Title tide turns against Vettel after disastrous Singapore Grand Prix

The Singapore Grand Prix, the longest race on the calendar, lasted mere seconds for championship hopeful Sebastian Vettel.

A slow getaway from the grid, a swing to the left of the track and, with the unmistakeable sound of carbon fibre crunching against carbon fibre, he fatally damaged his Ferrari.

In vain he limped on for two more corners, but as coolant leaked from his radiators and onto the circuit ahead of his rear wheels, he lost control of his car and wiped it against Singapore’s menacing barriers.

As he sat stunned in his car, spun around and facing the oncoming traffic, Vettel would have seen the silver Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton — before the race the three-point leader of the drivers standings — steam past the stricken Ferrari and into the lead.

The arithmetic would have been easy work for the clever German: his non-score on a weekend Hamilton could claim the maximum 25 points would make for a demoralising 28-point deficit to the Briton with just six rounds remaining.

The accident, deemed a racing incident by the stewards, was nonetheless controversial. Vettel swept left across the circuit in an effort to cover the faster starting Max Verstappen from second on the grid, but unbeknownst to him the Dutchman was already racing Kimi Räikkönen to his left.

Verstappen, caught between the two red cars, made contact with Räikkönen, who in turn was hit by the strafing Vettel. All three, plus innocent bystander Fernando Alonso, who was certain his McLaren-Honda was worthy of a rare podium finish, had their races ended on the spot.

Friendly fire, the most egregious of racing sins, had lost Ferrari a swag of points, and it was all the more bitter a pill to swallow on a circuit Ferrari was, and should have been, king.

Mercedes had qualified just fifth and sixth for the Singapore Grand Prix behind both Ferraris and the resurgent Red Bull Racing team. The Silver Arrows, even in the team’s dominant three seasons between 2014 and 2016, struggled to answer the unique demands of the sweaty streets of Marina Bay.

Ferrari, on the other hand, has excelled in 2017 on slow-speed circuits that require excellent traction and high levels of downforce. In the same way the Italian Grand Prix two weeks earlier had flattered Mercedes’s strengths, Singapore’s 23 corners were made for the Ferrari SF70H.

The complexion of the 2017 championship has changed dramatically. Mercedes, having long been the favourite for the constructors title, has stretched its advantage to 102 points, but Hamilton’s newfound 28-point drivers standings lead has turned what was to be a six-round arm-wrestle into a comfortable, defendable advantage.

For Vettel the permutations are beginning to turn against him. A loss to Hamilton in Malaysia would put Hamilton within touching distance of his third title — finish second in Sepang and Vettel would need to win every race if Hamilton finishes second; finish third and the title is out of his hands, much like it was for Hamilton last season in his battle with Nico Rosberg.

“There is nothing we can do now and for sure it is bitter,” Vettel said. “It’s a pity we couldn’t show our pace today, but we have other races ahead of us and I am sure there will be more opportunities for us.”

None of the next six races will provide either team with an inherent advantage in the way Monza and Singapore did. The onus, therefore, is on Ferrari to find an extra gear late in the season to overcome the defending world champion team just as it seems to be hitting a confident stride.

There is still a route to a Sebastian Vettel championship, but after his disastrous Singapore Grand Prix it has become exponentially more treacherous.