Despite being the feel-good story of the championship almost to date, Ferrari seems destined to leave Asia thinking only one thing: how did it all go wrong?
A Formula One title campaign can unravel so quickly. In 2014 Nico Rosberg’s realistic championship hopes fizzled out in Singapore, where an electrics problem turned his points lead into a deficit from which he never recovered.
At the 2015 Italian Grand Prix Rosberg lost touch with the title when his power unit expired three laps from the chequered flag, growing his 28-point gap to an almost unsurmountable 53 points on the eve of the Singapore Grand Prix.
Last season it was Hamilton’s turn to feel the burn, suffering a catastrophic power unit failure in Malaysia that gifted Rosberg a 23-point advantage, which he compounded by putting in a psychologically broken performance in Japan that would ultimately seal his defeat that season.
Italy, Singapore, Japan and, as of last season, Malaysia — this is, needless to illustrate further, a critical juncture in the season. Too bad for Ferrari that it has also been its worst.
Just four rounds ago at the Belgian Grand Prix the title fight seemed set to be a purler. Hamilton seized an important victory, but that Vettel was able to shadow him for the entirety of the race on a circuit that should not have suited Ferrari spoke volumes about the improvements made to his car.
Since then, however, Mercedes has only once failed to reach the podium — Valtteri Bottas’s fifth-place finish in Sepang last weekend — while Ferrari has recorded only one podium finish.
Ironically that podium was Vettel’s third place at Monza. In performance terms that race was a blip — a perfect storm that prevented Ferrari from showing its true pace, second-best though it still would have been — but it will be recorded in the yearbook as the beginning of a costly decline.
Could there be a more self-destructive racing act than Vettel’s overzealous defence of his lead in Singapore at the following round?
Ferrari was expected to win — perhaps with a one-two, at a minimum with both cars on the podium — given Singapore, a street circuit, is Scuderia territory. To come away not only with a double DNF but also having opened the door to Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finishing first and third was painful.
Ferrari was on another planet in Sepang, but a turbo problem in qualifying meant Vettel started last and the same problem meant Kimi Räikkönen, second on the grid, was withdrawn from the race, leaving Sebastian as the lone points-scorer after a superlative recovery drive.
Two dropped rounds, even with one DNF, is survivable. Hamilton, after all, struggled in Monaco and, to a lesser extent, Russia and Hungary. The problem for Ferrari is not one of inconsistency but rather of not landing its punches when its opponents are on the ropes.
Mercedes has bided its time with its temperament car during difficult races, but at circuits suited to the W08 — Canada, Austria, Italy, Silverstone — it dominated.
Ferrari has done perhaps an even better job of keeping steady during lean times — even at its home-race-thrashing it salvaged third, hardly a disaster — but when it comes time to land the killer blow, only at Monaco did it do so convincingly.
Singapore and Malaysia should have been an 86-point fortnight for Ferrari and a 50-point haul for Vettel; instead both scored just 12 points across the two grands prix. Mercedes, on the other hand, scored 68 points, 43 of which were earnt by Hamilton to deliver him his current 34-point title lead.
It isn’t simply a matter of failing to score on an open goal; it is scoring own goals with alarming frequency. This is what will decide the championship.
The Japanese Grand Prix, therefore, will be a key test for Vettel’s just-breathing championship hopes. Ferrari teased in Belgium that its car has been greatly improved in the sort of high-speed turns featured at both the Silverstone Circuit, where the car flailed earlier in the year, and the Suzuka Circuit, this weekend’s venue. Vettel’s pace in Malaysia should similarly stand the team in good stead this weekend.
To outscore Hamilton by six points will keep his fate in his own hands; to fail at this task will be to leave the results to misfortune or underperformance on Hamilton’s part.
Can Vettel and his Italian team, ironically amid a purple patch of form despite the results, finally take advantage of Mercedes’s ongoing wobbles to mount a credible comeback? Or will F1’s Asian season prove the knockout blow of a valiant but ultimately clumsy title tilt?