F1 OPINION: Hamilton surely has the title now
October 10, 2017
While we are not exactly sure where Sebastian Vettel takes his holidays, we can rest assured he won’t be returning to Asia anytime soon.
During that last three races in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan (each of which the Ferrari was expected to dominate), Vettel has failed to record a single podium finish, as his slender lead at the top of the Drivers Championship has been obliterated by Lewis Hamilton and transformed into a mighty, 59-point deficit.
Hamilton certainly took a giant stride towards his fourth world title at Suzuka during the weekend, as he won his fourth race in five outings and his eighth overall so far this season. For Vettel, a fourth Drivers Championship is fast becoming a distant dream, with just four races remaining in the U.S., Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi.
In this article, we will look back at the Japanese Grand Prix, and ask how Hamilton managed to prevail:
The Build-up: A Significant Turnaround for Hamilton
The Japanese Grand Prix completed a turbulent six weeks for Vettel, whose fortunes have nosedived ever since he left the Hungaroring with an impressive victory on 30th July. At a circuit where Hamilton was the favourite to prevail (he had won five of his previous 10 Hungarian Grand Prixs), Vettel stormed to pole position and then won comfortably ahead of his teammate Kimi Raikkonen. This opened up a 14-point lead at the top of the Drivers Championship, while the slick Ferraris and Red Bulls were expected to hold the advantage in the upcoming Asian races.
Hamilton reduced the gap with an impressive win in Belgium next time out, however, before carving out a slender three-point lead by beating Vettel into third at Monza. Then the Singapore Grand Prix at the Marina Bay Street Circuit provided a major turning point, as the favourite Vettel crashed out on the first corner (taking teammate Raikkonen with him) after performing an aggressive defensive manoeuvre to ward off the threat of Hamilton.
An uncharacteristic error for sure, but it was also one that showcased the type of pressure that a suddenly in-form Hamilton was applying to the German.
A relentless competitor, Hamilton was never going to let such an opportunity slip by, and he powered to an unexpected win in the stifling heat of Marina Bay. This was just the beginning for Vettel, however, who was besieged by engine problems and a manifold failure that forced him to start the Malaysian Grand Prix from the back of the grid. While he recovered well to claim fourth and some much-needed points, Hamilton settled in for second behind Red Bull’s worthy winner Max Verstappen.
The Japanese Grand Prix: A Decisive Win for Hamilton?
So when the drivers and their teams arrived at the Suzuka circuit, Hamilton boasted a mighty 34-point lead over his Ferrari rival. Still, there was every hope that Vettel could reduce this lead in Japan, particularly if he could leverage the speed advantage of the Ferrari to secure pole position and then make the most of ultra-soft tyres to build an early lead.
It was clear that Vettel would have to earn this opportunity, however, with the combination of a naturally gifted Hamilton and the powerful (and not to mention more reliable) Mercedes having delivered nine of the 15 pole positions prior to the Japanese Grand Prix. The challenge facing the German became even more apparent after Hamilton completed two nearly perfect laps, finishing 0.032 seconds quicker than teammate Valterri Bottas and storming ahead of the field.
Ultimately, Vettel could only finish 0.472 seconds off Hamilton’s pace, leaving Hamilton in pole and ideally-placed to record a potentially season-defining performance.
The good news for Vettel was that he actually started alongside Hamilton on the front row, after Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen were awarded five-place grid penalties for gearbox changes.
When it came to the race, however, Vettel’s change to Hamilton was short-lived. From the start, the German’s Ferrari was struggling with an obvious engine problem, which his team later confirmed was related to faltering spark plugs (rather than being a repeat of the previous manifold failure in Malaysia). This caused the Ferrari to lose power and the German to slip despairingly down the field, before he finally conceded defeat and was forced to drop out just four laps into the race.
This left Max Verstappen as Hamilton’s nearest rival, after the two had battled it out at close quarters during the formers’ previous win in Malaysia. Despite starting fourth on the grid, Verstappen quickly passed teammate Daniel Ricciardo at the first corner before outstripping the flailing Vettel into the Hairpin halfway round the first lap.
Riccardio managed to take a comfortable third in the end, having managed to pass Esteban Ocon after the Force India driver initially overtook him on the first lap.
The Dutchman Verstappen kept the pressure on Hamilton right until the final straight, with the gap between the two rarely any larger than three seconds. The one-stop nature of the race also made it something of a straight shoot-out between the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers, although there was some drama in the closing laps as Hamilton began to complain of vibration from his engine and a lack of grip from his tyres.
It was at this point that Verstappen scented blood and began to close the gap, but Hamilton maintained his composure before ultimately claiming the chequered flag 1.2 seconds ahead of his rival.
What Next for the Drivers Championship?
With Bottas also managing to pip Raikkonen into third, the Japanese Grand Prix was yet another bad day at the office for Ferrari. It was something for worse for Vettel, however, whose season continued to unravel and Hamilton delivered an arguably decisive blow in the race for the world championship.
The English driver now leads Vettel by 59 points with just 100 available remaining in the final four races, while he can clinch the title at the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin next time out if he wins and the German finishes lower than fifth.
Regardless, Hamilton now surely has one had on the Drivers Championship, as he bids to put a frustrating two years behind him and reassert his status as the world’s best driver.