Blundell on F1: The stakes are high for Vettel and Ferrari

Mark BlundellSeptember will not be remembered fondly by Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel and the tifosi. Beaten on their home turf by the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton was followed by losing both their cars at the start of the Singapore GP. Bad luck is said to come in three’s and Ferrari’s was rounded off last weekend in Malaysia as engine problems haunted the Italian outfit throughout the weekend.

As you can imagine, the Ferrari president, Sergio Marchionne, did not respond lightly to this run of disastrous results as he blamed youth and inexperience in the engine department. This sparked an immediate response from the prancing horse’s hierarchy as Ferrari made instant changes to the ‘quality department’ of their team – highlighting the ever-growing pressure Maurizio Arrivabene and his team is under to secure its first championship title in almost a decade.

Heading into September, Ferrari were looking like the favourites for the rounds in Malaysia and Singapore but despite Ferrari’s extremely quick cars, Hamilton enters October 34 points clear of his German rival. To put the gap into perspective, if Hamilton finishes second at all of the remaining races, Vettel would need to win all five to win the title by a single point. To add insult to injury, Vettel might carry his bad luck from September into Suzuka as a post-race incident with rookie, Lance Stroll, may have damaged the Ferrari-driver’s gearbox and should the Italian manufacturer be forced to change the damaged part – a penalty will shortly follow from the FIA.

Turning attention to Suzuka this weekend, my money would have to go on Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton as the Brit looks to match Vettel’s four wins at the Japanese circuit. One of the best races on the calendar in my opinion, the circuit rewards engine power and aerodynamic efficiency – a combination Mercedes has seemed to find the perfect balance with across the 2017 season.

However, if Hamilton is going to extend his championship lead further he will need the help of his Finnish stablemate, Valtteri Bottas, who has hit a slump in his maiden year with the Silver Arrows. Since winning in Austria, Bottas has only secured two second-place finishes in the last six races and this run of form has already raised questions from team boss Toto Wolff. This weekend offers Bottas the chance to answers the questions and prove that he is the right man to partner Hamilton in the most illustrious seat in Formula One.

Despite Hamilton extending his championship lead in Malaysia, the three-time World Champion has not held back in criticising Mercedes’ development through the year, stating the problems with the car are ‘getting worse as the season goes on’. Could this be true or is this Hamilton just playing mind games with Ferrari as the Brit leads the championship despite saying Mercedes ‘have not got the best car’ globally?

Conceding the win at Malaysia to Max Verstappen, Hamilton said he drove a cautious race, not fighting Verstappen when the Dutchman went to pass him on lap four – going ‘against (his) heart.’ These comments shouldn’t take anything away from Max Verstappen though who drove a sensational race to take the second win of his career and finally saw a silver lining emerge from his torrid 2017 campaign.

Moving down the grid to Stoffel Vandoorne who showed his strongest performance in his McLaren-Honda. Arriving in F1 this season, the Belgian arrived in the paddock with high expectations after a stellar junior career and stole the limelight from Fernando Alonso for the first time this season. Finishing in 7th place for the second time in as many races, Vandoorne has started to get the ball rolling on his Formula One career and with McLaren switching to Renault power for 2018, the podium places don’t seem too far away from the 2015 GP2 Champion.

Suzuka should be one of the closest contests between Mercedes, Ferrari and the Red Bull’s; and with rain looking to play a major part in this weekend’s action – we could be in for one of the most exciting and unpredictable races of the season to date.

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