September and October 2017 will be marked in history as some of Ferrari’s darkest sporting days.
The Italian team ended August optimistically. It couldn’t claim pole at the Belgian Grand Prix, but the Scuderia’s race pace was such that Vettel shadowed the Lewis Hamilton for the entire race, lacking only the final tenth of performance to execute a pass.
Ferrari went home happy knowing not only that its car was the fastest of the race but also that its most significant weakness — performance in high-speed corners — had been largely ameliorated.
On 27 August Vettel held a seven-point advantage over Hamilton in the drivers standings and Mercedes a 44 point lead on the constructors table.
But as summer turned to autumn so too did Ferrari’s red-hot title challenge begin to turn cold and lifeless.
The Italian Grand Prix was an embarrassing loss even if it was down to more factors than Ferrari’s power deficit alone. Though Vettel finished third and Kimi Räikkönen fifth, Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finished an offensively easy one-two.
No matter — Ferrari knew it would be strong in Singapore, and so proved to be the case. That is, of course, until a first-lap crash wiped out four cars, including both Ferraris, and opened the door to a classic Hamilton wet-weather win with Bottas third on the podium.
The Singapore loss was costly, but Ferrari knew it had Mercedes on the ropes. Hamilton’s win in Singapore was skilled but fortunate — Mercedes was struggling badly with its capricious W08 car.
The Malaysian Grand Prix was Ferrari’s opportunity to make it pay for its finicky machine, and practice suggested that indeed Mercedes would be powerless to prevent punishment.
But power unit troubles in qualifying struck down Vettel’s car before he could set so much as a single lap. He was retired to his garage, resigning him to last on the grid.
His recovery drive was strong, and Max Verstappen beat Hamilton to victory, lessening the third successive body blow to Ferrari and Vettel’s campaign — but Räikkönen failed to start, his car plagued by the issues that afflicted Vettel’s car 24 hours earlier.
The Japanese Grand Prix it would have to be, then, but by now, in early October, Mercedes had worked through its car troubles. Hamilton shattered the track record to steal pole, and his clean getaway from the line ensured his win — though a spark plug problem prevented Vettel from mounting a challenge, forcing him into retirement just four laps into the race.
Today is 10 October and Lewis Hamilton leads Sebastian Vettel by 59 points; Mercedes leads Ferrari by 145 points.
It’s game over.
“Of course it hurts and we’re all disappointed, but now I think we just have to get back, get some rest and go flat out for the last four races and see what happens,” Vettel told TV reporters.
He added, too — perhaps hearing the rumours that team principal Maurizio Arrivabene is being pushed out or perhaps simply because he knows Ferrari’s blood-letting culture — that he wouldn’t be playing the blame game.
“I think I need to protect them,” he said of his team. “We’ve done an incredible job so far. Obviously bitter the last two races with the reliability issues, but it’s like that sometimes.”
It’s a noble position to take, but let’s not underplay Vettel’s part in his season’s demise — he owns this failure perhaps more than any other member of the team does.
Vettel’s overzealous pole defence in Singapore while Hamilton started from fifth lost him 25 points and the team a likely 43 points — indeed had Ferrari finished one-two ahead of Mercedes three-four, the championship tables would swing 35 points towards Vettel 56 points towards Ferrari.
Another 13 points went begging in Azerbaijan, too, when Vettel mindlessly sideswiped Hamilton behind the safety car. He was second at the time, and shortly afterwards Hamilton was forced to make a pit stop to reaffix his headrest.
The less said about Vettel’s clumsy cool-down lap shenanigans in Malaysia, where he risked sporting and mechanical penalty, the better.
Yes, we are deep in hypothetical territory, but in this analysis there is only one rule: mechanical failure is an unpredictable and generally blameless fact of racing; driver error is not.
A driver must maximise points in every grand prix because mechanical problems can strike at any time — Hamilton learnt this last season, when his title challenge was undone not because of a Malaysian engine failure but because he failed to fire in the first four rounds and crashed into Nico Rosberg in the fifth.
The same is now true for Sebastian Vettel. Instead of an insurmountable 59-point gap Vettel would be down by just 11 points were it not for problems of his own making.
If Lewis Hamilton can’t gain 16 points on Vettel in the United States, he will do so by the Mexican Grand Prix on the last Sunday of the month to take the title. Mercedes need only ensure Ferrari doesn’t outscore it by 16 points to claims its fourth successive championship.
At least by then this sorry two-month chapter in Ferrari’s history will be closed.