Lewis Hamilton leads the Drivers’ Championship for the first time this season after his Italian GP victory, with Formula 1 2017 now set for a spectacular finale as the Mercedes driver takes a three-point buffer into the last seven races.
I recharged the batteries and they are fully charged, claimed Hamilton as he stormed back into the campaign with consecutive wins following the summer break.
But Sebastian Vettel will certainly not be going down without a fight, and as the German said after relinquishing his slender title advantage: It’s most important to lead after the last race. The rest, no one remembers.
A stark contrast between Mercedes and Ferrari’s packages, two multi world champions, two completely different personalities – and one fascinating battle. Who will come out on top? Sky F1 analyses the showdown…
When comparing Hamilton and Vettel’s respective records at the final seven Grands Prix, you could argue it is the Ferrari driver who holds the advantage.
Not only has Vettel collected more victories, podiums and points than Hamilton at the remaining tracks despite fewer entries, but his most successful races of all time have been in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan – each of which he has won four times.
The next three destinations in 2017? Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.
However, while both Vettel and Hamilton have been helped by Red Bull and Mercedes’ utterly dominant packages at some stage (77 per cent of Vettel’s victories at the closing circuits were achieved between 2010 and 2013, 71 per cent of Hamilton’s have been since 2014), it is the Briton who has been the most consistent throughout his career.
Without an all-conquering Red Bull, Vettel has struggled, but Hamilton has more often than not challenged for podiums and wins regardless of his car. Their average finishing positions in our tables above suggest as much.
To gather the data, Hamilton’s complete career statistics were used, and Vettel’s only start after he left an uncompetitive Toro Rosso for Red Bull in 2009. The total points have only been considered post-2010 – when the scoring system was restructured to what we see today.
Rather than adding a high, unrepresentative mark to the drivers’ tally for a DNF, the position they were in at the time of their retirement has been used. Hamilton was leading before his engine blew up in Malaysia last year, Vettel was on top before a puncture at the 2011 Abu Dhabi GP – both are counted as first place.
So, converting their average positions into points would see the 2017 drivers’ standings finish like this…
But is that representative?
Sure, Hamilton has been more consistent when taking the car out of the equation, out-performing the potential of his McLaren in many races.
But Vettel is a driver who flourishes when the package is perfect, as his Red Bull record suggests, and hasn’t quite had the tools to deliver since joining Ferrari in 2015.
Finally, it seems Vettel has the Scuderia car to compete at all circuits. And if so, his track record suggests he could still have the edge over Hamilton, especially when considering his…
End of season record
Hamilton and Vettel’s records during the second half of the season are also contrasting. Again, in recent years, Hamilton has flourished following the summer break – but that has been in an impressive Mercedes.
Hamilton tends to go very well in the second half of the season, said Sky F1’s Martin Brundle. If his head’s in the right place, he is unbeatable. I think he will need to turn up every weekend with that kind of mentality and deliver that faultless performance.
That may be true, but Vettel has never lost a championship when leading into August, and his end-of-season record is proof of that mentality. When the pressure is on and the going gets tough, Vettel always seems to get better.
If you compare Vettel’s position leading into the summer break and again at the end of that season, the German has never even dropped a single position.
The four-time world champion’s most impressive finish to a season came in 2013, when he set an F1 record that still stands today – winning nine consecutive races to close the season.
Hamilton, meanwhile, perhaps understandably dropped off in his rookie season in 2007, struggled in 2011 and 2012 and was overtaken by Nico Rosberg in the standings last year.
He also averages fewer points per race after the summer break than before, with Vettel the other way around.
Ferrari v Mercedes
Neither driver has been able to gather real momentum in 2017 – Hamilton’s Belgium-Italy double was the first back-to-back victory of the season – and that comes down to the track-to-track differences between Mercedes and Ferrari.
Indeed, Hamilton was almost 40 seconds ahead of Vettel’s lead Ferrari at Monza, while Mercedes were also comfortable at another low downforce track in Silverstone.
Ferrari, on the other hand, have been in a class of their own when the power unit is not as crucial at high downforce circuits, sealing dominant one-twos in Monaco and Hungary.
Sky F1’s Pat Symonds predicted the final run-ins ahead of the Belgian GP and has been proved right with his Mercedes tips so far, but it looks like the rest of the season could suit Ferrari.
It’s quite a complex thing, said Symonds. I’ve been looking at sensitivity, so through simulation looking at the effects of downforce, the effects of aerodynamic efficiency, of power and tyre grip. I’ve gone back through the previous races and tried to establish the correlation between those factors and the performance that we’ve seen. They’re not clear cut.
Next up is Singapore, not quite a Ferrari stronghold but certainly a track Mercedes have struggled at in recent years. Vettel won in 2015, while Rosberg was pushed hard by Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull last season.
Mercedes’ Niki Lauda even claimed they will lose for sure at F1’s marquee night race, while executive director Toto Wolff did at least have a more optimistic outlook.
The slow, twisty circuits have rather suited Red Bull and Ferrari, he told Sky F1. But I don’t think that is a pattern which can’t be broken.
And though Ferrari were comprehensively beaten in Italy, their race pace was generally better than Mercedes in Spa.
Like Ferrari has caught us up at circuits like Spa, we need to catch up at circuits like Singapore, said Wolff, with Sky F1’s Johnny Herbert adding: I thought Spa and Monza would be Ferrari’s weakest of the lot and it seems to have turned out that way. They’ve done damage limitation and I think they’ll be strong in the next couple of races.
So, is it advantage Vettel? Still – there are a couple of tracks that appear just too close to call.
The variation track to track just highlights the difference, ex-Ferrari engineer Pat Fry told the F1 Report. Two cars that do the same lap time at one circuit, will do a completely different lap time at a different circuit with different characteristics. It’s how you design the car and the engine.
Singapore is maximum downforce. Energy recovery is easy because there’s so many braking turns there, so you’re not fighting for energy and your power unit is a lot better off.
That will swing back a bit like Monaco – that is going to be a Ferrari track. Malaysia is halfway between the two and then you look at Suzuka – can Ferrari repeat the performance they showed in Spa? I think it will be very close.
But what else could influence the title race?
Could it be development? Sergio Marchionne has praised his team’s 2017 efforts so far, in an area which is often a Ferrari shortfall. But more upgrades must follow.
Just as Mercedes have learned to control and improve their ‘diva’ of a W08, Brundle wrote in his latest Sky F1 column that Ferrari have to hit back hard immediately with power and aero updates.
Will it come down to reliability, just as we saw with Hamilton and his engine in Malaysia last year?
Ferrari took their fourth turbocharger on Vettel’s car back in May – one more would incur a grid penalty – while Mercedes are already onto their fourth engine after taking it at Spa.
We have taken an engine early to have the performance gain, Wolff said. But before the end of the season, the engine is going to come to the end of its life. It could well be that we [Mercedes and Ferrari] are taking some penalties.
Or, as Robert Kubica has predicted, could second drivers Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen play a very important role?
Mercedes have already admitted they could sacrifice Bottas, now 41 points behind Hamilton in the standings, to help his team-mate’s title charge, just as Ferrari have been doing with Raikkonen.
Mercedes will have to play the Ferrari game, said Brundle. It is so close.
But who will come out on top?
The Sky F1 pundits have had their say, with Paul di Resta, Damon Hill and Brundle plumping for Hamilton, while Herbert believes Vettel can recover to claim a fifth crown.
But what do you think?
There’s so much more to come, and it’s so difficult to predict.
We go to every race and we don’t know who’s going to be on pole, we don’t know who’s going to be winning the race or indeed even filling the podium, added Brundle. I see that staying the same way until the end of the season.
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