It was hard to know whether the tropical humidity or the despair of conceding vital ground in the championship fight embraced Sebastian Vettel tighter as he clambered from his third-placed Ferrari at the end of the Singapore Grand Prix, but as he watched Lewis Hamilton celebrate his fourth win in five races, both must have been suffocating the would-be champion contender.
The picture post-Singapore is grim, there’s no two ways about it. Whereas Vettel had it all to do ahead of the Marina Bay street race, trailing Hamilton by 30 points, by the end of the steamy Singapore evening his deficit had grown to 40 points, his task transforming from unlikely to farfetched.
Indeed Vettel needs to win all of the six remaining races to guarantee his championship fate remains solely in his hands; Hamilton can win just one more race and trail the German home in second place to seal the deal.
But the weight bestowed on the championship equation by the Singapore Grand Prix belies the staid nature of the race itself and only hints at the dramatic reversal of fortunes from Friday to Sunday that delivered Lewis Hamilton to a position of increased strength in the standings.
Ferrari, after all, was the pre-grand prix favourite to win in Singapore. The Italian SF71H is well suited to street circuits, whereas Mercedes has endured a patchier run of from at Marina Bay than its three wins from the previous four races suggested. Vettel, too, brought his four Singapore victories to the table, the most of any driver at the time.
With the opening three practice sessions bearing out the theory, how did the Scuderia manage to leave Singapore in such a weakened position?
Ferrari played a part in its own demise, particularly in its qualifying execution. Given the difficulty in overtaking around street circuits, the team’s relatively minor operational errors proved extremely costly.
First Ferrari attempted to have both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen use the ultrasoft tyre to progress through Q2 and into the top-10 shootout — but, as should have been evident from Mercedes’s attempt to do the same in the previous qualifying segment, the compound was too slow to do so safely.
Not only did it rob Vettel and Raikkonen of one run worth of valuable time with the delicate hypersoft compound — it’s the first time the softest Pirelli tyre has appeared in Singapore — but they were forced to use the pink-striped hypersoft anyway in an all-or-nothing lap at the end of the segment to ensure their progression to Q3.
Worse was that Vettel’s last-gasp lap was traffic-affected, disrupting his qualifying rhythm further.
Given the team’s near miss and in light of the fine margins that have separated Ferrari and Mercedes this season, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Hamilton rolled out of his garage in Q3 and blitzed the entire field.
The Briton put 0.6 seconds between himself and Vettel — enough for Max Verstappen to slot between term for second on the grid — and in doing so put himself halfway towards claiming the race.
Ferrari’s race recovery options were limited. Vettel managed to pass Verstappen on the first lap, but an aggressive undercut attempt on Hamilton’s lead backfired and handed the place back to the Dutchman, and with a compromised one-stop strategy to boot that left him almost 40 seconds down at the chequered flag.
But Ferrari’s role in undermining its own weekend is only part of the story, because while the Scuderia and Vettel and their litany of howlers with the sport’s fastest car has made them easy targets for criticism, to do blame the team’s loss in Singapore on mistakes alone does an enormous disservice to the work of Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton has been a solid and consistent performer this season, but it’s fair to say that some of his headline results have been facilitated by the errors of others.
In Singapore that certainly wasn’t the case. While Ferrari may have failed to convert its potential into results, Hamilton did more than just pick up the pieces — he used all the tools at his disposal to exert maximum pressure on actively twist the knife into his rival’s floundering title campaign.
Lewis Hamilton won the Singapore Grand Prix more than Ferrari lost it. His qualifying lap was breathtaking — he described it as one of the best of his career, and even his engineers could scarcely believe the margin — he nailed his execution of his launch and the safety car restart, and he managed his tyres superbly, particularly given teammate Valtteri Bottas ran into trouble on the soft compound at the end of the race.
It was a Hamilton masterclass, and the point isn’t so much that Vettel had no answer than it is he was never given the opportunity to provide one.
“The way we raced, we didn’t have a chance,” Vettel lamented, and that is the crux of it: Hamilton was simply better, and with the wind in his sails and a stable car beneath him, there’s little reason to think that Vettel, with a better car or not, can overcome him as he finally hits his stride.
The Singapore Grand Prix was no thriller, but it marked the beginning of the end of the 2018 championship. Hamilton has the title in his grasp. Good luck prizing it from his possession.