Was Singapore a one-off or can Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari dare to dream of title glory?
In the last five races, Sebastian Vettel has amassed exactly the same number of points as Formula 1 world championship leader Lewis Hamilton; he's ...
In the last five races, Sebastian Vettel has amassed exactly the same number of points as Formula 1 world championship leader Lewis Hamilton; he's actually outpointed the Briton in the last four races. So has he reignited his 2015 title challenge?
Since the British Grand Prix at the beginning of July, Vettel and Hamilton have both scored 83 points, but in the last four races, Vettel has outscored Hamilton by ten points, 68-58. Vettel would have 15 more points, or at least 12 more, had he not suffered a rear tyre failure at the Belgian Grand Prix as he tried to hold onto third place late in the race.
The Ferrari driver is now 49 points behind Hamilton in the driver's championship, and just eight behind Nico Rosberg, with a maximum of 150 points still possible before the end of the season.
Daniel Ricciardo has also stepped up his point scoring in recent races. The Australian, despite two DNFs at Silverstone and Spa, has scored 37 of his 73 points since the British Grand Prix, the fourth highest tally after Vettel and the two Mercedes drivers, showing clear progress for Red Bull too, despite Renault not using any of its engine development 'tokens'.
Ferrari and Red Bull have really made a clear step forward since Silverstone – Ferrari with its rear end aerodynamics and qualifying mode engine improvements and Red Bull on its chassis – and while they were both helped by Mercedes’ poor race in Hungary, they were both genuinely quicker than the Silver Arrows in Singapore.
The supersoft diminishes Mercedes' advantage
Pirelli, as has become common practice, brought the soft and supersoft compound tyres to Singapore’s slow speed, low degradation track. Mercedes were simply not able to get them into the correct (and very narrow) operating temperature range as Ferrari and Red Bull managed last weekend.
In fact, to some degree, you could see this upset coming: generally the Mercedes advantage is greater on tracks where the harder Pirelli compounds are used. So in Silverstone, for example (on medium tyres) the Mercedes was 1.1s ahead of Ferrari in qualifying.
Although Mercedes had a small advantage on the supersoft and soft tyres in Monaco, Austria and Canada, the latter was a potential chance for Ferrari, but Vettel had technical problems and Raikkonen spun.
In Austria on supersofts the gap in Q3 to Ferrari was just 0.355s, in Canada it was 0.621s to Raikkonen so if Vettel had not had problems it would have been more like 0.3s and in Monaco it was 0.751s (before the Ferrari got the quali modes on the engine).
Intriguingly the same supersoft and soft tyre choice will be in Sochi and probably Abu Dhabi. In Sochi watch out for Mercedes spending time in Friday practice running some test exercises on the supersoft to try to understand what happened in Singapore.
Mercedes’ motorsport boss, Toto Wolff, hinted that this would need to happen; he is in no doubt the tyres were the cause of his team's poor form around the Marina Bay track. But he is confident there will not be a repeat performance at this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix on medium and hard tyres.
Speaking after the Singapore race, Wolff said: “I don't believe we've lost car performance from one weekend to the other in a dramatic way like we did, and equally I don't believe someone found a second-and-a-half from one race to the other.
"It's the tyre. We spoke to the drivers and the degradation was just massive, which is unexplainable for us. We believe it to be a circuit specific problem with the tyres where we didn't manage to get the grip.
"It's a very specific circuit in terms of the way the tyre operates compared to many other circuits. This is how you explain these gaps, and we'll have to prove that in Suzuka.
"The car is the same, we haven't lost performance, we just need a methodical approach and to find the right balance.”
Avoiding engine penalties is key
Vettel said after the race that he would do everything he could to build on his current form and close down the Mercedes drivers in the championship. He and Raikkonen are both on their fourth and last allocated engine, with six races to go. Italian sources suggest that a new fifth engine will come at Austin, where the penalty is minimised as it's easy to overtake on the long straight.
Vettel will be as interested as everyone else to see whether Rosberg and Hamilton will have any ongoing issues with the new power units. Rosberg is on his fourth and Hamilton is on his third. Both have had problems with the latest generation unit. With six races to go, Rosberg is the more likely of the two to take an engine penalty (and Austin would be the least painful place to do that, or possibly Mexico). Hamilton's problem on Sunday was a $2 clamp breaking on a turbo hose so it appears innocuous. But if he were to take an engine penalty at some point..
Vettel said: “All we have to do is look after ourselves, maximum attack, what they do is not in our hands. Maybe we still have a chance, and maybe we can make the impossible possible, and we will go for it.”
Ferrari has performed well against Mercedes when Pirelli has brought its softer compounds to races and when conditions have been hot, and they were both factors in Vettel's win in Singapore. But Pirelli will use the medium and hard compound tyres, which Mercedes excelled on earlier in the season, at Suzuka, where conditions are usually cooler than Singapore at this time of year.
Red Bull boss, Christian Horner, reckons the Japanese Grand Prix is a true test of Ferrari’s championship chances.
He said: "What has been difficult to understand is the fact that Mercedes have struggled to be competitive this weekend. If that carries through into next weekend then Ferrari has a chance. If it is back to business as usual, then it becomes very much a long shot."
Ricciardo also reckons Singapore was the best opportunity for his team to score huge points with Mercedes struggling, before normal service returns in Japan.
He said: “I think this was our best chance of a win and we got close, so we can be proud of what we did. We have made the most of our opportunities here. Suzuka is usually a good track for us, although I don’t expect to do as well as there, but we can aim for the top five.”
Ferrari has closed the gap to Mercedes thanks to the powerful engine modes it has been able to run since Monza, but the nature of the Suzuka circuit and the harder compounds being used in Japan should bring Hamilton and Rosberg back to the front.
But Mercedes will be concerned about the soft compound tyres being brought to the Russian Grand Prix and possibly Abu Dhabi too – although the specifications post-Sochi have yet to be announced – as it did not have an answer for the tyre woes it suffered under the spotlights in Singapore.What do you think? Can Ferrari win Sochi and Abu Dhabi? Can they dream of doing more than that? Leave your answers in comments section below
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