We always knew that races such as Spa and Monza would be tough for McLaren and Honda, but with engine penalties thrown in as well both weekends proved to be even harder than perhaps Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso had expected.
It was encouraging therefore to hear Jenson express some optimism about Singapore, a track that he believes will play more to the strengths of the package – and where safety cars and a high attrition rate ensure that things are sometimes a little bit mixed up.
It's hard to believe that this year's Singapore GP will be the eighth running of F1's first night race, given that the inaugural event of 2008 still seems so fresh in the mind. Since that spectacular debut the race has quickly become established as a highlight of the season, and rightly so.
When the event was first announced there were more than a few sceptics, and not just in the media centre. One high profile team boss – not of McLaren I hasten to say! - made his feelings clear. “I have the impression it will be another one of those let-downs where you cannot overtake, like Valencia,” he said. “Going forward with these events heralds a bad future for F1.”
He was to be proved wrong, for while no street race is ever going to resemble a Monza slipstreamer, there was some overtaking and plenty of action in the first year, and that has continued in subsequent seasons.
I've always enjoyed temporary venues, and they are part of the history of our sport. After all of the impressive but frustratingly similar Tilke venues that the sport had ventured to up to that point – China, Bahrain, Turkey and so on - I was pleased to see a move back to street circuits, although I have to say someone dropped the ball in Valencia, which for some reason never quite worked.
I had some initial doubts about Singapore, especially the prospect of F1 cars running in darkness, with all the problems that might entail. However, the organisers and the folk who supplied the lighting system had every eventuality covered, and as soon as we saw cars running under the lights it was obvious that Bernie Ecclestone had made an inspired call by going with the night format.
The overhead TV shots of the fully-lit track that we saw just before the start of that 2008 race were quite fantastic, and they did exactly what they were supposed to do – showcase the city, and indeed the sport, to millions of viewers around the world. The cars themselves looked fabulous under the lights, and those who ventured trackside reported that that glowing carbon brake discs and trails of sparks from bottoming floors added a new dimension to the viewing experience.
For the drivers it's a tough challenge. Fears about visibility problems never materialised, but you do have to be precise, and there's little margin for error. Marina Bay might be more forgiving than Monaco, given that it's wide and there are some run-off areas here and there, but there are still places where the walls lie in wait to trap the unwary. The biggest challenge drivers face is their personal fitness in the humid, sauna-like conditions. After the flag in Singapore you can tell that they have really had to work for their money, and that isn't the case at every current venue.
McLaren has had mixed fortunes in Singapore over the seven events held so far, and there has been some bad luck and frustration along the way. Lewis Hamilton's memorable 2009 victory stands as the undoubted highlight.
It was always going to be the sort of track that appealed to the Brit, and in the first year he qualified second and finished third. After a poor start to the 2009 season McLaren and Hamilton returned to the sharp end of the grid after a major update package arrived in Germany in July. Lewis subsequently won in Hungary, and went on to take poles in Valencia and Monza.
In Singapore Hamilton took another pole in a session that was curtailed by a red flag after Brawn’s Rubens Barrichello had a heavy crash. That ruined the final laps of just about everybody, and Lewis was the only man to have already got in a banker lap on a new set of Supersoft tyres. The final order thus didn’t really reflect everyone’s true pace or their qualifying fuel loads, and Hamilton found himself at the front with a car that was heavier than all of those who were likely to give him a hard time. It was thus his race to lose...
KERS boost meant he was under no threat at the start, while fellow front-row man Sebastian Vettel was beaten away by third qualifier Nico Rosberg, who had looked good all weekend for Williams. Rosberg then kept Hamilton in his sights, but after his first stop Nico made a silly mistake, bouncing over the pit exit kerbs and earning a drive through penalty for crossing the white line.
Hamilton was able to retain the lead after his late stop, but his advantage was cut when a Safety Car came out after Adrian Sutil spun and was hit by Nick Heidfeld. At the restart Hamilton came under some pressure from Vettel, but the RBR man made his final stop first, and thus had no chance to jump Lewis. The German then got a controversial drive-through for speeding in the pitlane, which dropped him down the order. Afterwards his team insisted that its own data indicated that he hadn’t committed the offence that the FIA had charged him with.
Thereafter Hamilton enjoyed an easy ride to the flag. “The conditions made it very tough,” he said. “But generally the race was pretty straightforward for me. I got a good start and I just managed to bridge a big enough gap. I knew I was longer than the guys behind me, so I was never really under serious pressure.”
Meanwhile on that day future McLaren driver Button took fifth place and another step towards his eventual World Championship with Brawn.
Since joining the team Jenson has recorded McLaren's best results in Singapore. He was second to Sebastian Vettel in 2011 on an evening when Lewis damaged his front wing in contact with Felipe Massa, and subsequently picked up a drive-through penalty. The following year Lewis retired from the lead with a gearbox problem, and Jenson again saved the day for McLaren with a second place once again behind Vettel.
I fear that second may be out of reach for both Jenson and his team mate this year, but at least it's the sort of track where they can reasonably expect to be challenging for points, if they have a respectable qualifying performance. For their sake I just hope that the grid penalties are out of the way for the time being!