Hamilton heads for title, questions for Vettel

2016 was billed as the year Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel went head-to-head, but as one heads toward the title, the other has a mounting list of worries to overcome.

Hamilton heads for title, questions for Vettel
Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton's battle was hotly anticipated, but has only simmered and not boiled over. (Image Credit: F1.com)

2016 was billed as the year that Ferrari really took the fight to Mercedes after the German team had won 32 out of the 38 races since the beginning of 2014. It was also time for the fight that many had longed for. Lewis Hamilton vs Sebastian Vettel. 2016 would finally be the clash of the Formula One titans.

But it’s been far from that. For a pleura of reasons it just hasn’t happened. Reliability, or lack thereof, has played its part, as has Ferrari stalling in the development race. Out of the 12 races so far this season, only twice have the two fought for a win, in Australia and Canada, but never wheel-to-wheel, and Vettel making mistakes whilst giving chase, not to mention the strategy calls made on the Ferrari pit-wall.

Going into the season, aside from Vettel’s additional world championship, the records of the two drivers who have won seven out of the last eight titles, were closely matched. One more win and a handful more poles for the Brit, but more career points for the German.

When the lights went out in Melbourne and Vettel rocketed away from P3 to jump the two Mercs, fans rejoiced. Finally, it seemed, we would have an inter-team battle out front.

Just how has Hamilton made himself favourite for a fourth title? How has the harmony at Ferrari gone sour? And what exactly does it all mean for the rest of the season and for 2017 onwards?

Game Set Championship Rosberg – or is it?

You are sitting on Pole Position for May’s Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona. 43 points behind your team-mate, with already two Turbo and MGU-H failures in just four races, three dodgy starts, although the getaway in China was “best on the grid”, its included here alongside Australia and Bahrain, the last thing you would’ve wanted was to be jumped into T1, and play the latest edition of Formula One Team-mate Total Wipeout on the first lap.

You are now sitting in the Spanish kitty litter. Your teammate has 100 points from five races, you just 57. You will have to take at least two engine penalties and start from last on two occasions. That just leaves you with 14 races, where something else could go wrong, to claw your way back into championship contention. A fourth world crown seems a Spanish mile away.

After THAT collison, Hamilton's (R) hopes his retaining his title were slim (Image Credit: www.telegraph.co.uk)
After THAT collison, Hamilton's (R) hopes his retaining his title were slim (Image Credit: www.telegraph.co.uk)

Now, if just 77 days after Barcelona, someone had said to you that you would be going into the summer break, with a 19 point lead in the same championship, having dropped just 15 points in the meantime, you would’ve found it hard to believe them.

But believe it or not, that is Lewis Hamilton’s 2016 season in three paragraphs. From being down, out and almost beaten, the resilience and determination Hamilton has shown since May 15th has been nothing short of incredible, no matter what you think of him personally.

The shift in the momentum pendulum began during the early stages in Monaco, when Rosberg was ordered to let Hamilton through to chase down Daniel Ricciardo as the German was having the first of many ‘off-day’s', finishing P7.

Since Spain, the only things that has stopped Hamilton from a Pole/Win combination in every race has been inspired (and canniness on the latter’s part) Aussies and Germans in qualifying, and the sun and engine settings in Azerbaijan. Whilst Hamilton has scored 160 points out of 175, Rosberg has accumulated just 86.

In such a short space of time, such a swing is unique in F1 history, and Hamilton is currently winning the world championship of mind games as well. Despite his lead, he still refuses to acknowledge he is in the championship, on the account of his for sure engine penalty in Spa and P22 start. But by taking all of his hits in one go, a double engine change, to introduce two new fresh units to his pool, at a track where overtaking is always possible, Hamilton is still favourite to claim the World Championship for a fourth time.

So that’s how Hamilton’s season has gone so far, but what about Sebastian Vettel’s? All great drivers are allowed an Annus Horriblis. Hamilton’s was in 2011, and Vettel’s was in 2014, which he jumped the Red Bull ship to emulate boyhood hero Michael Schumacher in racing for the Scuderia for 2015. Three 2015 wins seemed to point toward a title tilt in ’16, but the 16-time constructor champions are now in a battle for second.

Ferrari implode

One of our worst tracks” is how Sebastian Vettel described Melbourne’s Albert Park, in both 2015 and 2016. Despite this third place in both editions held different emotions. The former delighting the German on his debut for the Scuderia, but the latter a lost opportunity.

Starting on SuperSoft tyres in Melbourne, Vettel, as we know led until the red-flag period to retrieve what was left of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren after his smash with Esteban Gutierrez. As teams are allowed to change tyres during stoppages, both Vettel and Nico Rosberg did just that. But it was here Ferrari lost the race. They put Vettel onto another set of red-marked Supersoft tyre, ensuring he would need to pit again to fit either the mandatory soft or medium tyre. He would need a gap of around 20s+ to Rosberg to negate the time lost, as the Mercedes was on the medium and could go the 40 laps to the chequer easily.

But Ferrari didn’t have the pace to pull that gap out, at about 1s per lap was needed. But it was a little here and there, certainly nowhere near 1s a lap. And so Rosberg cruised home, whilst Vettel ran wide whilst trying to chase Hamilton for P2. Solid start, but could Ferrari cut out the careless mistakes?

We’ll forget Bahrain, as Vettel retired on the formation lap with an engine failure, and Russia as well when Danill Kvyat rammed him off on lap 1. P2 in China after colliding with Raikkonen left Vettel on 33 points from four races, to Hamilton’s 57 and Rosberg out front with 100/100.

Strategy strikes again, and again

After the Mercedes livened things up for the rest in Spain, between Ferrari and Red Bull it was either a two or three stopper. Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen were put on, theoretically, the slower two stopper, but it turned out to be the optimum strategy as they finished 1-2 and Vettel P3. Not enough to seriously indent the deficit.

Monaco was ok, P4, behind an inspired Hamilton, disappointed Ricciardo and a magic drive from Sergio Perez, but in Canada, Ferrari quite simply threw it away again.

In Canada, Ferrari's strategy probably cost Sebastian Vettel a third victory of the season (Image Credit: Sky Sports)
In Canada, Ferrari's strategy probably cost Sebastian Vettel a third victory of the season, leading him to question strategy in later races. (Image Credit: Sky Sports)

Pitting under an early VSC to go to a two stopper was quite simply the wrong thing to do. Giving away the most crucial of all things in F1. Track position. To Hamilton, who was still ahead 5.8s at the flag. Next time out in Azerbaijan, on lap 18, Vettel questioned a command to pit in. The first time he had questioned a team strategy call that had cost him 30 crucial points in the championship. The wheels were starting to come off.

After Hamilton’s early season woes with reliability, Canada in more way than one was a changing tide. From then on, the Brit has gone onwards and upwards, whilst Vettel has gone backwards.

Reliability strikes again, and again

Austria was the first time it happened. A grid penalty for a gearbox failure. A DNF there lost him 25 points to Hamilton. Qualifying P6 in Britain, was actually P11 on the grid, yet another gearbox giving out. P9 was a humbling result.

By this time, it was Red Bull who were taking the fight to Hamilton and Rosberg. (The irony not lost on anyone). Hungary was a solid haul of 12 points, although he could’ve been third. More strategy calls overshadowed another humbling German GP.

Lap 46, Vettel was called in. Questioning the people with all the data available, whom you trust highlights private doubts in Vettel’s mind that Ferrari know what they’re doing. Speaking to the media, he will defend the team, but Ferrari are sinking fast. To make things worse for Vettel, he is currently behind Ferrari unofficial number two Kimi Raikkonen at half-way. 122-120. Fourth and fifth in the drivers. Third in the constructors. For Sergio Marchionne that just isn’t good enough. He wants Ferrari to win, but he needs it to win.

Poor reliability, poor strategy, losing technical director James Allison, - regarded as the next best thing to Adrian Newey, whom Ferrari were close to signing in 2014, before Luca Di Montezemolo and Stefano Domenicali were forced out represents a poor season thus far. But that is not to far away from what we have come to expect from Ferrari since Jean Todt stepped down to become FIA President. Their last World Champion was Raikkonen in 2007, with 2008 being the last time the constructor's crown was claimed by Maranello.

​Problems from the top down

Since 2009, Ferrari have won just 15 races, taken a handful of pole positions and have finished fifth, third, third, second, third, fourth and second in the constructors. They should've won the 2010 title with Alonso, but duff strategy, not looking at Vettel but concentrating on Mark Webber​ cost the Spainish driver a third title he so craves. A conservative design department in the following years saw Alonso's tether finally snap and he left for McLaren at the start of 2015.

The impact of Allison leaving can not be highlighted strongly enough. Here is a man who all the top teams would love to have, but due to a combination of circumstances, left to effectivly stall Ferrari's chances of catching Mercedes this season, and prehaps even next. Both Vettel and Raikkonen like the way Allison designs his cars, with a trademark feature that they are light and kind to the tyres, something that is essential in the Pirelli era.

Despite all of the steps it made in 2015, Ferrari can effectivly put itself where it was at the end of 2014. In complete and utter disaray. And as we know, World Championships, and even races for that matter can not be won in such circumstances.

Stability is key

Back in the Schumacher heyday, the core essential team of him, Ross Brawn, Rory Bryne, Todt and Di Montezemolo didn’t change. They trusted each other and knew that they would get there, as they did in 2000 with the drivers’ title and 1999 with the constructors. Vettel, Maurizio Arrivabene, Allison (who, of course has left Ferrari) and Marchionne shared a different dynamic. Marchionne is tinkering and meddling, trying to get Ferrari where they belong. The trust isn’t there, and the uncertainty swirling around Maranello as a result only means doubt creeps into the mind, and performance drops. It is a vicious circle. To win takes time.

Look at Mercedes. It took them four years of mediocrity and careful planning from their 2010 return to the start of 2014, and we all know what happened next. Red Bull too. They hired Newey in 2006, and his efforts came through in 2009 and a first title in 2010. But Ferrari haven’t got time, but from somewhere they need to find it.

What it all means for Formula One

Well, as Ferrari continue to sink, it gets harder for them to rise. Reports suggest since Spain, minimal improvements have been made to the car, as Mercedes go from strength to strength. Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe at Mercedes don’t publicly pressurise their teams, something Marchionne could learn to follow.

Sebastian Vettel left Red Bull for numerous reasons, not least to prove he could win in a car, other than a class of the field Newey chassis. In 2015 that seemed the right decision as it was Ferrari who were all set to take the title off of the dominant Mercedes and Hamilton.

At the moment it seems with the new complex aerodynamic regulations coming into force at the start of 2017 and a Newey seemingly with his mojo back, it could well be Red Bull who topple Mercedes in the future, provided ​Tag Heuer nee ​Renault can continue to improve its engine. ​ If that is the case, Vettel will once again be questioning strategy. This time his own.