I don’t know if Sebastian Vettel is religious, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he went to bed on Sunday after yet another catastrophic Grand Prix wondering if somebody upstairs has decided four world championships is enough.
Since Singapore Ferrari has been on a downwards spiral, seemingly unable to string a trouble-free weekend together. Granted, Singapore was nothing to do with operation or reliability, but neatly bookmarked where the wheels started to (literally) come of Ferrari’s championship, ending with a points gap Hamilton can only “dream” of.
If Vettel is dreaming of a higher power denying him of a fifth title, then the rest of his team will be having nightmares of absent engine covers with just minutes until lights out. The déjà vu was eerily apparent on the grid with a power unit issue being undiagnosed until the last minute, meaning the mechanics ran out of time to repair the issue, resulting in Vettel’s race ending on lap four of 53.Embed from Getty Images
Vettel remained in his car for some time after he was wheeled into the garage, painting a picture of despair and frustration as the hopes of winning a championship flushed out of him along with the adrenaline that was unable to be used to get his championship back on track.
When asked by SkySports how he felt about receiving yet another blow to his title hopes, Vettel said he was “hurt.” Given the pace of Red Bull, it wouldn’t be an outrageous claim to say this was another race Vettel could have won.
“I think I need to protect [the team],” he said. “We’ve done an incredible job so far. It is obviously a pity the last two races with the reliability issues, but you know, it’s like that sometimes.
“Of course it hurts, and we’re all disappointed. But now we need to get back, get some rest and then go flat out for the last four races and see what happens.”
As the lights went out, Vettel appeared to have a strong getaway in the first launch phase, but in hindsight, there was a clear issue that had not been rectified. It didn’t become clear that Vettel was burning on one fewer cylinders thanks to a broken spark plug until Max Verstappen overtook at the hairpin, quickly followed by Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo, Esteban Ocon’s Force India and Valtteri Bottas.Embed from Getty Images
Such dramas brought about by Ferrari’s fundamental reliability issues have swung the championship pendulum firmly into Hamilton’s court and may not return. The pressures that have come with such a cut-throat title battle has meant reliability has slipped from the list of absolute priorities – especially because it has been on the backfoot since the hybrid era started in 2014.
Once reliability is resolved, Ferrari could become an even bigger contender in 2018. Sergio Marchionne will be applying pressure that will send fear into many of the Ferrari employees, but in its not so distant past, the Machiavelli-style lead by fear exercised by Luca Di Montezemolo proved counterproductive.
If Ferrari wants to beat the mighty Mercedes and resurgent Red Bulls, it will need to unite across its hierarchy. This is by no means is this a current problem, but could rear its head as it has done in the past.
On the other side of luck’s coin, Lewis Hamilton leaves Japan with a 59-point lead, meaning his worst case scenario is to score 41 points in the next four races to be crowned champion – a win and a second place in Austin and Mexico will be enough.Embed from Getty Images
Strategy in Japan was somewhat mooted by Vettel’s early exit. It was expected that Ferrari might be forced into a two-stop or an extended second stint of a one stop to give itself the chance of victory. But that narrative never materialised, much to the loss of the fans.
Instead, only Pierre Gasly and Stoffel Vandoorne stopped twice, whilst an off-pace Pascal Wehrlein stopped three times for Sauber.
Red Bull decided lap 32 was the perfect time to apply pressure to Mercedes by pitting Verstappen. A lap later, Mercedes reacted as the Red Bull managed to close in by almost 2.5 seconds in a single lap of clear air. However, that was the only strategic card Red Bull had to play, even though second and third place maximised what they could do in the circumstance, and challenging the Mercedes bodes well for next season.
Further back, Esteban Ocon showed how he has the potential to become very hot property in the future with a ‘best of the rest’ drive to sixth. The Force India driver got off the grid well and held third up until lap 10 when his Force India couldn’t live with the pace of Ricciardo and Bottas.
With just four races to go in 2017, Hamilton’s chances of winning a world championship have rarely been higher, and arguably Vettel’s fight lies with Bottas for the runner-up spot.
However, Arrivabene maintains a fighting spirit despite the odds, telling Motorsport.com: “As I’ve said before, we know that the car, the drivers and the team are all on the pace.
“That is why we will tackle the coming races with great effort and even more determination. Right up to the last corner of the last Grand Prix.”
Hamilton has, of course, lost a championship with better odds ten years ago, beaten by a Ferrari and a driver sitting on the opposite side of the garage to Vettel. If 2007 can teach us anything, it’s that motorsport can churn up the most improbable results, but history will do little to console Vettel as F1 heads to America.
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