We Three Wins of Orient Are
The Orient has served up some big surprises for Formula One this season. While I’m not totally unhappy with the results of the last three races in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan, I must confess to feeling a trifle more compassionate towards Sebastian Vettel. No driver should have the string of bad luck he’s suffered lately; the Orient races have not been kind to him.
When last I wrote about F1, I discussed the races in Belgium and Italy. In that post (see here), I also admitted that I am cheering for Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton to win the World Championship this season. On that score, I am definitely pleased.
Without further ado, let’s recap, shall we?
As I’ve said before, Singapore is one of my favorite races on the circuit; the street races always lend an element of the unexpected, which is why both the Monaco (see post here) and Singapore Grands Prix feature so prominently in my first novel, I’m Glad There is You. Knowing these tracks are so unpredictable, I guess I should have been prepared for what ensued. And, yet, I wasn’t.
When I watched the qualifying in Singapore, my heart sunk. Lewis Hamilton did terribly, although that fact did not completely surprise me. Downforce seems to be an increasing issue with the Silver Arrows. It comes in handy for the straightaways, say, in Monza, but it is a nightmare for the twisting tracks. Singapore is a notoriously twisty track AND Sebastian Vettel has always had a handle on those curves. Vettel dominated in qualifying and deserves kudos for his performance. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed his effervescence and uncontainable joy at having done so well.
Vettel poled first for Ferrari, followed by Redbull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo at 2nd and 3rd. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen took 4th. In a poor showing for such a dominating team, the Silver Arrows sat at 5th and 6th- Hamilton and Bottas respectively. When questioned about the upcoming race after his disheartening qualifying, Hamilton declared,
Well, it appears the moon was in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligned with Mars, i.e., everything collaborated to hand Hamilton his miracle.
Before the race, Verstappen said he wanted to overtake Vettel on the first lap. (This is the sort of bold behavior we all have come to love from this young racer. See post here for more.) The moment the lights went out, he made an attempt to overtake Vettel. In a move I’d deem overly aggressive, Vettel steered to the left to try and squeeze Verstappen out of taking first. However, I don’t think Vettel saw his teammate Kimi Raikkonen on the other side of Verstappen. While Max tried to pull back, he could not avoid being sandwiched between the two Ferraris. Verstappen collided with Raikkonen; Raikkonen ricocheted off the wall and made contact with Vettel. By the middle of the first lap, all three were completely out of the race and Lewis Hamilton was in first. He stayed there the entire race and took first on podium, followed by Daniel Ricciardo in second and Valtteri Bottas in third. The Silver Arrows had a miracle that weekend. After seeing Ferrari’s and Redbull’s excellent pacing during qualifying, I would never have anticipated that podium.
One of the things that I think is somewhat poetic is how Vettel’s over aggression on track resulted in a DNF (Did Not Finish). After Baku (see post here), the F1 community was up in arms at how lenient the FIA had been with Vettel. Damien Smith, editor-in-chief of F1 Racing magazine, eloquently addressed it:
While I was truly saddened to see him retire after such a spectacular performance in qualifying, it did have a touch of what you sow is what you reap to it.
The Malaysian Grand Prix came down to pace. Mercedes did not have it. Period. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have fine showing. Obviously, they did, as Hamilton took pole position on grid to start (breaking his own pole position record in the sport). But, throughout the whole weekend, Redbull and Ferrari consistently showed much more promise in their pacing than Mercedes did. This issue has followed Mercedes around like a shadow this entire season. In F1, each track has its pros and cons. Depending on what track they’re at, Mercedes can have lightening fast pace or average pace. Keep in mind, average pace for Mercedes is still very good; props to Hamilton and Bottas for the great drivers that they are.
During qualifying, Ferrari had something happen which has not happened this season. Vettel didn’t make it out of Q1 (the first round of qualifying; there are three). His engine gave out on the last round of practice about an hour before qualifying, and though they changed it out, he didn’t make it through the first lap of Q1 before limping back to the garage. Since he did not register a time, he started dead last. Hamilton qualified first, followed by Raikkonen and Verstappen. (Addendum here: Redbull had the pace in Malaysia. Bar none. They were phenomenal.) During the first lap of the race, in a bodacious move that bordered reckless, Verstappen took the lead from Hamilton. I have to say, the fact that the 20 year old Redbull driver won made me happy; it happened to be his birthday weekend and there’s no present quite equal to winning a Grand Prix. While Max took first, followed by Hamilton in second and Ricciardo in third, the Driver of the Day in Malaysia was Sebastian Vettel. (Fans all agree on this one, as he was actually voted Driver of the Day post-race). No driver has ever broken the top ten when starting from the back at the Sepang track in Malaysia. However, Vettel started dead last and finished fourth. FOURTH! If the race had gone on for one or two more laps, I think he would have taken third. This is why we love Vettel. He’s just that good. Enough said. (Now we just need to work on some sportsmanship aspects and he’ll be perfect!)
Ferrari’s headache did not stop in Malaysia. In fact, it can be argued that their headache in Japan started in Malaysia. On the cool down lap at the end of the race, Williams’ driver Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel collided, destroying the back end of Vettel’s Ferrari. The rear left tire completely detached and flipped onto the back of the racer, damaging the gear box. However, Ferrari did not realize this fact until they were halfway through the racing weekend in Japan. At such a late date, were they to switch out the defective gear box for a new one, they would have been slapped with a grid penalty; Vettel would have started the race at the end. Ferrari decided to chance it.
Vettel started the Japanese Grand Prix second on the grid behind Lewis (who drove as though his car had been specifically engineered for the Suzuka track), but that pesky gear box reared its head; he lost power consistently until he retired on the fifth lap. Watching it was truly difficult, and while I am still rooting for Lewis Hamilton to win the championship, I do not like to see Vettel’s talent curtailed through no fault of his own. And, if Vettel’s early retirement wasn’t enough to dampen Ferrari’s spirits, their hopes were thoroughly dashed asunder when Kimi Raikkonen’s car had to be removed from the grid pre-race because of an engine failure. No points for Ferrari in Japan.
The gap for the World Championship is now at 59 points with Hamilton in the lead. By no means is the season over. Vettel has the gumption, stamina, commitment, and drive to finish the next four races first. He’s still a definitive contender, that is, as long as his car does not fail him. We have a week before Formula One touches down in Austin, Texas. Fingers crossed Ferrari can figure out their issues because this F1 fan would love to see a fight to the finish for the championship. It’s a race against the clock, and time is of the essence.
Do you think Ferrari can fight its way back into top form? Do you think Vettel still has a chance?