In the best tradition of all knock-down-drag-out fights, the race for the 2012 Formula 1 World Championships spills out on to the streets... the streets of Singapore. The drivers and teams return to the Marina Bay Street circuit, a stunning example of what funding, innovation and determination can create when they come together - a Formula 1 race at night!
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso held a comfortable (if not dominant) lead over his rivals in the race for the season's drivers' title and the Italian team were doing a good job of slowly but steadily reigning in early season runaway leaders (and defending champions) Red Bull. Going into the break (between the Hungarian and Belgian races), McLaren Mercedes were in all sorts of trouble - a car that performed only in spurts of its own choosing and man management issues that threatened to derail what was left of the season.
Fast forward a few weeks though and it's all changed for the men from Woking. Hamilton announced a mini-revival of sorts at Hungary, where the MP4-27 finally stayed on track long enough for the 2008 world champion to take the chequered flag. The team returned from the enforced break clearly more focused and it shows.
McLaren have now won the last three races (Hamilton at Hungary and Italy; Jenson Button in Belgium) and taken 83 points (34 points off Ferrari) in that period. Hamilton has leapt into second place in the race for the drivers' title (albeit still 37 points behind Alonso; such was the Ferrari's driver's dominant position going into the break) and based on present form, the British driver should be breathing down the Spaniard's neck by the time the Korean Grand Prix comes around.
"After winning in Hungary and Monza, I head to Singapore full of positivity and optimism that we can take the title fight to Fernando [Alonso]. I enjoy the Marina Bay circuit in the same way that I like racing at the Hungaroring - it's a darty track that requires you to really be on top of the car to get the best from it. It requires more finesse," the British driver said, to the sport's .
However, Alonso has remained very calm in the build-up to this race. The Spaniard, a double world champion, is seeing a point lead of 50+ being whittled away by Hamilton but is confident Singapore will see a change in his fortunes.
"I have always had a competitive car here It is a challenging track, with no room for mistakes, which means that, in this respect, it is like Monaco. McLaren has won the last two races and so they are the favourites here as well. Hopefully we can stop their dominance: we have brought some new parts for the car and are optimistic that we can do well here and at the next two or three Grands Prix," the Ferrari driver explained to the team's official Web site.
As for the defending champions - Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull - they've both faded badly. The German hung onto the McLarens and Ferrari's coattails in Hungary and Belgium and mechanical problems forced a retirement in Italy. He is 39 points off Alonso and although there is still time, he will know he has to start winning races, starting with Singapore, if he is to become the sport's youngest ever triple world champion (Ayrton Senna holds that record). Red Bull, meanwhile, so dominant over the last couple of seasons, have found themselves struggling to hold McLaren, Ferrari and now even the Lotus-Renault teams in check. They still lead the constructors' championship (272 points to McLaren's 243 and Ferrari's 226) but the gap is shrinking and like Vettel, they too need wins.
Singapore Grand Prix
Formula 1, at its very core, like any other sport, is about two things and two things only. The first is technical excellence... the second is glamour, showmanship, entertainment. The latter is the only reason why the Monaco Grand Prix, for example, is still running. It is also perhaps the only reason why Bernie Ecclestone and co agreed to race in Singapore... at night!
The 5km Marina Bay Street circuit is no picnic though. The obvious challenge of night-time driving aside, the track is actually one of the longest on the calendar and the combination of bursts of high-speed sections linked with sharp and slow corners means drivers have to remain extra alert for the 61 laps of Sunday's race. The track has 23 designated corners, not unusual for a street circuit, and at least two places (excluding the start-finish straight) where cars will reach speeds of 280+km/h before standing on the brakes to drop to 60-70km/h.
The obvious inference - braking performance and stability while braking is going to be critical - as will, given the number of corners, traction out of the turn. The third sector will be a particular test for cars that do not have good traction - Turns 17, 19 and 21 - three back-to-back chicanes - may make an excellent spectator's vantage point but if you lose speed coming out of Turn 21, you are likely to have to fight off an overtaking attempt down the start-finish straight and into the first turn.
The designated DRS Zone for the Singapore Grand Prix is as the cars leave Turn 5 and accelerate up to Memorial Corner; the detection point is Turn 4.
Pirelli will offer the supersoft (P Zero SS; red) and soft (P Zero S; yellow) tires for this race, which should make for exciting viewing... if difficult racing. The Marina Bay circuit can be hard on tires, meaning there are likely to be three stops during the race; Vettel won last year on three stops. However, both Paul Hembery (Pirelli's motorsport director) and Jamie Alguersuari (test driver) believe tire degradation may not be as much as is feared, even with the supersofts.
"I don't think you could try a one-stop strategy like Monaco though: instead I think we will see two stops... the actual tyre degradation itself is low and that is because there is not so much energy going through them, because while there are a lot of corners they are all quite slow," Alguersuari explained.
Where to Watch Friday Practice
You can catch live coverage of the Friday free practice session from the Marina Bay Street circuit in Singapore from 10.45 am BST on Sky Sports F1 HD. Coverage of the second session will start at 2.15 pm BST on the same channel. You can also follow sessions live, and free, via the Live Timing section on Formula1.com.