SINGAPORE // It was a flawless performance in the face of relentless pressure in the end. Fernando Alonso's victory in yesterday's Singapore Grand Prix was the consequence of a champion's drive, but the destiny of this year's world title is no clearer after one of the season's most dramatic races that had a number of twists and turns.
The top five drivers are covered by only 25 points - the equivalent of one race win - and Mark Webber (Red Bull-Renault) still holds the upper hand after surviving a collision that put rival Lewis Hamilton (McLaren-Mercedes) out of the race. Alonso made a bright start from pole position, but Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) was equally brisk from the outside of the front row and the Ferrari driver had to move left to repel the German's advances.
They would be tied almost as one for the afternoon's balance, but the outcome was rarely certain -with the Red Bull never more than a couple of seconds behind the Ferrari. The safety car was brought out on lap three, after Tonio Liuzzi pulled up with rear suspension failure - the consequence of an early nudge from the returning Nick Heidfeld (BMW Sauber-Ferrari) - and Red Bull called Webber for an early tyre stop.
The Australian had initially been fifth, behind the McLarens of Hamilton and Jenson Button, and - if he could stay within 25 seconds of them he would be able to pass when they made their mandatory tyre stops. And with the McLarens having to run conservatively, to preserve their rear tyres, they remained within range. At the front, Alonso and Vettel traded fastest laps - but the German had no way through.
"I was hoping Fernando might hit one of the walls," Vettel said, with a smile, "but he was driving very well." Neither dared make their tyre stop until Hamilton had pitted, because otherwise they might have become trapped behind the slower McLaren. Once Hamilton had pitted, on lap 28, it opened a gap in the traffic and the two leaders embraced it gratefully. "Our main hope," said Christian Horner, the Red Bull sporting director, "was that we'd be able to get in one lap earlier and benefit from an extra lap on fresh tyres."
Ferrari, though, were of like mind. Both teams changed tyres swiftly, but Vettel fluffed his restart from the pits as he almost stalled the engine to relieve any pressure on Alonso and the pursuit resumed, with Webber now shuffled up to third ahead of Hamilton and Button. A further twist lay just around the corner, though, at Turn 18. On lap 31 Kamui Kobayashi crashed his Sauber and Bruno Senna (HRT-Cosworth) piled into the stricken car. The safety car came out again - and when the race restarted, at the end of lap 35, the lapped Virgins of Timo Glock and Lucas di Grassi were between the two Red Bulls.
Glock moved out of the way immediately, but di Grassi impeded Webber. Hamilton - ever the opportunist - swept to the Australian's right as they filtered towards the left-handed Turn Seven. Hamilton was ahead, but not completely so, and his left rear wheel snagged Webber's right front. "I didn't really see anything," Hamilton said. "I thought I'd cleared Mark when I turned in. It was just a racing incident."
The stewards concurred that neither party was to blame and Webber raced on, albeit with a serious vibration from his front right wheel. "I was just kind of hoping it would hold out to the end," he said. There was further drama just before the finish, when Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus-Cosworth caught fire. The Finnish driver pulled up on the pit straight, and put out the blaze himself after grabbing an extinguisher from a marshal, but he had left a trail of oil that the leaders had to negotiate during the final moments.
Alonso held on, though, to win by 0.2seconds, with Webber third ahead of Button, Nico Rosberg (Mercedes GP) and Rubens Barrichello (Williams-Toyota). By the end of the race, Webber's front right tyre was almost completely off the rim. "I have never seen anything like it," said Horner, "and I've no idea how the air didn't escape." On such good fortune do titles sometimes rest. firstname.lastname@example.org