When the Formula One circus struck camp and set sail for Singapore a few weeks ago the last thing it expected was for the drivers’ championship to be all over by Japan.
Yet that is effectively the situation as of Sunday morning, with Lewis Hamilton’s lights-to-chequered flag victory at the Japanese Grand Prix stretching his lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel – who was forced to retire early on with a spark plug issue – to a massive 59pts with just four races of the season remaining.
If Hamilton beats Vettel by more than 16 points at the next race in Austin, it will be mathematically over. In truth, it already is. Hamilton will be Britain’s most successful Formula One driver ever, pulling clear of Sir Jackie Stewart, when he wins his fourth world title, whether that happens in the USA, Mexico, Brazil or Abu Dhabi.
He deserves it. But what a huge, huge shame that it happened like this; for the sport’s new owners Liberty Media who were desperate for this title race to go to the wire as they continue with their attempts to rebrand the sport; for TV execs; for all true Formula One fans; and particularly for those of a scarlet persuasion.
Cursed by mechanical gremlins in Malaysia last week, it appears Ferrari did not pay sufficient homage to the engine Gods out in Japan either. Vettel’s engine cover was removed, ominously, on the pre-race grid –just as Kimi Raikkonen’s had been the week before – and a swarm of specialists crowded around to have a look. But it was to no avail. Vettel lasted just four laps before he was pulled from the fray.
It has been an extraordinary turnaround since the summer break, which Hamilton entered with a 14-point deficit. But Ferrari have only themselves to blame. Their drivers took each other out in Singapore, their engines self-combusted in Malaysia and Vettel has now been sparked out in Japan.
Poor old Maurizio Arrivabene, sitting forlornly on the Ferrari pitwall. All he could do was shake his head and frown. Will it be Arrivaderci Arrivabene now? Very possibly. Ferrari president Sergio Marchione had already declared himself “angry” after last week’s engine problems in Malaysia, suggesting there would be some “organisational changes” made at Maranello. It would be surprising if Arrivabene was not swimming with the fishes by winter.
He is not personally responsible for the engine failures, but he is the captain of the Scuderia ship. And Ferrari are not known for their leniency in the hiring and firing department, adopting more of a Real Madrid approach in this area.
Arrivabene is Ferrari’s third team principal since Jean Todt made way for Stefano Domenicali back in 2008. He was brought in to replace the hapless Marco Mattiacci, who himself lasted only eight months after replacing the affable Domenicali. A Philip Morris man with a silver beard and silver hair and a cigarette constantly on the go, Arrivabene was supposed to provide the gruff no-nonsense attitude that made this sort of wastefulness a thing of the past.
Vettel sought to defend his team afterwards. “It is normal to be critical, especially when things go wrong,” he said. “I think I need to protect them. We have done an incredible job so far. It is like that sometimes, of course it hurts and we are all disappointed.
“We go flat out for the last four races and see what happens. I think we have got further than people thought. We have a lot of positives, but today is not a day to look at positives.”
It is for Hamilton. Having qualified on pole, the 32 year-old got a bit of wheel spin at the start but held on to his lead into turn one. Behind him Max Verstappen managed to slip up the inside of Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo and soon the Dutchman had passed Vettel as well as it became obvious the German was in trouble.
After Vettel retired, Hamilton stayed in control, keeping Verstappen at arm’s length, although a couple of virtual safety cars – the first when Marcus Ericsson went off at Degner 2 on lap eight and then again right at the end after Williams’ Lance Stroll crashed – allowed the Red Bull driver to close right up.
Hamilton, who had Mo Farah here as a guest, was in understandably perky mood afterwards, joking with Takuma Sato, who was conducting the post-race interviews, that he liked his “bling” and asking to try on his Indy500 winners’ ring.
“Jeez. I could only have dreamed of having this kind of gap,” Hamilton said when asked about his 59-point lead. “The Ferraris have put up such a good challenge all year. I can only really put it down to the team. The reliability is down to them.”
It was said with the air of a man who knows he has already won. You can stick a fork in this one. We are done.
Source: Tom Cary and Natasha Henry - telegraph.co.uk