This wasn’t the podium ceremony he’d expected ahead of the 2018 Singapore Grand Prix – in fact most of the Formula One paddock had long assumed the German would have been spraying the bubbly stuff from the top step come last Sunday night (Sept 16). Instead Vettel was a lowly third, and the man taking his spot at the highest point on the rostrum was title rival Lewis Hamilton.
Now, as the Ferrari driver was forced to half-heartedly shake the bottle for the throng of fans below him, perhaps he was considering exactly how his tilt to become a five-time world champion had come to a screeching, sudden halt.
Deep down he knew the answer.
“I think the biggest enemy is me, and I think we have a great car,” Vettel said before the race, talking about the string of driver errors that had left him 30 points off Hamilton with seven races remaining. “We will be our first enemy – not [Hamilton] as a person or [Mercedes] as a team.”
His words were prophetic, because a post-mortem of Ferrari’s must-win Singapore Grand Prix reveals the principal culprit to be the team itself.
Expectations that Ferrari and Vettel would cruise to victory were not without foundation. Vettel has won four times at Marina Bay – the most of any driver before Hamilton’s victory at the weekend – Ferrari’s car is well matched with the slow and twisty nature of the circuit itself, and Mercedes’s Singapore form is patchier than victories in 2016 and 2017 suggest.
But despite the odds stacked in the team’s favour and despite practice demonstrating Ferrari’s car was indeed strong in Singapore, a combination of Vettel crashing during Friday practice, a disagreement between Vettel and his engineer about how to best prepare his qualifying tyres and some poorly timed releases onto the track for qualifying itself conspired to drop Vettel to third on the grid on a circuit where overtaking is extremely difficult.
But Ferrari and Vettel’s inability to grasp this race with both hands tells only half the story – Hamilton was the irresistible force to the Italian team’s easily movable object.
Lewis Hamilton put his car on pole with a 0.6-seconds margin over Vettel with a lap that surprised even his own engineers.
“That felt like magic!” Hamilton exclaimed afterwards. “It felt like one of the best laps I remember feeling.”
Qualifying is half the job done at a street circuit, but even so the Briton left nothing to chance, acing the race start, safety car restart and sole pit stop to put the result well beyond doubt even before Ferrari and Vettel fumbled with its tyre strategy.
As much as the Singapore Grand Prix was another story of Ferrari failure as the championship hurtles towards an increasingly inevitable conclusion, so too was it yet another example of Hamilton performing at a level above the rest. The Mercedes has been slower than the Ferrari, if only marginally, for much of the season, but Hamilton has made up the difference.
After July’s British Grand Prix Hamilton trailed Vettel by five points; now, just five races later, he commands a 40-point lead – a conversion nine points per race.
A fifth championship is now well within his grasp – three more victories and a third-place finish in the final six races would be enough to put the title beyond doubt; Vettel, on the other hand, must win the lot just to keep his destiny in his own hands.
Surely the only question is whether it’ll be Hamilton who overwhelms the German or Vettel himself who will deal his own title chances the fatal blow.
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