A Look Ahead to Malaysia: Is it Win or Bust for Vettel?

September 29, 2017

- Grant Whittington

If you cast your minds back to the 30th July, the notion of Lewis Hamilton winning the Formula One Drivers’ Championship seemed fanciful at best.

After a tumultuous qualifying session and race in Hungary, Hamilton had sacrificed a place on the podium to fall 14 points behind his title rival Sebastian Vettel. By honouring an agreement with teammate Valtteri Bottas (who had earlier allowed Hamilton to pass him in pursuit of Ferrari’s pacemakers) Hamilton let the Finn through on the final straight and slumped to a fourth-place finish, while his German nemesis romped home to secure his fourth victory of the season.

The three races since have seen a dramatic turnaround, however, with Hamilton having prevailed in Belgium, Italy and (most surprisingly) Singapore, while Vettel has managed to just two podium finishes during this time. This has left the Englishman with a healthy 28 point lead with just six races remaining, as the drivers travel to Malaysia ahead of the latest Grand Prix.

So can Vettel reverse his fortunes in Sepang, or will Hamilton achieve a fourth consecutive win and take a giant step towards his fourth world title?

Why Vettel Should be Concerned Ahead of the Malaysian Grand Prix

The race in Sepang will take on added importance for fans of the sport, with the Malaysian Grand Prix having recently been axed from the calendar ahead of the 2018 season. This will not detract from the action out on the track, however, with the race having suddenly become a must-win encounter for Vettel in his own bid to secure a coveted fourth world title.

The biggest concern for the German and his Ferrari bosses will be the nature of his performance in Singapore, when an unusually aggressive Vettel performed a defensive manoeuvre at the first corner that ultimately ended his race prematurely. Not only this, but his actions also took out teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, allowing Hamilton to surge into a lead that he never looked like relinquishing.

While even the most seasoned drivers can make mistakes during the heat of the battle (particularly at the start of a race), the sight of the experienced and usually unflappable Vettel succumbing to the pressure was a huge surprise. No doubt his failure to win in Belgium or Italy was weighing heavily on his mind, but his recklessness at the Marina Bay Street Circuit was entirely out of character and a sign that Hamilton’s relentless pursuit of the German has forced him far beyond his comfort zone.

If Vettel was feeling the heat in Singapore, however, he is unlikely to cool down by the time qualifying starts in Malaysia. After all, this has now become a must-win race for the German, while Hamilton will be looking to secure his eighth victory of the season and build an arguably unassailable lead as the season enters its final straight. This would also be the Englishman’s fourth win in five races, and it would be hard to see Vettel countering this momentum between now and the trip to Abu Dhabi on 24th November.

Is There Hope for Vettel?

We should not forget that Vettel is a seasoned operator, however, and the three-time world champion is more than capable of winning in Malaysia and taking the Drivers Championship down to the wire. In fact, it can be argued that the German should even start as the favourite in Sepang, as the Ferrari engine should have a clear advantage over its rivals given the prevailing conditions and the nature of the track itself.

In many ways, Malaysia boasts a similar climate to Singapore, where stifling heat and humidity take a considerable toll on the track. Although this can create a significant range of physical challenges for drivers, it also favours vehicles that boast exceptional straight-line speed and is therefore ideal for the relentlessly powerful and consistent Ferrari. If Vettel can compose himself and perform well in qualifying, he should be able to leverage this advantage and propel himself back into the title race.

Of course, history will show that Ferrari failed spectacularly in their attempts to capitalise on this advantage in Singapore, although this was purely down to Vettel’s huge error in judgement at the first corner (which ended the team’s participation in the race). Should the German recover his focus in time for the first qualifying session in Malaysia, however, he will be well-placed to claim an all-important pole position that allows the superior speed of his Ferrari to prevail during the race.

As for Hamilton, he knows that another dominant performance could tip the scales decisively in his favour, and will be extremely aggressive in his pursuit of success in Sepang. Although his Mercedes is marginally slower than Vettel’s Ferrari, his unbridled natural talent and innate fearlessness means that he is more than capable of winning on the back of a solid qualifying session. Not only this, but he will bring a huge amount of confidence and momentum into the race, enabling him to capitalise on any mistakes that Vettel across the whole of the weekend.

It’s Win or Bust for Vettel, but Should Hamilton Play It Safe in Sepang?

Sepang undoubtedly represents a win or bust race for Vettel, as this is arguably one of the final meetings in which Ferrari will hold a decisive advantage over Mercedes. Given the form of Hamilton and the fact that Mercedes have also overcome many of the engine faults that blighted their star driver last year, the pressure on the German to prevail in Malaysia must be amplified even more.

From Hamilton’s perspective, the temptation to press home his advantage and push for a decisive win is likely to dictate his own approach in Sepang. There is also a clear argument for him to play it safe in the heat of Malaysia, however, by striving to secure a podium place that will enable him to maintain a healthy (if slightly reduced) lead as we approach the final five races of the season.

Such conservatism may well be beyond a confident and fearless Hamilton, however, so we should probably expect a race to the finish in Sepang this weekend.

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