Features - Straight Talk
AUGUST 29, 2018
The boot in is on the other foot
Sebastian Vettel's victory in last Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix may have been the pivotal moment of this year's Formula One World Championship. The German's dominant victory finally made justice to the obvious technical advantage Ferrari has been enjoying for the last three months. As mentioned in the previous column, Vettel and Ferrari had thrown away two excellent opportunities to win in Hockenheim and in the Hungaroring, heading into the summer break with the four-times World Champion trailing Lewis Hamilton by 24 points, so another defeat in Spa-Francorchamps could have dealt a fatal blow to the German's title hopes.
There was a sense or urgency in the Ferrari camp as they arrived in the Ardennes and things became even tenser inside the Scuderia when Lewis Hamilton trashed the opposition in the wet qualifying session, securing pole position by more than 0.7s from Sebastian Vettel. They were the only two front-runners still on track at the crucial time in Q3, as both Red Bull drivers and Kimi Raikkonen had to pull into the pits as the track was drying, as they were running out of fuel. And Valtteri Bottas, of course, had parked his car in the garage, knowing he would have to start from the back of the grid and no longer being of use to Mercedes, to tow Hamilton in the Kemmel Straight, as the track was too dry to attempt such a stunt.
Like in the Hungaroring, Hamilton had been masterful in tricky conditions and showed what he could do, given half a chance. Stoically, Vettel admitted Ferrari had, "a bit of a wooble" in qualifying - the scenes in the pits, when he came into the pits to change for intermediate tyres, as the German showed his command of the Italian language is far greater than what he lets out in public, were like from another era - but was still confident he could get the job done on Sunday, when it mattered.
I suspect Vettel was quite relieved to wake-up to a dry morning on Sunday, knowing he had the superior car for those conditions, while Hamilton was probably still praying for rain. The more optimistic people on the Brit's corner were reminding us that one year ago Hamilton had qualified on pole from Vettel and had held the German twice, on the start and on the re-start, when the Ferrari driver attacked coming out of the Radillon.
Proving things have changed a lot in the last 12 months, as mentioned in the previous column, Vettel just whizzed past the Mercedes 25 seconds after the start, using the tow he got in the long Kemmel Straight even without access to the DRS. Hamilton later admitted he wasn't surprised by the move, "because I knew that was what was going to happen" and didn't even put up much of a fight, which is very unlike him. Soon after the Safety Car returned to the pits the roles were reversed, but Hamilton didn't have the slightest chance to strike back, so much better was the acceleration the SF71H had out of La Source, putting Vettel out of reach on the long run down to Les Combes.
Such was Vettel's confidence on the low degradation of his tyres that he pushed really hard straight away, gaining a tremendous amount of time on the downhill section of the Belgian track - where Mercedes had clearly been faster in practice and qualifying - while Hamilton seemed keen to go easy on his tyres, probably hoping to gain an advantage around the pit stop time. Even by pitting one lap before his rival and doing a stunner of an out-lap - almost on the same level of what Bottas had done in China early this year to take the lead away from Vettel - Hamilton was still one second short of his goal as the Ferrari returned to the track and that was, effectively, game over.
Hamilton's mention of a Ferrari "trick engine" fuelled a raging debate that had no proper grounds, as "trick" is a common word used in motor racing to define something innovative and clever, not synonymous with illegal systems, and said it clearly, Ferrari has the most powerful engine.
Sitting alongside his rival, Vettel coolly admitted that, "I hope we have more power. That's what we're working for. If that's the case, then well done to our engine guys. They've been making progress, especially the last two years. That's good news... I think last year we didn't have a chance here despite maybe running with less wing than them. It's good to see that we're making progress."
That progress should be even more evident this coming weekend in Monza, the temple of speed, but while Ferrari will head into its home race full of confidence, they'll have to hope Kimi Raikkonen's luck changes, for a one-two finish would certainly help Vettel close the gap to Hamilton and would also put the Scuderia ahead of Mercedes in the Constructors' Championship.
As Hamilton had been warning for a while, the boot is now on the other foot and it's Mercedes that has to accelerate the development of his package - mainly, but not only, the engine - while for Ferrari the main target is to avoid mistakes and reliability issues, knowing that for as long as things run smoothly, and having the best car, Sebastian Vettel will start the coming races as the hot favorite to win them. Five years into the new Power Unit regulations, there is a new sheriff in town and Mercedes will have to dig deep to get their silver star back from Ferrari.