The Japanese Grand Prix started at 2:03pm, but by 2:04pm Sebastian Vettel knew he’d lost the championship.
His poor getaway was no disaster, but as the field raced to the first turn the German could feel the engine problems he identified on the parade lap were still plaguing the car.
Hamilton was pulling away and Vettel couldn’t keep up. Max Verstappen jumped him for second place hallway around the track, and at the end of the lap Vettel was mugged by three cars on the straight. When a fourth got him one lap later Ferrari put the German out of his misery; the call came in to retire the car.
Vettel’s race was over and, with Hamilton streaming into the distance virtually unopposed, so too was his 2017 championship campaign.
The problem was as painful as it was simple: the engine required a spark plug change, but such is the complexity of the modern F1 power unit this relatively simple task could not be conducted in the few minutes mechanics have to work on the car while it rests on the grid.
It was the latest incident in a damaging unreliability trend for the Italian team.
Turbocharger problems troubled Ferrari early in the season and handling issues that had the car pulling to one side in a straight line afflicted Vettel’s Hungarian and Italian grands prix.
In Singapore both Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen were eliminated on the first lap — though this was down to driver error on Vettel’s part — and in Malaysia three power unit problems struck down the team on what should have been a weekend of heavy point-scoring.
Japan was perhaps Ferrari’s last chance to push Vettel’s title hopes, but when the engine cover came off the car just minutes before the start of the race the result seemed inevitable.
Out of the car, Vettel rushed to the defence of his team.
“I think I need to protect them,” he told TV crews after the race. “We’ve done an incredible job so far.
“Obviously bitter the last two races with the reliability issues, but it’s like that sometimes.
“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.”
But the championship permutations are out of Vettel and Ferrari’s hands at this late stage of the season.
At the end of the Japanese Grand Prix Hamilton and Mercedes lead Vettel and Ferrari by 59 and 145 points on their respective title tables. If Hamilton outscores Vettel by 16 points at the next race in the United States — if Hamilton wins and Vettel finishes sixth or lower — the Briton will claim his fourth world championship. Mercedes will win the constructors championship if it prevents Ferrari from outscoring it by more than 16 points.
“Geez,” Hamilton exclaimed after the race when told of his commanding lead. “I could only have dreamt of having this kind of gap.”
In the face of unrecoverable odds, Vettel put on a brave face, perhaps for himself as much as for the cameras.
“We still have a chance this year,” he said. “But overall I think the team is on a good way. I think we’ve got a lot further than people have thought, so there’s also some positives — but for sure now you don’t look at the positives because it’s not the day to look at positives.”
Ferrari may have come further than many thought was possible in 2017, but they can come no further than this.