In The Driver's Seat

In the Driver's Seat: Running of the Bulls puts new rivals into the equation

Two races, two disasters. Things aren't looking good for Ferrari as the Formula One circus heads to Japan. Sebastian Vettel is 34 points behind Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, with 125 left on the table.

The Scuderia were reeling after the engine problem that befell the German on Saturday and consigned him to the back of the grid. Then, before the start, something similar befell Kimi Raikkonen, who had just missed out on pole position.

Had the Ferraris been healthy, Vettel would most likely have started from pole and disappeared into the distance while Raikkonen would have followed his team leader home.

Max Verstappen would have been third, leaving Hamilton needing to beat Daniel Ricciardo and the struggling Valtteri Bottas for fourth.

Ifs and buts, of course, never change race results. But they are invaluable pointers.

On a day when Mercedes had no answer to Red Bull, Hamilton, by reverting to the Singapore race specifications, finished a decent second to complete a spectacular recovery from what team boss Toto Wolff called their "worst ever" Friday. The Briton was lucky. Even he admitted that.

But the fact remains that Mercedes struggle badly on tight, high-downforce tracks, especially in hot weather.

And Sepang surprisingly ranks about fourth in the downforce league - behind Singapore, Monaco and Hungaroring.


Sebastian Vettel hitches a ride from Pascal Wehrlein after the post-race crash with Lance Stroll at Sepang. If the damage means that his Ferrari needs a new gearbox, Vettel will incur a grid penalty in Japan. ST PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

This means they cannot afford to relax in Mexico and Brazil, or even Abu Dhabi - which also means the battle is not over yet.

As much as the fight will be down to the drivers, it will also be decided by the designers and engineers. Both teams are well into the design of their 2018 cars, so development of the current ones will inevitably diminish, and that will place a premium on the engineers gaining the maximum understanding of how to set up their cars and how to minimise their shortcomings.

Both teams are well into the design of their 2018 cars, so development of the current ones will inevitably diminish, and that will place a premium on the engineers gaining the maximum understanding of how to set up their cars and how to minimise their shortcomings.

Arguably, Mercedes have the fastest cars, dominating on the quick circuits such as Silverstone and Monza.

But right now, Ferrari are quicker on "normal" tracks where cars need a lot of downforce and, as Bottas found out, Mercedes' attempt to generate more - with an aerodynamic package upgrade that included a new floor - didn't work in Sepang.

But just as there is light at the end of the tunnel for Ferrari, who just need to reverse their appalling run of bad luck, so there is some for Mercedes.

Hamilton said that you learn less in the post-race debrief when you have won than you do when you have met adversity.

Both he and Wolff said that Sunday evening's lengthy debrief was one of their best, the sort which generates progress because everyone is highly charged to come up with a better result.

So in the days between last Sunday's race in Malaysia, and the first practice day in Suzuka this Friday, the engineers at Brackley will be poring over the most minute details of the disparate set-ups of Hamilton's and Bottas' cars, looking for clues to potential performance gains.

But there is a new factor in the mix, now that Red Bull have started to find the sweet spot of the hitherto disappointing RB13.

It's true that Verstappen did not beat the Ferraris on the way to his second grand prix triumph, but the fact that a third contender has the potential to take points away from them should concern both Ferrari and Mercedes equally as their battle intensifies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Running of the Bulls puts new rivals into the equation'. Print Edition | Subscribe