Lewis Hamilton’s bid for a fourth Formula 1 world championship gained momentum with second place in the Malaysian Grand Prix, extending his lead over Scuderia Ferrari German driver Sebastian Vettel to 34 points. But Sebastian’s fight back from last on the grid to fourth, on a track that was expected to favour Mercedes, gives the Maranello team hope that all is not yet lost.
Kimi Raikkonen said after Singapore that it was wrong to assume Ferrari would struggle against Mercedes in the upcoming races – and his team proved that in Malaysia.
It is why the Italian outfit and Vettel head to this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix with the belief they can be in the mix for victory, despite Mercedes having won the last three races at Suzuka. Owned by the Honda Motor Company, Suzuka represents a different challenge, with more high-speed corners than Sepang and high levels of tyre wear and degradation expected. The unusual figure-of-eight, high downforce circuit features a mix of corners, with sweeping changes of direction, technical sections, a chicane and a hairpin. Weather conditions can change quickly, given the venue’s coastal location, and when it rains, rivers often form across the track, increasing the risk of aquaplaning.
A straightforward race, then, is by no means a certainty and Ferrari is hopeful it can get on top of the engine troubles that plagued both Vettel and Raikkonen in Malaysia. Sebastian Vettel thus is very well aware of the fact that victory was possible at Sepang had he not suffered engine trouble in qualifying. The car had the pace over one lap – Raikkonen missed out on pole position by 0.045s – and in race trim. Mercedes would ordinarily start favourite for Japan, particularly given its recent record at the track, but its struggles in Malaysia suggest it will likely find itself in a fight with Ferrari and Red Bull.
Scuderia Ferrari has arguably had the fastest car in the last two races and yet scored just 12 points compared to championship leader Mercedes’ tally of 68 in that period to trail by 118 with five races to go. A third successive failure to maximise its potential in Japan could have a dramatic impact on the Italian team’s titles aspirations, but a win at the end of the week could mean that everything is to play for in the last four races of the 2017 Formula One season.