Sebastian Vettel’s victory in Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix was not domination – the fight between the German’s Ferrari and the Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas was too close for that – but it was certainly a potent reminder of what might have been this season for the four-time champion.
Vettel led all but 13 of the 71 laps, and was only not in front on those because of Lewis Hamilton’s off-set strategy as the Mercedes driver fought back through the field from his pit-lane start.
It was always close between Vettel and Bottas – the Finn rarely more than two seconds behind – and both men believed the race was decided at the start, when the Ferrari got the jump on the Mercedes and sneaked ahead into the first corner. As such, it was a reflection of the year as a whole – little to choose between the silver car and red on absolute pace, races decided on small details or twists of fate. It underlined that the way the 2017 F1 championship was settled in Lewis Hamilton’s favour, with three races to go belied the truth of the season, which was of an intense fight between two evenly matched teams and their leading drivers.
What Ferrari lost
All year, it had looked as if Hamilton and Vettel would contest the championship right up to the final race in Abu Dhabi. They did not because Ferrari and their driver imploded, especially over the three Asian races in Singapore, Japan and Malaysia. And Vettel’s moment of madness in driving deliberately into Hamilton in Baku back in June hardly helped.
Baku turned an easy win into a fourth place – that was 13 points thrown away. Singapore was a race that appeared to be Vettel’s on a plate, only for him to provoke a pile-up at the first corner. That was 25 points gone. Then an engine failure in qualifying in Malaysia, another race Ferrari had the pace to dominate, put Vettel at the back of the grid, and he finished fourth. Another 13 points gone. And then Japan, a spark plug failure, and a second place lost. Another 18 points. That’s 69 points mislaid, plus the extra points the three Asian issues handed Hamilton on a plate. After Brazil, Vettel is 43 points adrift of Lewis Hamilton, who without those Ferrari problems would never have built the lead he needed to clinch the title so early.
After the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix in July, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton were tied on four wins each out of 11 races. But until Sunday in Sao Paulo, Seb had not won since and the pressure was mounting on the Italian team. Before this race, Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne, as tough a taskmaster as they come, had made clear his disappointment with the way the season had developed.
“I don’t believe in bad luck,” Marchionne said. “Ultimately, it was a reflection on the way in which we managed the businesses. It was a combination, especially in the second half of there season between technical issues and driver errors, or driver misjudgements.” What Ferrari badly needed in these last two races of the season was to prove they could win again, that they had not gone completely off the rails. If nothing else, as one insider put it after the race, “to get you lot (the media) off our backs.”
Sebastian Vettel, who had been extremely downcast on Sunday in Mexico two weeks ago, said: “It’s a good job that we have races now because it helps to sort of get over it because you’re distracted, I guess.” He then added: “It is important for both of us. Obviously it is great after such a long time to be able to do it, but especially for the team. For them, it has been a tough couple of weeks – long nights, hard work, a lot of support from the factory. I dedicate the win to them, to the team at the track and everybody at the base in Maranello. They have been working very hard and it wasn’t fair what we got the last weeks.” – Seb explained.
But it’s positive for Ferrari, too
If Sebastian Vettel’s win relieved some pressure on Scuderia Ferrari, it also underlined what has, despite their loss in the championship, been a fundamentally positive season. Yes, they have arguably thrown the 2017 Formula One championship away through their own errors and failures. But the flip side is that this is the first year they have had a genuinely competitive car since 2008. And it is worth remembering where they came from – in 2016, they did not win a single race.
“Nobody expected Ferrari to be that strong,” Vettel said. “We made the biggest step (out of all the teams). There was a lot of talk about other people, but in the end we were there from the start and also until the end. We are in a position to fight for victory, we won here, two cars on the podium. There’s a lot of positives. Of course if you miss out, it sort of sucks. There’s no other way. But you have to be fair as well. We hadn’t been very competitive last year, we hadn’t been very good developing the car and we have made massive progress this year. So even if you look at the chance that maybe you missed, you have to give credit to all the people, to all the team for the step that we made. I think we can all feel that we’re getting stronger so hopefully we can carry that strength into the next couple of years, not just next year, not just the winter but also the future because I think our objective is to bring Ferrari back properly, get there and dominate. That’s what we want to do.” – the four-time Formula One world champion explained.
The fight is on for 2018.