Is this the defining moment of the 2017 championship?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Sebastian Vettel's title chances are cooked. (GEPA Pictures/Red Bull Content Pool).

    Despite being the feel-good story of the championship almost to date, Ferrari seems destined to leave Asia thinking only one thing: how did it all go wrong?

    A Formula One title campaign can unravel so quickly. In 2014 Nico Rosberg’s realistic championship hopes fizzled out in Singapore, where an electrics problem turned his points lead into a deficit from which he never recovered.

    At the 2015 Italian Grand Prix Rosberg lost touch with the title when his power unit expired three laps from the chequered flag, growing his 28-point gap to an almost unsurmountable 53 points on the eve of the Singapore Grand Prix.

    Last season it was Hamilton’s turn to feel the burn, suffering a catastrophic power unit failure in Malaysia that gifted Rosberg a 23-point advantage, which he compounded by putting in a psychologically broken performance in Japan that would ultimately seal his defeat that season.

    Italy, Singapore, Japan and, as of last season, Malaysia – this is, needless to illustrate further, a critical juncture in the season. Too bad for Ferrari that it has also been its worst.

    Just four rounds ago at the Belgian Grand Prix the title fight seemed set to be a purler. Hamilton seized an important victory, but that Vettel was able to shadow him for the entirety of the race on a circuit that should not have suited Ferrari spoke volumes about the improvements made to his car.

    Since then, however, Mercedes has only once failed to reach the podium – Valtteri Bottas’s fifth-place finish in Sepang last weekend – while Ferrari has recorded only one podium finish.

    Ironically that podium was Vettel’s third place at Monza. In performance terms that race was a blip – a perfect storm that prevented Ferrari from showing its true pace, second-best though it still would have been – but it will be recorded in the yearbook as the beginning of a costly decline.

    Could there be a more self-destructive racing act than Vettel’s overzealous defence of his lead in Singapore at the following round?

    Ferrari was expected to win – perhaps with a one-two, at a minimum with both cars on the podium – given Singapore, a street circuit, is Scuderia territory. To come away not only with a double DNF but also having opened the door to Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finishing first and third was painful.

    Ferrari was on another planet in Sepang, but a turbo problem in qualifying meant Vettel started last and the same problem meant Kimi Räikkönen, second on the grid, was withdrawn from the race, leaving Sebastian as the lone points-scorer after a superlative recovery drive.

    Two dropped rounds, even with one DNF, is survivable. Hamilton, after all, struggled in Monaco and, to a lesser extent, Russia and Hungary. The problem for Ferrari is not one of inconsistency but rather of not landing its punches when its opponents are on the ropes.

    Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel looks on during the Formula One Austrian Grand Prix.

    (GEPA Pictures/Red Bull Content Pool).

    Mercedes has bided its time with its temperament car during difficult races, but at circuits suited to the W08 – Canada, Austria, Italy, Silverstone – it dominated.

    Ferrari has done perhaps an even better job of keeping steady during lean times – even at its home-race-thrashing it salvaged third, hardly a disaster – but when it comes time to land the killer blow, only at Monaco did it do so convincingly.

    Singapore and Malaysia should have been an 86-point fortnight for Ferrari and a 50-point haul for Vettel; instead both scored just 12 points across the two grands prix. Mercedes, on the other hand, scored 68 points, 43 of which were earnt by Hamilton to deliver him his current 34-point title lead.

    It isn’t simply a matter of failing to score on an open goal; it is scoring own goals with alarming frequency. This is what will decide the championship.

    Sebastian Vettel races

    (Photo: GEPA pictures/ Christian Walgram)

    The Japanese Grand Prix, therefore, will be a key test for Vettel’s just-breathing championship hopes. Ferrari teased in Belgium that its car has been greatly improved in the sort of high-speed turns featured at both the Silverstone Circuit, where the car flailed earlier in the year, and the Suzuka Circuit, this weekend’s venue. Vettel’s pace in Malaysia should similarly stand the team in good stead this weekend.

    To outscore Hamilton by six points will keep his fate in his own hands; to fail at this task will be to leave the results to misfortune or underperformance on Hamilton’s part.

    Can Vettel and his Italian team, ironically amid a purple patch of form despite the results, finally take advantage of Mercedes’s ongoing wobbles to mount a credible comeback? Or will F1’s Asian season prove the knockout blow of a valiant but ultimately clumsy title tilt?

    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.

    There have been upsets aplenty in the World Cup so far, so be sure to check out our expert tips and predictions for South Korea vs Sweden, Belgium vs Panama and England vs Tunisia and get the good oil on who to tip tonight.

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    The Crowd Says (7)

    • October 6th 2017 @ 10:24am
      Simoc said | October 6th 2017 @ 10:24am | ! Report

      We’ve been robbed of two great races in a row because Ferrari didn’t compete apart from Vettels comeback drive. Raikkenon cannot win a trick. The F1 championship really needs a Vettel revival now to retain interest.

      It was interesting to see the Red Bull driving away from the Merc in Malaysia. Hopefully the power gaps are decreasing between engine manufacturers.

      • Columnist

        October 6th 2017 @ 4:08pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 6th 2017 @ 4:08pm | ! Report

        I think the power gap is very almost closed, to be honest (with the exception of Honda). The major difference between the leading three is in qualifying, when Mercedes runs its engine harder. Ferrari can get close, but Renault doesn’t have that qualifying mode. Otherwise Renault has been performing well — Daniel Ricciardo had a very positive race at Monza, for example.

    • Roar Guru

      October 6th 2017 @ 10:25am
      Bayden Westerweller said | October 6th 2017 @ 10:25am | ! Report

      I can’t see Vettel retrieving a 40-point deficit if Hamilton emerges with another extended lead this weekend. Another victory to the latter in itself would be a devastating blow. It’s true that the German overcome similar adversity in 2010 and 2012, though Mercedes isn’t displaying any indication of suffering reliability issues, it’ll take some unforeseen misfortune at this rate for them to drop a bag of points.

      It’s crazy to consider that Vettel led the standings undisturbed until Italy, yet his campaign has rapidly come undone since then. This weekend really is the point of no return if it’s another calamitous one. He doesn’t have to win the race per se, but at minimum he must take points away from Hamilton.

      • Columnist

        October 6th 2017 @ 4:09pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 6th 2017 @ 4:09pm | ! Report

        Realistically Vettel would have to outscore Hamilton by at least six points to keep within a shout of the championship. Anything less and Hamilton can cruise home second behind Vettel for the rest of the season. If the gap is less than 28 points after the Japanese Grand Prix, then it’s worth hoping for.

    • October 6th 2017 @ 11:44am
      Dexter The Hamster said | October 6th 2017 @ 11:44am | ! Report

      Clumsy is the perfect word. From hitting Hamilton in Baku, cutting off Max in Singapore, even colliding with Stroll after the race in Malaysia, its all very clumsy. Just feel he could be leading the championship if he had played it all a bit smarter and with a cool head.

      Just a massive opportunity wasted at Ferrari this year.

      • Columnist

        October 6th 2017 @ 4:10pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 6th 2017 @ 4:10pm | ! Report

        Yes, this is true. It’s ironic that the word is Maurizio Arrivabene could be getting the chop this season when Vettel’s singlehandedly lost the team the most points. He’s cracked at key moments, while Hamilton has been rock-solid all season.

        • October 6th 2017 @ 10:06pm
          Dexter The Hamster said | October 6th 2017 @ 10:06pm | ! Report

          It seems especially critical given Vettel gets to choose his team mate (more or less). I like Kimi, but his best days are behind him, and having an all-eggs-in-one-basket strategy doesn’t work when your #1 is off the rails.

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