The title is long gone for Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel and they know it. Indeed it would be hugely surprising if Lewis Hamilton does not win his fifth championship in Mexico this weekend. Yet for Vettel and the Scuderia presenting a coherent and constructive challenge for the last three races could be cause for optimism in a season when they have let the championship slip away.
After showing strong pace at the US Grand Prix, where Kimi Räikkönen won and Vettel believed he had the speed to do the same but for his grid penalty and spin, Ferrari seem to have found their mechanical mojo again.
They did so, Vettel admitted, by rolling back most of the upgrades they have brought to the car since Singapore. The German said they had gone down the wrong route, which had cost them, and had compounded that error by being slow to identify why they had lost their pace advantage. At the same time Mercedes extracted more from their car when it mattered.
Like last season, then, when Hamilton wrapped up the title in Mexico City, Ferrari have failed to maintain their challenge in the final third. They can address this but, if they are to challenge again next year, they must focus on the bigger picture.
Vettel’s misjudgments this season have been well documented and now include that clash with Daniel Ricciardo in Austin. His team have been equally culpable and that is a grievous combination when battling Hamilton and a Mercedes team who are functioning better than ever after six years together.
Ross Brawn, the Formula One technical director who previously won five titles with Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, clearly believes there are issues with driver and team.
“I certainly don’t want to put Vettel in the dock,” he said after the US Grand Prix. “But these incidents can no longer be seen as coincidence but rather they would seem to indicate that Sebastian is a bit out of sorts at the moment.”
Brawn is perhaps being generous, given Vettel’s very costly errors at Hockenheim, Monza and Suzuka. But he also believes the Scuderia are not yet the complete package.
“Their most important task is to work out how to help Vettel make the most of his massive talent,” he said. “You don’t become a four-time world champion for no reason and Sebastian has definitely not forgotten how to win. In a sport as complicated as Formula One, you only reach your goals if all the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place. If just one piece is missing everything is compromised.”
Interestingly, before the Japanese Grand Prix, where Hamilton’s win and Vettel’s sixth place all but ended the title fight, the Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, emphasised exactly the same criteria.
“In F1 there is not one single element that makes everything else good or bad,” he said. “You need to have a good group of people with the right mindset that build the quickest race car and engine and have the best driver in the seat. If you can combine these you will win races and championships, if one is missing you are lacking a vital ingredient.”
Although they have made miscalculations, the Mercedes team have also displayed the requisite collective ability this season and that has made the difference.
Hamilton sometimes attracts criticism for his terse radio messages to the team when things have gone against him. But drive and ambition are fundamental to the will to win and were he not to show frustration his motivation would be in question. Crucially, however, he quickly resets and gets on with the job both during races and immediately afterwards by accepting what has happened and then working with the team to learn from it.
At Ferrari there has been more of a suggestion that Vettel is taking a hand in how races are run, with the intimation being a lack of a clear decision-making structure and that perhaps fundamentally he is not happy with how the team do things. He, too, has been critical, as has the team principal, Maurizio Arrivabene, but there is less sense that lessons are being learned after problems. “We speak later,” was Vettel’s blunt comment to the team after qualifying at Monza left him starting behind Räikkönen. Yet at the next round in Singapore, they were once again poor strategically in qualifying and were similarly off the ball in Japan.
There is no magic bullet to solve this but as Brawn and Wolff have made clear, what Ferrari need to do now appears to be less about mechanical advances and more ensuring they have every component of the team in place to act as a cohesive, singular structure. Anything less will leave them wanting once again next season.