Fearless Vettel prepares for final title assault

If Sebastian Vettel still dreams of securing the 2018 Formula One championship, his fightback against runaway title leader Lewis Hamilton must start at this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix.

Only victory will do for Vettel, who trails his rival by a season-high 40 points heading into the Sochi race on 30 September — but if only it were so simple for the Ferrari driver.

Vettel’s last victory at August’s Belgian Grand Prix feels like a lifetime ago. At the historic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, for so long dominated by Mercedes, the German landed a stirring blow against Hamilton’s title campaign with an untouchable charge to the flag.

But that memorable weekend has been followed by only forgettable results for the famous Italian team and its star driver.

Costly losses to Hamilton in Italy and Singapore have dramatically swung the momentum and the points standings in the Briton’s favour, leaving that happy memory in Belgium looking less like the beginning of a fightback and more like a flash in the pan — it remains, after all, one of only two wins for the reds since June’s Canadian Grand Prix.

The climb back into title contention is now as simple as it is strenuous: Vettel has to win, and he has to win a lot.

Only victory at all six remaining races can deliver him his fifth championship, but letting slip even one grand prix to his rival would allow the Briton to cruise home in second place for the rest of the season and maintain a points buffer.

“I think it’s pretty straightforward,” Vettel said, reflecting on his lot. “If we win every race from now, we are safe, so that is what we need to aim for.”

There have been few comparable comebacks in the history of the sport, though Vettel can claim one of them — in 2012 he recovered from a 39-point deficit with seven rounds remaining to overcome Fernando Alonso by three points.

The Spaniard, however, was in a markedly inferior car, and he was forced into retirement at the Japanese Grand Prix after he was crashed into on the first lap, costing him 25 points to race-winner Vettel.

In 2007 Kimi Raikkonen recovered from a points deficit worth two race wins to claim his sole championship, but the Finn was aided by his two rivals, teammates Hamilton and Alonso, taking points of each other in an acrimonious McLaren civil war.

But in 2018 the battle for Vettel is harder still. His Ferrari car is only marginally faster than the Mercedes machine and he’s in a straight fight against an indominable Lewis Hamilton, who’s racing in perhaps the best form of his life.

Worse is that his fight must start in Russia, where Mercedes has claimed victory at every race since Sochi’s addition to the calendar in 2014.

But faced with no choice but to win — or to pray for a technical failure on Hamilton’s car — Vettel is remaining steely-eyed ahead of the potentially make-or-break test of his title mettle.

“Russia, I think, has been getting better the last years for us, so it should suit our car as well,” he said. “I don’t think we have any tracks to fear that are coming. I think our car is working pretty much everywhere.

“No need to be afraid of what’s coming.”

But with Hamilton and Mercedes in perfect harmony at their powerful best, fear will be the least of Vettel’s problems in Russia as he seeks to kickstart the most unlikely of championship comebacks.