The title’s in tatters, but don’t blame Ferrari

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    September and October 2017 will be marked in history as some of Ferrari’s darkest sporting days.

    The Italian team ended August optimistically. It couldn’t claim pole at the Belgian Grand Prix, but the Scuderia’s race pace was such that Sebastian Vettel shadowed Lewis Hamilton for the entire race, lacking only the final tenth of performance to execute a pass.

    Ferrari went home happy, knowing not only that its car was the fastest of the race but also that its most significant weakness – performance in high-speed corners – had been largely ameliorated.

    On August 27, Vettel held a seven-point advantage over Hamilton in the drivers standings and Mercedes a 44-point lead on the constructors table.

    But as summer turned to autumn, so too did Ferrari’s red-hot title challenge begin to turn cold and lifeless.

    The Italian Grand Prix was an embarrassing loss, even if it was down to more factors than Ferrari’s power deficit alone. Though Vettel finished third and Kimi Räikkönen fifth, Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finished an offensively easy one-two.

    No matter – Ferrari knew it would be strong in Singapore, and so proved to be the case. That is, of course, until a first-lap crash wiped out four cars, including both Ferraris, and opened the door to a classic Hamilton wet-weather win, with Bottas third on the podium.

    The Singapore loss was costly, but Ferrari knew it had Mercedes on the ropes. Hamilton’s win in Singapore was skilled but fortunate – Mercedes was struggling badly with its capricious W08 car.

    The Malaysian Grand Prix was Ferrari’s opportunity to make it pay for its finicky machine, and practice suggested that indeed Mercedes would be powerless to prevent punishment.

    But power unit troubles in qualifying struck down Vettel’s car before he could set so much as a single lap. He was retired to his garage, resigning him to last on the grid.

    His recovery drive was strong, and Max Verstappen beat Hamilton to victory, lessening the third successive body blow to Ferrari and Vettel’s campaign – but Räikkönen failed to start, his car plagued by the issues that afflicted Vettel’s car 24 hours earlier.

    The Japanese Grand Prix it would have to be, then, but by now, in early October, Mercedes had worked through its car troubles. Hamilton shattered the track record to steal pole, and his clean getaway from the line ensured his win – though a spark plug problem prevented Vettel from mounting a challenge, forcing him into retirement just four laps into the race.

    Today is October 10 and Lewis Hamilton leads Sebastian Vettel by 59 points; Mercedes leads Ferrari by 145 points.

    It’s game over.

    Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton smiles at a Formula One press conference.

    Image supplied by AMG Petronas Motorsport

    “Of course it hurts and we’re all disappointed, but now I think we just have to get back, get some rest and go flat out for the last four races and see what happens,” Vettel told TV reporters.

    He added, too – perhaps hearing the rumours that team principal Maurizio Arrivabene is being pushed out or perhaps simply because he knows Ferrari’s blood-letting culture – that he wouldn’t be playing the blame game.

    “I think I need to protect them,” he said of his team. “We’ve done an incredible job so far. Obviously bitter the last two races with the reliability issues, but it’s like that sometimes.”

    It’s a noble position to take, but let’s not underplay Vettel’s part in his season’s demise – he owns this failure perhaps more than any other member of the team does.

    Vettel’s overzealous pole defence in Singapore while Hamilton started from fifth lost him 25 points and the team a likely 43 points – indeed, had Ferrari finished one-two ahead of Mercedes three-four, the championship tables would swing 35 points towards Vettel 56 points towards Ferrari.

    Another 13 points went begging in Azerbaijan, too, when Vettel mindlessly sideswiped Hamilton behind the safety car. He was second at the time, and shortly afterwards Hamilton was forced to make a pit stop to reaffix his headrest.

    The less said about Vettel’s clumsy cool-down lap shenanigans in Malaysia, where he risked sporting and mechanical penalty, the better.

    Yes, we are deep in hypothetical territory, but in this analysis there is only one rule: mechanical failure is an unpredictable and generally blameless fact of racing; driver error is not.

    A driver must maximise points in every grand prix because mechanical problems can strike at any time – Hamilton learnt this last season, when his title challenge was undone not because of a Malaysian engine failure but because he failed to fire in the first four rounds and crashed into Nico Rosberg in the fifth.

    The same is now true for Sebastian Vettel. Instead of an insurmountable 59-point gap, Vettel would be down by just 11 points were it not for problems of his own making.

    If Lewis Hamilton can’t gain 16 points on Vettel in the United States, he will do so by the Mexican Grand Prix on the last Sunday of the month to take the title. Mercedes need only ensure Ferrari doesn’t outscore it by 16 points to claims its fourth successive championship.

    At least by then this sorry two-month chapter in Ferrari’s history will be closed.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart — but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (8)

    • October 10th 2017 @ 12:17pm
      Cento said | October 10th 2017 @ 12:17pm | ! Report

      Good article Michael but summer doesn’t turn to spring, it turns to autumn!

      • Columnist

        October 10th 2017 @ 4:01pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 10th 2017 @ 4:01pm | ! Report

        This is what happens when you’re travelling between hemispheres. I hardly know what day it is!

    • Roar Guru

      October 10th 2017 @ 2:18pm
      Bayden Westerweller said | October 10th 2017 @ 2:18pm | ! Report

      You could claim that Vettel’s brain fades at Azerbaijan and Singapore directly contributed to Ferrari panicking with its component upgrades and thus the past two weekends have resulted. It doesn’t excuse the team, though clumsiness breeds desperation, so it isn’t an entirely surprising outcome.

      It’d be remiss not to mention that Mercedes has always been waiting to pounce on the slip ups, which were much rarer in the first half of the season. Now they’re turning the screws, whilst Hamilton has notably lifted his consistency since Baku – none of his synonymous ‘gone fishing’ weekends following Austria, even at Hungary he applied pressure to the Ferraris, whilst he required no invitation to turn a likely average Singapore outing into a maximum haul.

      • Columnist

        October 10th 2017 @ 5:00pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 10th 2017 @ 5:00pm | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, mate.

        I don’t think you can draw a line between the two, to be honest. The turbo manifold failures in Malaysia were from two different power unit specs — Raikkonen was running the third power unit, whereas Vettel had a failure on both his third and his fourth. The problems in Japan, meanwhile, were spark plug-related, and it buys, not builds, its spark plugs.

        I think if anything Ferrari has shown considerable restraint in its power unit upgrades this season, perhaps because it was spooked by its turbo issues at the beginning of the year. It opted not to upgrade its power unit at Monza, for example, despite it being the last out-and-out power circuit on the calendar and despite Mercedes bringing its final upgrade to Belgium the week prior.

        You’re right about Hamilton — he’s certainly gone up a gear since Azerbaijan. He has a tendency to excel in these sorts of moments — moments when he can identify his enemy and hone in on a weakness. Certainly he’s doing that now.

    • Roar Guru

      October 10th 2017 @ 4:01pm
      spruce moose said | October 10th 2017 @ 4:01pm | ! Report

      Credit has to go to the Hamilton and Bottas partnership as well.

      Bottas let Hamilton past him in Hungary to try and have a crack at 2nd, failed, and let Bottas past him on the last lap. Bottas repaid him in spades in Japan, by getting out of the way to ensure Hamilton could get the space he needed to get time on Verstappen. In HUngary, Bottas was still in championship contention.

      Can’t imagine that Vettel and Raikkonen would have done that.

      Can’t imagine Hamilton and Rosberg would have done that either.

      • Columnist

        October 10th 2017 @ 5:02pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 10th 2017 @ 5:02pm | ! Report

        Absolutely right. Hamilton’s been able to race at his own pace, essentially, because of the lack of internal team friction. Even his relationship with the team seems a bit happier than it was when it was divided down Nico-Lewis lines in previous seasons.

        Will it stay the same if Bottas picks up the pace next season? Hard to say, but at the moment it seems hard to imagine Bottas playing politics.

    • Roar Guru

      October 10th 2017 @ 7:54pm
      Jawad Yaqub said | October 10th 2017 @ 7:54pm | ! Report

      It’s a great shame for the competition that this is the outcome, considering the optimism at the start of the year that at last we’d have two teams fighting till the end for the championship. Ferrari’s car troubles aside, the points that Vettel lost due to his own mistakes as you highlight, are quite significant in comparison.

      At the same time, Mercedes AMG and their drivers have demonstrated why they are still a class above everyone else, even if they’ve not had the best car throughout the season. Lewis Hamilton it seems, has inherited that ultra level of consistency that Vettel had during his Red Bull championship days. Once on that run, it seems difficult to stop them.

      • Columnist

        October 11th 2017 @ 1:15pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 11th 2017 @ 1:15pm | ! Report

        I think Martin Brundle said it, but Lewis looks invincible on current form. When he’s in that sweet spot, he’s pretty much unbeatable. Ironically this is happening when Ferrari has arguably the faster car.

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