Hamilton has the chance to beat his German rival to a rare fifth world championship in Austin, the fourth-last round of the season, after Vettel’s championship campaign spectacularly unravelled after the midseason break.
Vettel has been criticised for a litany of race-day mistakes this season, and though his most costly came when he crashed out from the lead of the German Grand Prix before the summer shutdown, unforced errors in Italy and Japan have also been key to his inability to recover lost ground.
But Hamilton, who has won six of the last seven races, said in a social media post during the week that it was unfair for Vettel to be judged so harshly.
“I feel the media need to show a little more respect for Sebastian,” he said. “You simply cannot imagine how hard it is to do what we do at our level.
“It is to be expected that, being humans, we will make mistakes, but it is how we get through them that counts.”
Hamilton’s moment of magnanimity might also be referencing the fact that he and his Mercedes team have had to recover from fielding the second-quickest car for much of the season to run away with the title lead.
Mercedes has struck a purple patch since losing August’s Belgian Grand Prix and has gone on to dominate subsequent weekends in a fashion reminiscent of their unbeatable 2014–16 seasons, with Hamilton winning all four races since Belgium to bring the drivers championship within his grasp.
The Briton must outscore Vettel by at least eight points at the Circuit of the Americas to become just the third man in Formula One history to win five championships. In other words, victory for Hamilton with Vettel in third or lower would be enough to clinch it.
Vettel’s average finishing position in the second half of this season to date it third place, and Hamilton was won all but one United States Grand Prix in his entire career.
“I’ll take it one step at a time,” Hamilton said after the previous race in Japan. “But I think we have gone from strength to strength this year as a team.
“Austin is usually a good track for us, so I can’t wait to unleash this beast there.”
But while the final four races are shaping up as glorified victory laps for Hamilton — and his Mercedes team too, which can claim the constructors championship from the following race in Mexico — for Ferrari this will be a time of serious soul searching.
“Obviously the last weeks have been tough for us,” Vettel lamented. “Overall, though, I think we could be in a better place. We’re not.
“We know that we still have a lot of potential to unleash, and we need to work and dig a little bit deeper and so on, but for now obviously we want to prove that the last races are not what we can deliver.”
But tension behind the scenes ratcheting up significantly — team principal Maurizio Arrivabene’s public blow-up over a qualifying tyre error in Japan was a telling break from the way he’s dealt with mistakes so far this season — and delivering under the pall of another missed title chance will become a serious challenge for Ferrari.
To paraphrase his soon-to-be-vanquisher, how Vettel and Ferrari deal with the difficulties of another imminent championship loss will be a crucial deciding factor in whether they can rise again for another fight in 2019.
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