Championship enters final phase in Singapore

The 2018 Formula One season is entering its final act, and Sebastian Vettel is running out of time to decisively strike back against championship leader Lewis Hamilton.

Memories of the warm and unpredictable European summer are already cooling as the sport prepares for its seven-stop leg of long-haul races that will decide the championship, starting with this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix on 16 September.

But in the sweltering conditions of the tight and twisty confines of Marina Bay street circuit, the strain of which is tempered only slightly by the race’s spectacular night-time setting, memories of a different kind will return to haunt the sport’s protagonists.

Mercedes will look to Singapore with a degree of trepidation given its string of substandard form on the Marina Bay streets in recent years.

The Silver Arrows infamously fumbled at the night race in its otherwise dominant 2015 season, qualifying fifth and sixth and ending the race with just one car in fourth position, and last year the outlook was much the same.

Mercedes against started the race from fifth and sixth, having been comprehensively outqualified by Ferrari and the street-specialist Red Bull Racing, and it was only a sprinkling of rain and Ferrari’s lap-one friendly-fire that paved the way for Hamilton record an unlikely but ultimately decisive victory.

The spectre of that crash will hang heavy over Sebastian Vettel this year. Last year he arrived in Singapore trailing Hamilton by just three points, but an overzealous defence of his lead on the first lap ended in disaster and left him with a 28-point deficit to the Briton he failed to close by season’s end.

This year he not only enters with a 30-point shortfall already well established, but he also carries the baggage of having thrown away a sure-fire one-two finish for Ferrari at the team’s home Italian Grand Prix through driver error.

The German was pilloried by the Italian media in the aftermath given his growing history of dropping points through silly mistakes, and only a strong performance in Singapore, where Ferrari is expected to hold an advantage, will suffice in reply.

But things aren’t all calm inside Ferrari despite the team fielding the fastest car, if only by a small margin — rumour has been rife for the better part of the last two weeks that management is preparing to replace Kimi Raikkonen with development driver and Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc.

Leclerc has been impressive in his debut season with the Swiss team, so much so that former Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne was reportedly considering switching him into Raikkonen’s seat after the midseason break — but when Marchionne had his life cut short in July after complications arising from surgery, the plan was shelved.

The desire to honour Marchionne’s decision has apparently reinvigorated the team’s desire to take on Leclerc, however, albeit in 2019, but Ferrari has thus far refused to commit to any course of action despite the Scuderia normally making its driver line-ups public at its home race at Monza.

Confirmation of Leclerc’s move, still thought to be imminent, would be one of the final pieces of the complex driver market puzzle to fall into place after McLaren confirmed it would be replacing sophomore driver Stoffel Vandoorne with its British Formula Two protégé Lando Norris.

Vandoorne could slot into Leclerc’s vacated seat at Sauber, where the Belgian is rated highly by team principal Frederic Vasseur, or he could find refuge at Toro Rosso, where Pierre Gasly’s promotion to Red Bull Racing next season is yet to be covered.

With seven races remaining, on-track action to decide the 2018 championship will be matched by off-track freneticism to decide the 2019 driver line-up.