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Crunch time in Singapore for title contenders

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Jonathan Legard | 18:32 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010

The point-scoring started in Singapore well before a wheel had even turned around the Marina Bay circuit.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner picked out Ferrari as their biggest threat.

Jenson Button wondered aloud if Mark Webber's experience would count against him because he'd be thinking too much about 2010 being his last title chance.

Fernando Alonso thought that a team-mate's help wasn't necessarily an advantage in the face of his rivals' two-pronged challenge.

Lewis Hamilton said Alonso was his main threat. And Sebastian Vettel was happy to be cast as the outsider in Formula 1's most thrilling championship battle in years, 24 points behind his Red Bull team-mate in fifth with five races remaining.

All good fun to prepare us for Singapore's night-time spectacular. But all five contenders know, like the rest of us, that this event in Singapore could become a turning point in the season.

This race will be the first indicator of the teams' relative performance since the FIA's new load tests on the front wings and the front part of the floor (known as the 'bib') were introduced to combat alleged flexing beyond the regulations.

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Highlights from second practice at Singapore

Red Bull and Ferrari had faced claims - which they strenuously refuted - from McLaren and Mercedes that they were gaining a downforce advantage from 'flexi-bodywork'.

After the two 'low-downforce' tracks in Belgium and Italy, where Red Bull were beaten, Singapore is a high-downforce layout.

That makes it more like Hungary, where Red Bull were 1.2 seconds faster than the Ferraris and 1.7 seconds better than the McLarens.

So Formula 1 is now looking for answers to some key questions.

How much, if at all, has Red Bull's performance been compromised by the new tests?

How much ground have Ferrari and McLaren made up on the grid's pace-setters?

And how much closer will the competition be than the eye-popping advantage Webber and Vettel enjoyed in Budapest?

Significantly the top five in the championship were the fastest five on the track after practice. As the stakes have risen, so has the intensity among the contenders.

Despite the tricky conditions in Friday practice, where the track was never properly dry after an afternoon rainstorm, Red Bull were again the headline act, "crazy quick" in both sessions, according to Button.

On both light and heavy fuel loads, they set the pace - suggesting the new load tests have made little, if any, difference to Red Bull's pace, just as Red Bull had always insisted would be the case.

Vettel's one-second advantage over the field in the second session was misleading, though.

Alonso was on his first hot lap on the faster softer tyre in the drier second session when he overshot a corner and the engine cut out.

The Spaniard had set the fastest time in the first sector and was about to split the two Red Bulls by the line.

Alonso is confident that he will be leading the challenge to them in qualifying and the race.

"We're close to Red Bull. They're about a couple of 10ths of a second in front, but hopefully we can fight with them," he said.

That said, Webber, in particular, has appeared like a man on a mission all week. I understand he's determined to prove a point this weekend to silence Red Bull's critics who insist the team's been bending the rules over the design of the RB6, most recently the controversy over front wings and floor.

Reading Hamilton's comments on Thursday would only have stoked the Australian's fire.

"They were gaining from two particular parts and that had to be changed," said the 2008 champion.

"We didn't have that advantage because we were playing to the rules and hopefully it's now closer."

Red Bull have another new front wing here and further modifications to the floor, including a revised 'bib'.

They've also done work on their starts, which have cost Webber crucial places in the last two races. They claim they've resolved the problem but only when the lights go out on Sunday will they know for certain.

McLaren believe they can be much more competitive than in Hungary, described by one engineer on Thursday as "a massive wake-up call".

I'm told the car is "vastly different" to Budapest as a result of their constant pace of development.

They tested their striking new front wing, with an extra curved element, and other aerodynamic developments.

Initial analysis was positive but the greater concern is their performance on the softer tyre, with which both Red Bull and Ferrari found much greater consistency.

By contrast, both McLaren drivers saw the performance drop away alarmingly - not encouraging for qualifying, which looks set to be a straight contest between Red Bull and Ferrari.

McLaren may have to make do with row three if Alonso's team-mate Felipe Massa gets the best out of his Ferrari as well.

As ever this season, McLaren remain more optimistic about the race, when they hope their F-duct-inspired straight-line speed will count on the straights.

They're encouraged by the shorter corners here, which they feel will suit their car more than Hungary's opening sequence, for example, which Red Bull just lapped up.

In Singapore, as Jenson Button put it, the corners are "point and squirt" - like Canada, where he and Hamilton finished first and second. So brake, get in and get out as quickly as possible.

To do that successfully, you need good braking stability and traction - both areas where Ferrari excel.

Alonso proved that in Montreal and clearly in the last race at Monza.

Remember, also, how he dominated the first two sessions of practice around the streets of Monaco - until his crash in Saturday practice wrecked his challenge. But he still finished sixth in the race from the back of the grid.

Alonso was on the podium, too, in Hungary.

Ferrari have brought a new front wing and a modified floor, and if they find the balance as effectively as they did in Monza - where I'm told that Alonso's experience was crucial in pointing the way - the 2005 and 2006 champion looks set to keep himself firmly in the hunt in 2010.

The great uncertainty is the weather. Six hours after Friday's rain, when qualifying would have been starting had it been Saturday, parts of the track were like black ice.

Button reported that water was coming up through the asphalt in second practice and he couldn't see if the surface was wet or dry under the lights.

All five title contenders know what it takes to win at street circuits because all of them have done it.

They also know that one false move this weekend could mean the end of the road for their challenge.

In the wall or in the points - we're about to find out.

UPDATE, SATURDAY, 2100 BST

No wonder Christian Horner felt Red Bull underperformed in qualifying - Alonso has been handed the perfect platform to try to 'break' Red Bull in the opening stint.

The Ferrari has shown impressive pace on long and short runs in Singapore and Alonso's experience of these sort of pressure races could be significant.

And with Webber at the back of the championship contenders, behind both McLarens on the grid, Red Bull could be in for a testing afternoon.

Hamilton will be a danger to Vettel at the start, where the first few corners on what is expected to be a damp track will be critical.

Overtaking opportunities will be at a premium but there's always the chance of a safety car on a street circuit so the intensity of this race within a title race should be immense.

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