In The Driver's Seat: Hamilton and Mercedes not taking championship for granted and rightly so

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton before the start of the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on Oct 8, 2017.
Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton before the start of the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on Oct 8, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

SUZUKA (Japan) - It might sound a little harsh to suggest it within earshot of fans of Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel, but Formula One is in a pretty good place right now.

How so, when Lewis Hamilton just won his fourth race out of the last five and opened his points advantage to a whopping 59 points with four races remaining?

Well, for a start, there are those four races left. Each of them awards 25 points to the winner, which means that there are 100 still to be won. That means that Hamilton needs another 41 to be safe. Despite what seems to have been a massive flood of good fortune - let's not call it luck, because he and Mercedes have had to fight every inch of the way to the position in which they now find themselves - since the end of the summer break, they simply cannot afford to relax even though some may delude themselves into believing that the title chase is all but won.

It isn't.

While Mercedes have been up, winning so unexpectedly in Singapore and placing second in Malaysia on Oct 1 even though their car was inferior to both Ferrari's and Red Bull's, and then getting everything back under control to dominate last weekend in Japan, Ferrari have been falling apart.

Vettel went into the summer break at the top of the tree after a troubled but dominant victory at the Hungaroring. And though the tide began to turn in Belgium where he got outfoxed by Hamilton, the speed of the red car on a track not expected to suit it was hugely encouraging to the Scuderia. They fell on their face in their homeland at Monza, where Mercedes ran amok, but in Singapore and Malaysia their SF70H was the best car and a long way ahead of the Mercedes. In the latter, Hamilton estimated its advantage as eighth-tenths of a second a lap. In F1's terms, that is light years.

But Vettel threw it all away with a slow start in Singapore followed by an aggressive attempt to recover via a Schumacher Swoop across the grid to protect his line into the first corner that sandwiched Max Verstappen between his own Ferrari and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen's. All three were taken out.

Then in Malaysia the German had power unit troubles in practice and had to start from the back of the grid. He drove beautifully to recover to fourth but the same gremlin - a faulty manifold pipe - then struck Raikkonen before the start, forcing mechanics to wheel him into the garage. He did not even start the race.

On Sunday something as simple as a spark plug played up on Vettel's car as he went to the grid; he ran second behind Hamilton for a portion of the first lap before being overtaken by Verstappen, then succumbed next time around to the trio of Esteban Ocon, Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas, too. By the fourth lap, he was done.

By any standard, this was brutal fortune for the team that have really taken the fight to the once-dominant Mercedes team this season. Vettel has won four of the 16 races thus far, and Mercedes have had to use all their ingenuity to get back in front.

To the man in the street, there might seem little point in trying to battle back into contention. But here's a scenario: Suppose Hamilton fails to finish in America in a fortnight's time, and Vettel gets back into Victory Lane. Then suppose that in the remaining three races he is again victorious, with Raikkonen exploiting a superior machinery to finish second each time. Or perhaps the runner-up might be Red Bull's Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo. Let's say that Red Bull are also stronger than Mercedes, so that the best Hamilton can achieve is a third place and a couple of fourths. That would leave Vettel with 247 + 100 = 347 points and Hamilton with 306 + 15 + 24 = 345…

Fanciful?

Yes. And no. As we have just seen with Ferrari's totally unforeseen woes, in F1 anything can go wrong when you least expect it.

Mercedes personnel beat a hasty retreat from Suzuka on Sunday night, to hitch a ride on Niki Lauda's 'Air Niki'. That meant no separate session with Hamilton, and no traditional celebration photograph.

The Telegraph message from public relations chief Bradley Lord told a journalist who asked about the timing of the photograph said it all: "Nothing to celebrate yet. Four races to go and lots of hard work ahead".

Mercedes certainly aren't convinced that it's all over yet. Because they know that Ferrari aren't, either.