‘Lewis Hamilton has a hold on the title – thanks to Ferrari’
Lewis Hamilton, through sheer force of his talent, has grabbed hold of this championship with a vice-like grip. But there is no escaping the fact that Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel have helped him along the way.
Each race, Hamilton seems to find new ways to deal another hammer blow to Ferrari’s hopes, and his rivals seem powerless to stop him. In fact, the pressure the world champion and his Mercedes team are applying seems to be slowly breaking their rivals’ resolve.
Singapore this weekend was another crowning achievement – this time founded on one of the qualifying laps of Hamilton’s career. Which, given some believe the 33-year-old is up with Ayrton Senna as the greatest qualifier in grand prix history, is saying something.
It has moved him 40 points clear of Vettel in the championship. Mathematically, Vettel can win the title by two points if he wins every remaining race even if Hamilton finishes second behind him. But, realistically, it is hard to see him coming back with only 150 points remaining on the table.
Hamilton’s stardust lays foundation for win
Much has been made of Ferrari’s operational failings this year. This weekend in Singapore they were more nuanced than at other times, but they were there nonetheless.
Hamilton’s qualifying lap was one for the ages. He was 1.3 seconds faster on his first lap in final qualifying than he had been on his final lap in the second session, just a few minutes before. And he was more than 0.6secs clear of Vettel, who had been 0.5secs quicker than his rival in final practice.
In the Mercedes garage, they could not believe what they were seeing. “We knew exactly what split times he was [theoretically] able to do,” team boss Toto Wolff said, “and when the sector times kept popping up it was surreal. That was his driving.”
Wolff said it was “stardust – the most epic lap I have ever seen from him”.
Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington added: “You were impressed by the silence. There wasn’t a lot of jumping. It was a lot of jaws hitting the floor, to see a gap like that.”
Hamilton described it as “a lap out of nowhere – just flowing, beautiful. It was like a dance. It was awesome. It was the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
It was a great performance from the driver – and from the team, too. Mercedes had worked hard on curing their weaknesses at Singapore – historically a “bogey track”, as Wolff described it. And good work it was.
The car looked much more at home around Marina Bay than in some years, even if Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas said: “It still doesn’t feel like the car was made for this circuit. The rear end was difficult out of the slow-speed corners.”
But Hamilton’s margin in qualifying was not all about him and Mercedes. As the times came in, he ended up only 0.319secs quicker than Red Bull’s Max Verstappen – and the Dutchman was on an even quicker lap second time around when an engine hiccup at Turn 16/17 forced him to abort. It was probably not quick enough to take pole, but it would have been close.
Vettel, too, should have been closer, but Ferrari had not managed their qualifying as well as they could have.
First, they tried to get through the second session on the ultra-soft tyre, which was a surprise considering they had just watched Hamilton come within 0.2secs of being knocked out of the first session when Mercedes did the same.
Vettel was not quick enough on his first run, because his warm-up lap had been compromised by traffic, which meant his tyres were not in the best condition. He wanted to go again – Ferrari had decided starting on the ultra-soft was the best race strategy – but his engineers overruled him, saying it was too big a risk.
Then, in final qualifying, again Vettel was sent out at a sub-optimal time, too close to cars in front to run his optimum ‘out’ lap. Twice. His tyres were not up to temperature when he started his flying laps, and his chances of pole were gone.
Was this a direct result of the slower-than-ideal out laps? Insiders said yes. But falling track temperatures may also have played a role – perhaps Ferrari’s car was better set up for the hotter conditions in final practice, held at twilight, than the cooler ones of qualifying after dark.
With a perfect session, could Vettel have beaten Hamilton’s time? He said he thought so. But it was a big margin – big enough to sow at least reasonable doubt.
Did Ferrari blow it in the race?
Once on pole, Hamilton was in position to control the race, if he won the start – which he did with style.
From there, with passing so difficult, the only risk was being ‘undercut’ at the stops – having a rival stop before him and use their greater pace on fresh tyres to get ahead.
Ferrari knew that, to have a chance, they had to stop before Mercedes. So they took a risk and stopped Vettel on lap 14. They knew it may be too soon, that Force India’s Sergio Perez would be ahead of Vettel when he came out. But they also knew they could not wait – a couple more laps and Hamilton would have cleared Perez himself. They had to gamble.
Vettel did spend a lap behind Perez, but the gamble didn’t work largely because Hamilton had managed his tyres so carefully in the first stint of the race. It was not great watching as they trundled around up to 12 seconds off the theoretical maximum pace, but it meant Hamilton still had plenty left in his tyres to unleash a quick lap when Vettel pitted.
There were also questions about Ferrari’s decision to take the ultra-soft tyre, because of the problems making it go to the end of the race, as Vettel mentioned on the radio. But that was about trying to get maximum performance on the out lap to gain track position.
It was never going to work – the gap to Hamilton was too big, and he had too much pace in hand.
Vettel said: “We did a bit of a bus tour in the beginning when Lewis was pacing himself and then at some point he started to push to open the gap to be protected from the undercut.
“We went for it but the decisive bit was that the hyper-softs [on Hamilton’s car] were still in very good shape so my out lap I was pushing as hard as I could, but his lap at the same time was too strong and not falling into the cliff so when he pitted he came out ahead.” – bbc.com