’ George Russell, in the afternoon.
Fourth fastest in P2 was Fernando Alonso for Aston Martin, who had previously targeted this race as one they could potentially win having gone well on high downforce tracks this year.
Alonso was second at both Monaco and the Netherlands, two tracks similar to Singapore, and his performance in the afternoon session suggested the Spaniard could be in the pole battle come Saturday.
However, Alonso was cautious about his chances of ending his 10-year winless run in F1 this weekend and, give he has not started from higher than fifth in the last six races, he’ll need a better showing in qualifying if he is to seriously challenge in Singapore.
Alonso might need some help if he is to claim pole, and he’s not alone in that regard with Mercedes, who had both drivers in the top six in both sessions, and McLaren’s Lando Norris showing some good pace, but maybe not enough to get ahead of Ferrari in dry conditions.
But with the threat of thunderstorms hanging over qualifying and the race, there’s the potential for a chaotic weekend and a surprise pole sitter.
The McLaren tends to perform better in cooler temperatures so any rain could aid Norris’ cause, while Hamilton has gone well in the rain in Singapore in the past, winning a wet-dry race in 2017.
In a season dominated by one man, Saturday’s qualifying session is shaping up to be one of the most competitive of the year with four teams in the mix for the all-important Singapore pole.
With eight of the 13 races staged at the Marina Bay Street Circuit won by the driver starting on pole and overtaking notoriously difficult, expect every driver to be pulling out all the stops in qualifying.