By Jinos K. October 26 2018
We all went into the Austin race ready to celebrate another championship triumph for Lewis Hamilton only to be left waiting in what proved to be one of the most heart-warming races of the year. The championship has been kept alive, though just barely and it all seems like Mexico will finally see a new champion. Austin was a race of turnarounds and surprises as many things happened that we did not expect to see. The best news has to be the resurgence of Ferrari as it seemed like the men in red had lost their way and 2019 was going to be yet another year where everyone played catch-up to Mercedes. Ferrari is back to their winning ways which is great for the sport and what is even better is that there is still an outside chance for Vettel and Ferrari to claim the Driver’s and Constructor’s championships provided they can pull off the upset of the millennium. Here’s how we got where we are right now and all the possible scenarios that could follow.
How things stand at the moment:
There are only three races left in the 2018 season. That means that Hamilton and Vettel have 75 points to play with while Ferrari and Mercedes have 150 points as a team. After Austin, Hamilton’s lead over Vettel is 70 points while Mercedes’ lead over Ferrari is 66 points.
How did we get here?
At the press conferences before the race at COTA, Hamilton kept iterating that winning the driver’s title wasn’t a given as everyone seemed to think. He wanted to take each race at maximum effort and his words rung true when he stood on the third step of the podium at the end of the race with Vettel finishing just a place behind on 4th to keep the championship alive. This wasn’t the turn of events that anyone could have predicted especially after Vettel spun for the third time this season after making contact with Daniel Ricciardo on the opening lap. Vettel was on a recovery drive, and all Hamilton had to do was maintain a gap of just 9 points in the championship standings to lift the title. With Vettel pushed all the way to the rear of the grid, the most realistic position that he could recover to was 6th which meant that Hamilton could stay behind Kimi and still become the 2018 Driver’s champion. However, what transpired was impressive, and multiple factors combined to keep the title race open.
- Raikkonen’s flawless drive: Time and again we have heard how Raikkonen was unfairly taking up a seat in one of the top teams when he was clearly past his prime. On Sunday he proved that he still has what it takes to be a winner. It wasn’t like things were made easy for him. After it was all said and done, the top three finished within 3 seconds of each other, and there were plenty of moments during the race where it looked like that elusive win was going to slip away from Raikkonen’s hands. However, he lived up to his moniker of the ‘Iceman’ and stayed calm to deliver an enthralling victory. This helped Vettel’s championship hopes in two ways. By taking the lead at the first corner, he ensured that Hamilton could not stretch out a lead and take another Mercedes victory. Secondly, it was his excellent defensive driving with fading tires just before his first, and only pit stop that ensured Hamilton would not be able to win the race. Mercedes had pitted Hamilton on lap 11 and thus committed him to a two-stop strategy. This meant that once Hamilton had caught up to Raikkonen on lap 18, he needed to pass the Finn quickly and then make time for the extra pit stop that he would need. Raikkonen had other plans as he kept Hamilton behind him for the next four laps. By lap 22 when Raikkonen eventually pitted, Hamilton had lost too much. This reduced his chance of victory.
- Mercedes’ flawed strategy: At the time when Hamilton pitted under Virtual Safety Car on lap 11, everyone assumed that Mercedes had pulled off yet another masterstroke by making what was, in theory, a free pit stop. This meant that Hamilton would be on much fresher tires towards the end of the race. However, this would prove to be their downfall as two things played against them. Ferrari had found its pace again which meant that creating a gap to the team’s would be difficult. Secondly, the lack of dry weather running during the weekend had limited the data available on tire life which meant that Mercedes was taking a gamble. While the VSC did save them some time in the pit stop, it still left Hamilton with some 12 seconds to recover. Given Raikkonen and Ferrari’ form on Sunday, that was a tall order.
- The double help from Red Bull: The only solace at the start of the race for Vettel was that Max Verstappen was starting on 18th. However, after his spin, the best he could hope was to finish behind his team-mate, both the Mercedes drivers and the Red Bulls. This would allow Hamilton to win the championship if he finished in second where he was for the first half of the race. All seemed lost until Ricciardo was forced to retire yet again which was what erroneously tempted Mercedes to go for the two-stop strategy. It was Verstappen’s heroics that further helped Vettel’s championship cause as he kept Hamilton in third place through some excellent driving during the closing stages of the race.
- Vettel’s masterful recovery drive: It could be argued that Vettel would have never been in a state where he needed a recovery drive. Had he kept his nose clean, he could have easily won the race, but that is the thing about hindsight. Vettel didn’t know that Ricciardo would retire, so he had to go for the overtake to keep the championship battle alive. His spin seemed to seal the title for Hamilton but what followed was true championship caliber racing from Vettel. He overtook the mid-carders in the cleanest way possible and late in the race he overtook Bottas to reduce the damage to his championship aspirations while bettering Ferraris constructor title chances in the process.
How Vettel and Ferrari can still be champions:
Mathematically, Vettel can keep the championship alive by winning by at least a margin of 21 points in Mexico. That can only be possible if Vettel wins and Hamilton finishes 8th or lower. If he manages to do that, then he will still need to win in Brazil and Abu Dhabi and hope that Hamilton finishes outside the points at both races. That seems highly unlikely, but that is the beauty of motorsport. It isn’t done until the championship is firmly in the hands of either man.
Ferrari, on the other hand, has a more realistic chance of lifting the Constructor’s title. The team is adrift by just 66 points, and the rejuvenation of the car and Raikkonen along with the faltering of Bottas means that Ferrari has a good chance. If the Mercedes cars finish the remaining races on the podium, then that would be lights out for Ferrari’s title hopes. However, if Ferrari can orchestrate a 1-2 in the remaining three races and at least one of the Mercedes driver finishes out of the points in at least two races then the constructor’s title will be Ferrari’s. There are other more convoluted scenarios but to put it simply, Ferrari has to win and come in second in all the remaining races and then hope for the best.