Is Vettel’s title challenge over?

Ferrari needs the prayers of every member of the global tifosi fan club, plus perhaps some divine intervention to win this title now.

After another disappointing race at Suzuka, Sebastian Vettel trails title rival Lewis Hamilton by 67 points.   -  Getty Images

The Japanese Grand Prix seemed like the final nail in the coffin for the Sebastian Vettel-Ferrari title challenge for 2018. This was a weekend where they needed Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton to make mistakes or suffer from reliability issues. But once again it was the red squad that cracked. With a 67-point lead and only four races to go, the question is when rather than if Lewis will clinch his fifth World Championship.

I’ve been hugely impressed with how Mercedes has dealt with this season from Silverstone onwards. After its home race, the Brackley-based squad was on the back foot. Vettel had beaten them a few miles from home and, more ominously, the Ferrari looked like the quicker car. Mercedes had also made big strategic mistakes in Australia and Austria as well as smaller ones in Bahrain, China and Russia, and at all those races I believe that I was right to criticise them.

But the team has rallied and as the season has gone on, they’ve dug deep, made sure they are operationally more slick than their Italian rivals. And, as the pressure ramped up on Vettel and Ferrari to deliver a result for the tifosi, the silver camp just kept their heads down, stuck to their core engineering values and just brought a fast car with sensible tyre choices and racked up the points.

Sebastian Vettel drove well in the early laps at Suzuka to get up the order, but I find it odd that he tried to blame Max Verstappen for the contact at Spoon Curve after lunging down the inside.   -  AFP

 

There’s no doubt in my mind that something has changed on the Ferrari car since Monza. On average, the two teams were absolutely joined at the hip. Only 0.006 per cent separated the two teams across the season on Saturday night in Monza. If we look at just the past three races, that gap has become 1.084 per cent to Mercedes’ advantage. Now, you may ask the question that perhaps Mercedes have taken a step forward rather than Ferrari going back, but if you compare the Anglo-German team’s performances with every other team in the paddock, it’s only changed by a small margin, whereas the pack has clearly closed in on Ferrari.

There have been plenty of rumours around the paddock that whatever advantage Ferrari had in terms of electrical energy deployment before Monza has now gone away, and that initial punch in acceleration that proved to be very advantageous for the first 10 races is no longer there. Both the FIA and Ferrari are staying tight-lipped on the subject, which is entirely predictable. However, as the saying goes, the stopwatch never lies and it’s glaringly obvious from the numbers that they’re no longer a threat on pure pace to the Mercedes.

To compound the lack of pace, Ferrari then made the bizarre decision of sending both of their cars out on the intermediate tyres for the final part of qualifying in Japan. It was a slightly tricky decision to make, but I was standing in the pit lane and looking up at the sky, and it was pretty clear to me and all the other teams in Q3 that there would be a very small window of dry running in Q3, so they needed to get out straight away and get a time on the board.

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Sebastian drove well in the early laps to get up the order, but I do find it slightly odd — and predictable — that he tried to blame Max Verstappen for the contact at Spoon Curve after lunging down the inside of the Red Bull. Yes, Max had a de-rate on the climb up to Spoon, but still, the braking distance into the corner wasn’t really long enough and we all know that in terms of entry speed into a fifth-gear high-speed corner, the Red Bull is probably not going to be beaten by any other car. That to me seemed like an impatient and frustrated lunge by someone who could see his World Championship hopes disappearing up the road in the lead of the race.

On the whole, Suzuka was a great reminder of what race tracks should be. Fast, flowing, undulating and, most importantly, unforgiving. We even saw a driver of Fernando Alonso’s calibre getting caught out on the entry to Degner 1 in Free Practice — that certainly doesn’t happen in Sochi. For many years, drivers have been going on and on about how much we need to have natural penalties (grass, gravel or high kerbs even) rather than the flat double kerbs and acres of tarmac that are increasingly being used.

For a variety of safety reasons as well as the balancing act of creating circuits to also cater for motorbike racing, the FIA has gone down the path of asphalt run-offs and flatter kerbs, so it was fantastic to come to Suzuka and see drivers really having to creep up to the limit for a change, rather than the modern practice of going over the limit through a run-off area and then bringing it back a notch.

Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas, with the Red Bull of Max Verstappen completing a seventh podium finish of the year right behind the Mercedes duo.   -  AFP

 

The other big story of the weekend was the qualifying performance of the Toro Rosso duo, who started sixth and seventh at Honda’s home track. I was really pleased for my former Le Mans teammate Brendon Hartley, who has had a tough season and just needs a few solid clean performances to get his confidence up. Toro Rosso were outfoxed strategically in the race by Force India, who I believe along with Red Bull are the two best teams when it comes to strategic decisions. Fundamentally, the Toro Rosso isn’t as fast a car as the Force India, but it was particularly good news for Red Bull looking to 2019 to see that the Honda engine upgrade has worked well this weekend.

We’re heading across the planet to Austin next. It’s a track where Hamilton has been brilliant in the past. Ferrari need the prayers of every member of the global tifosi fan club, plus perhaps some divine intervention to win this title now. But more than anything, they need to solve the mystery of just how and why their competitiveness has unravelled.