Daniel Ricciardo gave it his and Red Bull’s best shot, but nothing could stop Nico Rosberg celebrating his 200th Formula One race by completing a triumphant hat-trick to regain the championship lead in Sunday’s action-packed Singapore Grand Prix.
The 31-year-old German, who had won in Belgium and Italy, proved that he is back to his best by making it 75 points in three races with a close, but deserved, victory at the Marina Bay circuit.
Starting from pole position, Rosberg won by less than half a second, ahead of Aussie racer Ricciardo, to move eight points clear of his Mercedes team-mate defending three-time champion Briton Lewis Hamilton with six races to go.
It was Rosberg’s first win in Singapore, his second appearance on the Asian night race podium and the 22nd win of his career, ample proof after the European summer holiday break that he has the package to claim his first world title.
"With 10 laps or 15 laps to go after the pit-stop, they said he would be with me at the end of the race, which was the case," said Rosberg.
“So I knew I had to be on it, get everything right and it worked out. The tyre lasted just right, so I'm very happy. By the time I started the last lap, I knew it was enough.”
Hamilton, struggling with set-up and brake problems, came home third behind a rampant Ricciardo – who trimmed Rosberg’s lead from 25 points to five - ahead of the two Ferraris of Finn Kimi Raikkonen and fifth-placed four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel, who had started from the back of the grid.
The result left Rosberg with a total of 273 points ahead of Hamilton on 265 and Ricciardo, disappointed, but realistic, on 179.
“Nico deserved it and he drove brilliantly this weekend,” said Hamilton. “But I don’t feel too worried or down – there is a long way to go yet.”
While a first win of the year continued to elude the Aussie, he insisted he was not disappointed.
"We have come very close this year on numerous occasions," he said. "I am not going to stand here and be disappointed.
"We tried something in the end with strategy and it was close, but we are up here on the podium again and it is great to see so many Australian flags!
"I am pretty happy because I did all I could, the perfect race. If anything could've been more perfect, it would be the start, but Nico got away well - even with a perfect start we wouldn't have got the jump.”
Rosberg led from the start as Hamilton attacked Ricciardo for second, but their battle was stopped almost immediately when the Safety Car was called out after German Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India made contact with Spaniard Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso and crashed into the pit wall.
Hulkenberg had made his “best start of the season” from eighth but soon found himself spun around and facing the wrong direction before spearing into the wall. The stewards investigated, but did not call for any action.
When racing resumed, Rosberg led Ricciardo and Hamilton, but with the Mercedes men facing a brakes problem it was a tight contest all the way.
Hamilton needed a strategy switch to ‘plan B’ – a three-stopper – to overhaul Raikkonen while Rosberg resisted a strong late surge by Ricciardo, who also switched to three stops, to claim his win.
Behind the top five, Dutch teenager Max Verstappen recovered from a slow start in his Red Bull to overhaul Fernando Alonso of McLaren Honda and snatch sixth place ahead of the two-time champion.
Mexican Sergio Perez made his two-stop strategy work to finish eighth for Force India ahead of Russian Daniil Kvyat, who bounced back to form for Toro Rosso by resisting Verstappen in an early battle and then coming home ninth for his first points since the British Grand Prix in July.
Dane Kevin Magnussen completed the top ten to claim Renault’s first points since the Russian Grand Prix in April. Behind him, luckless Mexican Esteban Gutierrez finished 11th in his Haas for the fifth time this year – and is still without a point.