Hamilton’s charge towards an insurmountable 64-point lead over Sebastian Vettel belied the closely contested nature of the year, with momentum swinging unpredictably between Ferrari and Mercedes.
Ferrari held a small but decisive pace advantage for much of the first half of the season, but a string of botched car upgrades between August and October put the team into a dramatic tailspin.
Between the Belgian and Japanese grands prix it fell from just 15 points off Mercedes’s lead to a whopping 78 points, putting the German marque within touching distance of a fifth successive world title.
However, a complete aerodynamic rollback at the United States Grand Prix resuscitated the ailing Ferrari car, so much so that that Kimi Raikkonen was able to win his first race in more than five years. Vettel’s campaign was unsalvageable, but the Scuderia had given itself a shot at redemption.
The gap shrunk to 66 points in the USA, and another strong performance in Mexico, where Ferrari held a sizable advantage over Mercedes despite being bested by Red Bull Racing, reduced the difference to 55 points.
Mercedes remains in the box seat – a team can score a maximum of 43 points per weekend, meaning Ferrari must outscore Mercedes by at least 13 points in Brazil to take the title to the final round in Abu Dhabi – but with the balance of performance shifting significantly away from the Silver Arrows in the past two races, the Italian team will approach the final month of the season with an all-to-play-for attitude.
“That’s what my team deserves and that’s what all the guys at home in Maranello deserve,” Vettel said after finishing a strong second in Mexico.
“We have the possibility to show once again what we can do. Obviously we race for the team, and as long we keep on catching, that’s good.”
Ferrari is infamously quick to swing the axe in response to underperformance, but a positive end to the season could be enough to keep it on course to build on its largely successful 2018 car.
“I think we shouldn’t neglect the fact that we had a very strong package, we were able to win races,” Vettel said. “I think still it’s been a good year for us as a team.”
Aiding Ferrari’s quest is that Mercedes has endured two difficult races in Austin and Mexico City, where severe tyre wear cruelled both weekends for Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas.
So bad were the team’s problems in Mexico that Hamilton finished almost 80 seconds off the pace and Bottas was a lap down on race winner Max Verstappen.
“I have no explanation,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff conceded in Mexico. “I don’t think we’ve had one single lap where we actually switch the tyres on.”
But Mercedes won’t go down without a fight, and paired with a motivated Lewis Hamilton, whose focus has shifted to cementing his place in the sport’s record books as an all-time great, the Silver Arrows will remain a force to be reckoned with in Brazil.
“I still have work to do,” Hamilton said after claiming the drivers title in Mexico. “I’ve still got to get back to the factory and rally the troops … to figure out how we can come back and win these next races.
“We still have the constructors championship to win, which I know will mean even more to all the guys back at the factory.”
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