In the past, maybe even this season, if you read that Sebastian Vettel’s race was undone by an incident with the famously tempestuous Max Verstappen, you’d assume that the latter and not the former would be to blame. However, especially during the second half of this season, Vettel has looked far from the poise that won him four titles and propelled him in to a promising lead early on in the 2018 season. But as Vettel entered the Japanese grand prix, qualifying ninth after another poor tactical choice by Ferrari, and facing a fifty point gap between himself and Hamilton, it would be another moment of self sabotage which would again undo his chances of challenging Hamilton for the race win in Suzuka.
“Even though it unfolded over the space of a few seconds, the Verstappen incident at Suzuka speaks volumes of Vettel’s derailed title challenge.”
Vettel went for the gap up the inside of Verstappen’s marauding Red Bull on Suzuka’s Spoon corner, a part of the track where overtakes are typically completed on the outside. And of course, as the overtaking window closed as Verstappen took the corner, Vettel had nowhere to go but into the side of the young Dutchman’s car. It could’ve been terminal; maybe that would’ve been better. Vettel’s provisional 12 points (he was fourth at the time) disappeared, and so did his chances of usurping the rampant Hamilton. Hamilton took his sixth win in seven races, and his fourth in a row. The last time he failed to win was at Spa-Francorchamps; he came second. As for Vettel, his eventual sixth-place finish at Suzuka is his fourth race without a win and also the fourth race in a row he has failed to finish in the top two. He’s now 67 points behind Hamilton with just four races left.
Even though it unfolded over the space of a few seconds, the Verstappen incident at Suzuka speaks volumes of Vettel’s derailed title challenge. Vettel’s car was far quicker and Verstappen had a five-second time penalty to take during his next pit stop. Either way, Vettel would get the overtake done whether by his design or other means. But instead, he bet the race and the title on a high-risk overtake just a few laps after Verstappen had crashed into his teammate after going wide on the penultimate corner.
But this isn’t the first time Vettel has undone himself over the course of this season. At Monza, Vettel lost more ground to Hamilton after the pair tangled on the opening lap. Vettel left Hamilton too much space and paid heavily for it. There was the aggressive attempt at an overtake on Valtteri Bottas at Baku, which sent Vettel from a potential win to a fourth-place finish. And most notable of them all was Vettel’s only retirement of the season, as he hit the wall in the wet of his home race. Vettel sat in first at the time of his crash and this disastrous chapter in his season was further compounded by Hamilton’s victory, rising from 14th on the grid to the top step on the podium. It was a pivotal moment in the season that would turn Vettel’s eight-point lead into a seventeen-point lead in Hamilton’s favour.
“Sculpting an environment that allows Hamilton to thrive is arguably just as important as his supreme exploits on the track.”
Hamilton has been exemplary in his approach this season. Considering the competition, which has seen Ferrari trump Mercedes in terms of car performance several times, it could arguably be Hamilton’s best in formula one so far. He currently sits on nine wins and if he was to win all four of the remaining races, he would equal Michael Schumacher’s record of thirteen wins over the course of the season. Wins are the most obvious watermark of a successful season, but for Hamilton it has been consistency that has best demonstrated his worth. Out of the opening seventeen races, Hamilton has only failed to finish on the podium three times – fourth in China, fifth in Canada, and a DNF in Austria. Hamilton’s ability to steal big points at tracks Mercedes tend to struggle at, most notably with surprise wins at Monza and Singapore, have also highlighted how Hamilton’s competitive edge has sharpened across the course of 2018.
But with the dominance of Mercedes in the hybrid era, a performance plateau was inevitable. Red Bull and Ferrari have improved their performance, with Ferrari offering an authentic challenge in the first half of the season. But like the age-old football cliche the mark of a good team is its ability to get results when they’re not at the their best. And the emphasis of that statement falls squarely on the word team. Although Hamilton has been by far the better driver, we are still faced with a battle between two four-time formula one champions driving the sport’s two superior cars. The difference between Mercedes and Ferrari is the experience, or lack of experience, of those in charge. Ferrari is run by Maurizio Arrivabene, who became team principal in 2014 after working in cigarette marketing for Philip Morris since 1997. Mercedes is run by Toto Wolff, who has worked with Hamilton since 2013 and has worked in formula one since 2009. Wolff was also a racing driver, winning the 24 hours Nurburgring in 1994.
Wolff’s sustained success and background in motor racing is in stark contrast to the inexperience of Arrivabene, but both find themselves managing two highly decorated drivers. Wolff is better positioned to get the best out of Hamilton, helping him to become mentally stronger and react more positively to changes in fortune. Sculpting an environment that allows Hamilton to thrive is arguably just as important as his supreme exploits on the track. As for Ferrari, it’s hard to imagine that Arrivabene, who is still relatively new to the world of motor racing, being able to support Vettel and his experienced teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the same way.