By Neil Leverett
- Lewis Hamilton extends Drivers’ Championship lead after Sebastian Vettel finishes fourth in Kuala Lumpur
- Briton leads rival by 34 points with five races remaining
- Red Bull’s Max Verstappen wins first race of season
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA – After Lewis Hamilton took a further stranglehold on the Formula 1 World Championship, is there anything Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari can do to deny the Brit a fourth world title?
Asian leg has left Vettel with bitter taste
Almost a month to the day when Lewis Hamilton romped home in Monza to the top spot on the podium in Italy, the Briton’s grip on the World Drivers’ Championship has merely tightened further after wins in Singapore and second place this past weekend in Kuala Lumpur.
That however, was not how events were meant to transpire for Ferrari and in particular Sebastian Vettel. Heading into the three-legged Asian section of the season, Ferrari’s plans for domination over Mercedes have been thwarted through a mix of uncharacteristic Germanic bloodymindedness and good old fashioned misfortune.
A nightmare scenario of a double take-out for both men in the famous Italian red colours on the opening bend at Marina Bay, was one few could have foreseen. Both they and Red Bull were set to own the podium that day, but after circumstances that saw both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen as well as Max Verstappen come to grief, the Mercedes team across the paddock must have been quietly looking up to the heavens in silent gratitude.
Vettel’s subsequent engine failure in Malaysia Q1 then, caps off a ruinous four weeks for the German who up until now had the superior racing record in the Far East against his rival.
Any way back for German?
Approaching the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka this weekend, Hamilton could have been expecting a deficit to haul back, but the sheer fact that he has not only extended his own existing points advantage from Monza is not just a minor miracle, but a factor that may well determine this season’s championship.
Vettel’s driving masterclass in starting form the back of the grid to finish in fourth spot was a marvel, but largely a forlorn effort. The question is now, does Vettel have any way back into contention?
For that to occur a win in Japan is simply a must and with Ferrari set to exercise an option to change both engine and car parts for the concluding race – which surely now must be a no-brainer – they can still exhibit their authority over the lesser reliable cars. In theory at least.
That is a word Ferrari will have spent the past month gnashing their teeth over. Vettel may now also have to contend with a further grid penalty in Suzuka after the post-race collision with Lance Stroll left his car in a less than aesthetic picture – the rear wheel raised firmly above the car’s chassis.
Early reports suggest however, that Vettel’s gearbox may have survived and such a racing penalty may not need be imposed to further the German’s task.
34 points is still that nonetheless and after a two-race points haul of 43 to add to his tally, Hamilton’s task now must be to arrive in Austin, Texas for the United States GP in a fortnight, with minimal damage to his now significant lead.
Hamilton still fears Ferrari comeback
While for the title race is threatening to dissolve, Hamilton remains vigilant of a Vettel comeback still. The 32 year-old Brit is nothing if not tenacious and the same goes for this approach to each race.
Vettel’s display in almost becoming the first driver in history to achieve a podium finish from the back of the grid, showed the superior speed of the Ferrari, and Hamilton knows it.
As he told BBC Sport:
“We have some work to do.”
“We still have problems with this car and it was magnified here,” Hamilton said.
“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.”
Verstappen gets just rewards in Malaysia
Verstappen has endured a trying season as he leaves the uncertainty of teenage-hood and enters racing maturity. As if to prove the point that his career in his twenties could bring forth much success, his first win of the season – on his 20th birthday no less – was testament to such prophecy.
The Dutchman has experienced somewhat of a transitional year with Red Bull, with just two podium finishes to his name. However, as dad Jos watched on from the paddock on Sunday, both father and son enjoyed a taste of what might be to come.
In the light of Nico Rosberg’s retirement in the latest close season, Verstappen was shortlisted to fill the newest champion’s boots. Whilst the decision of both Toto Wolff and Nikki Lauda in opting with the safer option of Valtteri Bottas as their number two has for the most paid handsome dividends from a team perspective, we have also seen why the Dutchman may have missed this particular boat.
Verstappen is still green as green on the tarmac; a raw talent. But a huge talent notwithstanding of which Sunday’s superb win were his just rewards.
Kuala Lumpur will be missed
In the final race in Kuala Lumpur for the foreseeable future, the last Malaysian GP was yet another spectacle from its’ 19-year history, at a venue that few can say has lacked drama.
It was almost the stage for motor racing history with Vettel’s drive, and had the rain that was predicted turned up sooner than its actual touch-down in the early hours of race day, a yet more protracted and explosive race may have unfolded.
As documented, it was stage to Verstappen’s first victory of the season, but the last on this particular circuit points to the next 19 years and could have indeed been the curtain-raiser on the Dutchman’s world title aspirations.
Rain has often been a by-word for the track on race day and despite a dry 65 laps this time around, it is perhaps a poignant note to end on metaphorically, with more than a tear shed for its departure from the Formula 1 calendar.
The Japanese Grand Prix takes place between 6-8 October.
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