The much touted “Fight for Five” has deflated along with Sebastian Vettel’s title aspirations, he now trails Lewis Hamilton by 50 points and Mercedes have the ever so slight edge on engine and car performance.
Before the season began Mercedes were already the favourites for the title after a strong winter testing but as always you can’t read too much into testing. Thanks to a clever strategy Vettel tool victory in Australia after a well-timed Virtual Safety Car was deployed allowing Vettel to come out just ahead of Hamilton who had led up until his pitstop. This was followed by a strong showing in Bahrain which saw Vettel take his second win in as many races, Ferrari and Vettel looked like a real force to be reckoned with.
Cracks in Ferrari’s operation showed in China however as Mercedes and Bottas managed to undercut Vettel after Ferrari left the German out for too long after Bottas’ stop, Ferrari should have controlled the race, after all they qualified 1st and 2nd but even the desperate tactic of leaving a tyre-shod Raikkonen out to slow Bottas failed to work. Vettel did end up being taken out of the top positions by Max Verstappen when the Red Bull driver made an ill-judged move into the final chicane. Vettel lost crucial points in the championship finishing 8th in a race he could have won.
Vettel lost more points in Baku, he led from pole position but a Safety Car saw him come out behind Valtteri Bottas, on the restart Vettel made a late move into turn 1 and lost positions to Hamilton, Raikkonen and Perez, he crossed the line 4th after Bottas suffered a puncture. On the face of things it wasn’t a huge error; it was early in the championship and was an easy mistake to make but it ultimately meant Vettel lost more points to his rival Lewis Hamilton who inherited the race win.
Spain saw Vettel lose another 13 points to Hamilton after a dominant display by Mercedes saw them well clear of the rest of the field but a strategy call to pit Vettel again under the virtual safety car put him behind Verstappen and lose an almost certain podium.
Vettel beat Hamilton in Monaco but Ferrari did not have the pace compared to Daniel Ricciardo in his Red Bull. In Canada Ferrari introduced it’s second generation engine where Mercedes failed to introduces their’s due to reliability concerns, this took Vettel to win number 3 and claw back some of the points he had lost to Hamilton earlier in the season.
At the French Grand Prix Mercedes introduced their engine upgrade and looked to have the pace over Ferrari by qualifying 1-2 in the first French Grand Prix in 10 years with Vettel just behind in 3rd. Vettel would make another costly mistake in the championship, he collided with Bottas in turn 1 as ruined both of their races, Vettel would have to fight back after a penalty to finish 5th but would once again lose more points to Hamilton who chalked up yet another win.
Ferrari and Vettel made another blunder in Austria, in Qualifying a slow Vettel who wasn’t on a quick lap blocked Carlos Sainz at turn one, poor communication from Ferrari meant Vettel wasn’t aware Sainz was there resulting in a grid drop for Vettel. He would eventually finish 3rd in Austria after a double retirement for Mercedes but it could have been a victory. Vettel would claim win number 4 in Silverstone in a dog fight with both Mercedes cars, within just 2 race Vettel would outscore Hamilton by 23 points putting him in a strong position for the title fight.
Ferrari’s championship would begin it’s downwards spiral in Germany, Vettel qualified on pole but would ultimately falter in the race, due to the strategies they were on Vettel found himself behind teammate Raikkonen losing a lot of time while Ferrari wasted too much time orchestrating a swap between the drivers. As the rain poured Vettel struggled with pace compared to Mercedes and made another mistake in his championship campaign, he lost concentration and beached his car in the gravel turning a potential win into a DNF. To make this worse for Vettel Hamilton would end winning after Mercedes imposed team orders more decisively when calling off the race between Hamilton and Bottas.
On paper Hungary would suit Ferrari more than Mercedes but a wet qualifying allowed Hamilton to claim pole position and win the race at a circuit where it is hard to overtake, Ferrari failed to understand why their wet weather pace was poor in Germany and as such were punished for it in Hungary.
Belgium and Italy were again tracks that should suit Ferrari, Vettel completed half of the prophecy when he took victory in Spa but would again lose out to Hamilton in Italy. In qualifying Raikkonen got a tow from Vettel in both his runs in Q3 gifting the Finn pole position much to Vettel’s frustration, Vettel felt that he should have been behind Raikkonen on one of his runs so that he could get the benefit of the tow which may have allowed him to take pole, instead he would have to settle for 2nd. On lap 1 in the race Vettel would collide with Hamilton when the pair got too close in the second chicane, a scenario that could have been avoided if Vettel was on pole instead.
Ferrari were again the favourites in Singapore but failed to deliver when Ferrari put Vettel in traffic in his qualifying runs meaning that he couldn’t best prepare the tyres for his laps, an issue that Vettel had already identified earlier in the session. Vettel appeared to be having to run the team from the cockpit, something a driver shouldn’t have to do especially when fighting for a world championship. A poor strategy seeing Vettel pit early to the Ultra Soft tyres which he would run to the end of the race would see him finish 3rd when yet again Hamilton and Mercedes would win, Ferrari should have won 5 races in a row but instead came away with just 1.
Russia showed once again that Mercedes would give Hamilton everything at their disposal to win the title. In a controversial move they ordered leader Bottas to give his position to Hamilton who had just scrapped with Vettel, this allowed him to protect his tyres and no longer left him exposed to Vettel. Ferrari were once infamous for their team orders but seem far more hesitant to do so this season, with Raikkonen on his way to Sauber for 2019 it is unlikely that he will be too concerned with Vettel’s championship challenge.
Vettel has not had the cleanest season, perhaps the result of a lack of organisation in his team and he does not have the support of his teammate or the confidence in his strategists to allow him to reach his true potential. Mercedes are in complete contrast, Hamilton is in the form of his life, organisationally they are operating better than Ferrari and have a strong wingman in Valtteri Bottas. It’s an uphill battle for Vettel and one he cannot win, Ferrari as a team are not ready for title success and with only six races to go it will take a lot of bad luck for Mercedes for Vettel to win the championship.
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