The Singapore GP weekend marked my return to the cockpit since the German GP in July and my preparation kicked off on a somewhat unusual note. Upon landing here on Monday, I bought myself a Playstation 3 steering wheel. Lighter by around Rs19,000, I then proceeded to borrow a friend's Playstation 3 to hook it up to and put on F1 2010.
The reason? Well, having never turned a wheel on the Marina Bay street circuit and with no proper racing simulator within 2000 km of Singapore (or more), I vested my trust in a video game when it came to familiarising myself with the complex 5.073km layout!
Singapore is probably one race which is close to the crown jewel of Monaco, in terms of glamour at least. The fact that we race under the stars definitely adds to that — and despite its short history, it has become one of the favourites amongst the F1 crowd.
Another unique (and somewhat absurd!) fact is that the Grand Prix runs on European time since most teams are based there and it helps reduce the effect of jet lag. There are a few weird issues though, like sleeping at 5am, eating lunch at 7pm and dinner at 2am! Needless to say, thick blackout blinds in hotel rooms are standard!
On Friday, I found myself back in the cockpit and admittedly nervous, having been away for so long. Confidence in the car counts for lap times, more so on a street circuit since grip is non-existent, especially at the onset of the weekend.
The track itself isn't as challenging as the Principality as it has to conform to modern FIA safety guidelines, unlike Monaco which has been on the calendar since F1's inaugural season. There is plenty of width here and lots of escape roads so you can make a mistake and get away with it, unlike Monaco where you may end up in the barriers, and in rare cases in the harbour as the legendary Alberto Ascari found out in 1955.
There are no fast corners either like the Tabac or swimming pool chicane but instead Marina Bay is littered with 90-degree turns. Remembering the sequence in which each of those 23 turns come at you requires some time. Luckily, my PS3 steering wheel seemed to have redeemed its cost!
The first practice session was cut short by 30min for repairs due to ripped kerbs after the support races. Consequently, it was twilight by the time the session got underway. I had a tinted visor to avoid glare but the mixed lighting made some corner apexes hard to spot, and as the light went down, the braking distance seemed to close in very quickly. It is somewhat hard to explain — I could feel the speed much more, something unique, which I had never experienced before.
Being a stop and go layout, it is hugely dependent on traction out of slow corners — strong mechanical grip is therefore a pre-requisite and that is a weak point on our car. Putting the power down was difficult and despite delaying throttle application, I still had my hands full with the rear-end trying to swap places with the front - looks dramatic on TV but in reality you're just losing time. More critically, it has a ripple effect on tyres which heat up and degrade, further reducing the grip.
Also, one really needs to grab the track by its horns, ride the kerbs aggressively - I saw this in action while following Michael Schumacher for a lap. He hit one of the kerbs so hard that his front wing scraped the ground in a shower of sparks - spectacular moments like this can only be captured in a night race!
Having been away for so long, the 60-minute session seemed insufficient. At the end of it, I was about half a tenth slower than my teammate Ricciardo, who has been driving the entire race weekends, having replaced me since Silverstone. I was satisfied as I had expected to be a little further off. I should be back in the thick of it soon, hopefully before the Indian Grand Prix!