Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari did what they’ve done best all season at the weekend in Mexico: they got on with it. It’s just that business as usual was never going to be enough for the fabled red team.
The Scuderia and its lead driver fought like hell. Falling to last with Hamilton after the two made contact on lap one, Vettel scythed back up the field, leaving Hamilton in his dust, but it was too little too late.
Although Lewis Hamilton said he wanted to win his title “the right way” by standing on the top step of the podium, the Briton cruised home in ninth to put an early end to a championship season that had promised so much.
Today seems worlds away from the euphoria at the Australian Grand Prix, where Vettel bested Hamilton on merit in a promise to end Mercedes’s three seasons of dominance, but while it took Hamilton until September to relieve Vettel of the point lead, he was able to claim the crown just weeks afterwards through an irresistible combination of critical factors.
RENEWED INTRA-TEAM ATMOSPHERE
“People in the team will be able to tell you what the dynamic was, and I can’t say it was great last year,” Hamilton said in Austin, only barely hedging on the toxicity of his relationship with 2016 champion Nico Rosberg.
At no time was the mental strain of that relationship more evident than late last season, when a power unit failure in Malaysia sent Hamilton into a meltdown that temporarily pitted him against the team and the media. By the time he resurfaced, Rosberg had a large enough points lead to ride out the season in second place.
But with Valtteri Bottas installed in the other garage, the intra-team dynamic is noticeably more harmonious. It’s easy to say this is because Hamilton is comfortably beating Bottas in the drivers standings, but even when Valtteri was asserting himself as an equal contender in the first half of this season it was true.
In Bottas Hamilton has a dependable and apolitical teammate, and after three years of internal politicking and subterfuge, his arrival has refreshed Mercedes and Lewis for a battle with another team in a way a Hamilton-Rosberg partnership may not have allowed.
DECODING THE DIVA
The Mercedes W08 was so nearly the team’s downfall, but the team’s work ethic in decoding what Toto Wolff called a “diva” after an inconsistent opening phase of the season has proved its strength.
The nadir was Monte Carlo, where Ferrari cruised to an easy 1-2 qualification and finish while Hamilton finished seventh and Bottas claimed fourth.
“Since Monaco there was light in the factory 24/7, the simulator was 24/7 ten days in a row,” Wolff told the F1 website. “No stone was left unturned: aero, mechanical balance, set-up work, the tyres themselves and the way the drivers drove the car.”
Mercedes dominated the next round in Canada, where Lewis scored pole, set the fastest lap and won the race from teammate Bottas by 19 seconds.
Yes, Montreal was always going to suit Mercedes’s inherent strengths, but never again did the team struggle quite so much. Only the Singapore Grand Prix, the most Monaco-like circuit on the calendar, was still a cause for consternation, but victory in the city-state was meaningful beyond car performance alone.
This development cannot be understated, particularly given the 2017 regulations were penned specifically to dethrone Mercedes.
FERRARI’S ASIAN IMPLOSION
None of this discounts Ferrari’s challenge — indeed the Scuderia has continuously exceeded expectations. To roll out a car during the preseason quick enough to challenge Mercedes was beyond the imaginations of many; to develop that car at a rate enough to stay neck-and-neck with the Silver Arrows is almost completely incongruous with the shambles of the Scuderia’s 2016.
Even when Vettel lost the points lead after the Italian Grand Prix there remained reason for optimism — Ferrari’s sole weakness, speed in high-velocity corners, had been neutralised at the previous race in Belgium, giving it virtually no vulnerabilities for the rest of the season.
What followed, however, is a run of poor form and fortune that beggars belief.
Vettel crashed at turn one of the Singapore Grand Prix despite Hamilton starting from way back in fifth. Hamilton went on to win the race in his stead.
In Malaysia Vettel finished fourth after power unit problems dropped him to the back of the grid, then in Japan a spark plug problem ended his race on lap four.
In all three race Ferrari had a car capable of victory. An easy 50 points, if not the full 75 points, went begging from Vettel’s championship account.
HAMILTON STEPS UP A GEAR
But while his teammate, the team and Ferrari have all played their parts, it’s hard to argue Hamilton hasn’t simply stepped up in 2017.
“I have worked with him for five years and I have never seen him operate at that level,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “The sustainable performance on that level I haven’t seen before.”
More than just five years, this has been Hamilton’s best year in 11 season of Formula One, even amongst his previous three title-winning campaigns.
His 2008 season was coloured by rookie performances. In 2014 he allowed Rosberg too many psychological advantages. By 2015 Mercedes was so dominant and Rosberg so uncompetitive that he had little reason to exert himself.
Last season Hamilton let himself down with a poor season start and mental fragility at key moments, but in 2017 he has had no such problems.
A lesser driver could easily have become lost in Mercedes’s technical troubles, but Hamilton’s worst result remains P7 in Monaco borne of his lowly qualifying position, which was partly down to reasons beyond his control.
Contrast this with Vettel, whose massive points gap is as much down to some key mental lapses at crunch moments in Azerbaijan and Singapore as it is unreliability and it’s easy to see how the cool, calm and collected Hamilton made himself an irresistible four-time world champion in what should have been one F1’s most hotly contested seasons.