The 2017 Formula One world championship is accelerating towards its conclusion, but the season’s destination appears remarkably more certain after the catastrophic first lap of the Singapore Grand Prix.
After Sebastian Vettel triggered a four-car wipe-out at the first turn, Lewis Hamilton’s charge to victory was unhindered, and he took home a 28-point title lead, the largest of the season to date.
The championship picture is now a far cry from the mouth-watering pre-Asia lay of the land which had Hamilton leading the title by a mere three points but likely to lose that advantage at the Ferrari-friendly Singapore circuit.
With the six remaining tracks not heavily favouring either team, the run to the Abu Dhabi finale was to be a finely balanced arm wrestle for supremacy.
But with a lead worth more than the value of a clear race win, Hamilton’s path to the championship is wide open, while Vettel’s road to recovery is agonisingly narrow.
Consider this sobering permutation: if Hamilton wins the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend and Vettel finishes third or lower, Lewis can cruise home in second place behind Sebastian in the subsequent five grands prix and still claim the title.
But the concern for Vettel now is not simply that he faces a win-at-all-costs scenario; rather, the German’s most likely strategy back into contention relies on things outside his control.
Assuming Vettel will be unable to walk to victory at the remaining six races — it took until the Belgian and Italian grands prix for any driver to score back-to-back wins this season, so evenly matched are the Ferrari and Mercedes cars — the first and most effective points-leveller would be for Hamilton to suffer a DNF of his own.
As one of only two drivers yet to fail to finish a race this season and as the only top-five driver without a retirement, one could cruelly argue the Briton is due for a stoppage between now and 26 November.
However, the Mercedes package, after years of refinement since its dominant 2014 debut, appears almost rock solid in 2017. Only Valtteri Bottas has suffered any serious technical issues, and that was thanks to a defective high-mileage turbocharger at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.
Vettel’s only other hope, therefore, is that his Ferrari teammate, Kimi Räikkönen, can belatedly insert himself into the front-running permutations to take points off Hamilton.
For more or less the entire season Räikkönen has been cast in the rear-gunner role at Ferrari. His brief, contractual or otherwise — Ferrari and Räikkönen exist there is no number-two clause in his deal — is to be competitive enough to secure a Ferrari one-two but not so much to deprive Vettel of a win.
So far this season Räikkönen has failed to answer that call.
With three exceptions — the Monaco Grand Prix, where Räikkönen scored pole; the British Grand Prix, where Vettel executed a poor start; and the Hungarian Grand Prix, where Vettel’s car suffered a steering problem — Kimi has been painfully ineffective at scoring points for the team close to Vettel’s strike rate.
Only twice, in Monaco and in Hungary, has Ferrari scored a one-two, and only once has Räikkönen been able to reach the podium when Vettel has been unable to do so.
Indeed, Räikkönen’s average finishing position when he has taken the chequered flag is fourth, compared to Daniel Ricciardo’s 3.27, Hamilton’s 2.5 and Vettel’s 2.46.
The points table illustrates as much: Räikkönen is fifth, behind Red Bull Racing’s Ricciardo, where he has sat since June’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Compare this to the services rendered by Valtteri Bottas, who has finished on the podium in all but one of the races in which Hamilton has been unable to challenge for victory. The younger Finn has scored 80.61 per cent of Hamilton’s points; Räikkönen languishes with just 58.72 of Vettel’s total.
“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” Bottas said. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.
“For the team it is important to win the drivers championship. I will just focus on trying to get Sebastian, and I am sure the team is behind me as well.”
The goal is feasible for the largely dependable Bottas, who continues to improve throughout the season. Could the same statement of intent genuinely be attributed to Räikkönen? Certainly not.
Räikkönen has been retained at Ferrari despite years of lacklustre performances principally under a policy of choosing a known quantity who will not rock the boat for the benefit of the team’s principal driver. This has motivated his 2018 extension with the Scuderia.
It is ironic, however, that this ingrained conservatism seems destined to cost Ferrari its first drivers championship in a decade.