Champion-elect Hamilton hand downcast Vettel damaging defeat

“Fairly quickly we realised we couldn’t go at his pace today,” Vettel said dejectedly despite finishing second to Lewis Hamilton at the United States Grand Prix.

He didn’t use so many words, but the German knows his championship number’s up.

Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel had but one task in Austin, but as with all things in Texas, it was a big one: outscore Lewis Hamilton.

Ferrari threw everything at this race knowing Vettel’s already slender title hopes were stretched to breaking point. Upgrades were rushed to Austin so quickly there were only enough parts for one car — Vettel’s of course — in an attempt to keep the team’s head above water.

But it was all in vain. Though Vettel executed a perfect start to steal the lead from pole-sitter Hamilton at the first turn, it took Lewis just six laps to reclaim first place and cruise off into the distance.

“There was no real secret other than they were quicker than us,” Vettel said. “I think we have to admit that.”

The four-time world champion trailed the soon-to-be four-time world champion by 59 points before the Texas race; now that gap has grown to 66, putting Hamilton well beyond the magic 50 he needs once F1 leaves North America at the end of the month to claim his crown.

Vettel, in other words, has put himself in a position whereby he needs to outscore Hamilton by 17 points at this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix (29 October; 30 October ICT) just to stay in mathematical contention.

Much to Vettel’s chagrin, Austin was his first clean race in more than five weeks after crashes and mechanical issues marred his previous three grands prix.

Ironically in all three of those races his was the fastest car, but he was unable to capitalise on the advantage through a combination of technical misfortune and driver error.

The culmination of those calamitous three races wasn’t simply the haemorrhaging points; it was that Mercedes identified another problem with its car, fixed it, and once again reclaimed the mantle of fastest team by Austin.

“It’s been an incredible year so far,” Hamilton said, overjoyed, on the podium. “I was not expecting to have the pace we had on Sebastian today.”

It was a timely turnaround for Mercedes, too, with its strong United States showing enough to claim the team its fourth consecutive constructors championship.

Mercedes joins the ranks of Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull Racing as the only team to win four in a row, and its back-to-back titles in 2016 and this season make it the only team in history to win consecutive championship across a major rules change.

“When we set out objectives it was to win both championships and to be the first team to do it through a regulation change like this,” team boss Toto Wolff said. “To achieve it here in Austin with three races to go feels unbelievable.”

Indeed the regulation changes were specifically designed to unseat Mercedes from the position of dominance it established in 2014, making the feat all the more impressive.

“I am so proud of what has been achieved,” Wolff added. “And doing it because every team member has dug deeper to find performance, been even more diligent on reliability, this has come together in the most special way.”

Mercedes acknowledges it’s a situation of one down and one to go, but with both 2017 titles done and dusted, it won’t be long until attention turns fully to the permutation for the 2018 championship season.