Excellent recovery drive keeps Vettel in the hunt
Starting from the back in Malaysia last time out, Sebastian Vettel had every reason to fear the worst. His title rival, Lewis Hamilton, was starting from pole and looked a favourite for the win, and pre-race engine issues for Kimi Raikkonen meant he had no teammate to back him up. Despite this, Vettel drove an excellent race to fourth while Max Verstappen overtook Hamilton for the win, relegating the Brit to second.
These finishing positions effectively limited the damage to Vettel’s title ambitions, reducing a potential 25 point loss to a much more manageable six, leaving him 34 points down on Hamilton. With five races left and seven more points available for a win compared to second place, things are just about still in Vettel’s hands, he just needs to win every single event to be sure of it! Given the pace Ferrari showed in Malaysia despite their reliability issues, this seems totally within the realm of possibilities for the German, but no doubt Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton will have something to say about it. Hopefully though, Ferrari’s reliability won’t, and we can have a straight fight to the end of the year.
There may be one hurdle for Vettel to face before he even turns a wheel at Suzuka though…
Collision with Stroll likely to result in five-place penalty for Vettel
Vettel’s bizarre slow-down lap collision with Lance Stroll in Malaysia was not only an embarrassing moment for the German, but may also affect his weekend in Suzuka as well. Pundits speculated after the race at Sepang that the particular damage incurred in this incident may have damaged Vettel’s gearbox, and this seems to be a real possibility, with reports emerging that Ferrari have shipped the gearbox back to Italy to see is it can be salvaged without penalty.
Teams are permitted to change a few gearbox components, but if the damage is as severe as is feared, then Vettel could face a five-place grid penalty Sunday's race in Japan. Ferrari could push the FIA for special dispensation for a free change, but it is unclear at this time how open the governing body would be to such a request. If a penalty ends up being taken it will be another blow to Vettel’s title aspirations, so Ferrari fans will be hoping the team can pull off a miracle to prevent their driver from starting on the back foot yet again.
Hamilton fearful of Ferrari’s pace
After Vettel’s imperious charge through the pack in Malaysia, you have to wonder what the result of the race would have been had the Ferrari drivers not experienced their reliability issues. The pace Vettel demonstrated throughout the race would have easily had him in the mix for victory had he started at the front, and after seeing the numbers, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton is understandably worried.
Despite taking pole position, Mercedes struggled in Malaysia. Valtteri Bottas was overhauled first by Daniel Ricciardo, then by Sebastian Vettel later in the race, whereas Lewis Hamilton appeared powerless to stop a charging Max Verstappen from coming through, and then vanishing up the road on his way to victory.
Toto Wolff said the team were "lucky" to come away from Malaysia with such a strong result, and Hamilton echoed these feelings after the race, saying the result was "pretty good considering the pace deficit we had." What is concerning for Mercedes and Hamilton fans though, is the fact that this seems to be a recurrence of the issues that have plagued Mercedes throughout the year, and have proved difficult to fix when they occur. Hamilton continued, "I'm hoping it's not like this at the next few races. It feels like it is getting worse as the season goes on but it has been great in other races. I have no idea where it will be an issue and where it will be fine. Hopefully it won't be so bad."
It’s not good when you’re hoping an issue won’t occur rather than being able to actually fix it, and this uncertainty in the Mercedes camp could well blow the title race wide open if they find themselves struggling to fight not only Ferrari, but Red Bull, for the remainder of the year.
Gasly’s second chance to impress
Pierre Gasly made his debut last weekend and did an exceptional job, finishing just behind his vastly more experienced teammate Carlos Sainz in both qualifying and the race. This is made even more impressive when you consider that the youngster’s drinks system failed at one of the hottest, most physically demanding races of the year, and the fact that his seat didn’t fit properly, leaving him with back pain throughout the day.
When Toro Rosso announced they were replacing Daniil Kvyat with Gasly, this was only for two races, so unless the plan changes, the young Frenchman only has one more chance to make an impression. Fortunately for him, I think he did the bulk of the work last time out and a 2018 seat with the team is pretty much nailed down at this point. This week then will hopefully be a case of more of the same and maybe even an improvement after settling into the team and cockpit last weekend.
Battle for constructors’ positions hotting up
Out front, Mercedes’ once comfortable looking lead may start to look a little less secure if they cannot get on top of their car issues and see themselves overhauled by Red Bull and Ferrari at the next event in Japan and beyond. If either, or both, of the chasing teams can outscore the Silver Arrows in Suzuka this weekend, then we could well be in for a thrilling fight to the end of the year for not just the drivers’, but the constructors’ championship as well.
Further back Williams have recently overhauled Toro Rosso for fifth, but look unlikely to catch Force India ahead. If anything, they will be looking over their shoulders at the chasing pack, as you have Toro Rosso 13 points behind, then Renault ten points further back, followed by Haas a mere five points down on the French outfit. And that’s before you consider the potential of McLaren, who while they may be 14 points behind Haas, performed well in Malaysia, giving cause for optimism for a strong end to the season that could well see them get in the mix with the teams ahead of them before the curtain falls in Abu Dhabi.
With each position gained in the constructors’ championship meaning a sizeable increase in the prize money received by the teams at the end of the year, you can expect all of these teams to be pushing hard, and pushing their drivers hard, for the rest of the year.