But the 53-lap Italian Grand Prix didn’t go to script, and instead it was championship leader Lewis Hamilton who emerged victorious, ruthlessly breaking the hearts of Ferrari tifosi.
It took only four corners for Ferrari’s perfect qualifying result to come undone. Vettel, still smarting from being beaten to pole position by his older teammate, had an ambitious look down Raikkonen’s inside at turn four, but in doing so he opened the door for Hamilton to scythe around his outside.
Panicked, Vettel attempted an awkward defence of the corner, but he slid wide and knocked into the side of the Mercedes, sending himself into a spin.
He fell to 18th by the end of the lap, and though he recovered to fourth, his shot at scoring his first Italian victory dressed in red had evaporated on the spot.
The hopes of tens of thousands of Italians now rested on the perennially popular Raikkonen, the 38-year-old 2007 world champion enduring a five-and-a-half-year baron streak.
But the odds were against Raikkonen making a fairytale return to the top step – Mercedes now had a two-to-one strategic advantage and could play the Finn against both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
The Silver Arrows set about doing exactly that, tricking Ferrari into stopping its lead driver early, at the end of lap 21, and then deploying Bottas as a road block to prevent him from exercising his car’s inherent speed on fresh tyres.
Hamilton then made his own stop seven laps later and, with Raikkonen slowed by his compatriot, caught up rapidly to the Ferrari. By now Kimi’s tyres were blistering thanks, a by-product of him pushing too hard after pitting too early.
Bottas was called into the pits on lap 36, and it took just nine more laps of Hamilton poking and prodding his prey to land the killer blow.
“I want to give it up to Ferrari, who put up a great challenge this weekend,” Hamilton said, soaking up the jeers from the partisan Italian fans. “They’ve really given us such a great fight.”
“Obviously to do it on Ferrari’s home turf as well … it’s going to be amazing when I go back and see my guys in the garage.
“That is a very, very proud moment, to be a part of that.”
But the win was more than just Hamilton striking back against Vettel after the German won his home race in Britain earlier in the year; it was a decisive moment in the 2018 championship.
Vettel started the weekend with a 17-point deficit and the wind in his sails after a comfortable Belgian Grand Prix victory, be he left Italy with a 30-point deficit – the largest of the season to date – and with it all to do in the seven races remaining this season.
The costly first-lap error should trigger some introspection on Vettel’s part, too – mistakes made from the cockpit have cost him as many as 59 points so far this season, making him the weakest link in his own title campaign.
It won’t escape him that the next round in Singapore on 16 September is the same place his catastrophic first-lap crash with his teammate and Max Verstappen started a rapid decline in his championship fortunes last season.
Finding the right response in the days before the sport reconvenes in Asia will be decisive if he wants to take the fight with Hamilton to the season finale in Abu Dhabi.
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