In an alternate universe somewhere, sellers of confetti and party hats in Italy are preparing for a business boom. Sebastian Vettel is about to end Ferrari’s long wait for a championship.
In this one, Vettel trails Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton by 40 points, with the Englishman dealing another hammer blow with victory at the Singapore Grand Prix. While Hamilton has been flawless for much of 2018, the errors of Vettel and Ferrari have handed him the initative and the championship is now his to lose.
Here, we recalculate the F1 championship and see how things could have played out had Vettel delivered the results his car had been capable of every weekend, without the six mistakes which have culminated this year to threaten his hopes of beating Hamilton to a fifth world championship.
Azerbaijan Grand Prix
Threw away at least two places with a misjudged overtake on Valtteri Bottas for the lead, locking up heavily and ruining his tyres. He dropped down the order to fourth, while Hamilton benefitted from Bottas’ late retirement to win the race.
It’s hard to be too critical of Vettel for his lunge on Bottas — he saw an opportunity and he went for it — but the ramifications of not getting it done are obvious. Instead of either leading or holding on to second, Vettel, who had been running behind Hamilton, slipped down the order. Bottas would run over debris on the penultimate lap and retire with a puncture, elevating Hamilton to first position and 25 points). Vettel had to settle for fourth position and 12 points.
Had Vettel made the move he would have won the race. It’s hard to assume too much — being the lead car may have also meant he was the one who drove over the piece of debris which ruined Bottas’ race — but we are going to say Vettel beat Bottas, who stayed ahead of Hamilton.
Swing: Vettel should scored 25 points, but he left with just 12. Hamilton stays third behind Bottas, scoring himself 15 points instead of 25.
Points lost: 13
Actual championship standings afterwards: Hamilton – 70 Vettel – 66
Projected championship standings afterwards: Vettel – 79 Hamilton – 60
French Grand Prix
Clumsily collided with Bottas while fighting for second position at Turn 1. Finished fifth when a podium was possible.
Vettel had the car to finish on the podium in France. Challenging Hamilton might have been tricky, as Mercedes was strong at Paul Ricard, but Vettel’s early clash took him and Bottas out of contention immediately. It also promoted Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen into a fight for the final spots on the podium. Verstappen won that duel, but it’s hard to see the Red Bull driver beating Vettel or Bottas with either driver still in play.
Swing: He scored 10, but it could have been 15 or 18, while Hamilton got the full 25. We’ll say the latter — Vettel could have beaten Bottas to second and split the Mercedes drivers on the podium.
Points lost: 8 (21 overall)
Actual championship standings afterwards: Hamilton – 145 Vettel – 131
Projected championship standings afterwards: Vettel – 152 Hamilton – 135
Austrian Grand Prix
Held up the Renault of Carlos Sainz in qualifying, earning himself a five-place grid penalty. Started sixth instead of third, which is where he finished despite both Mercedes cars retiring.
Vettel’s most innocuous error this year had massive ramifications in the score column. He had qualified third behind the Mercedes drivers — both of which failed to finish after encountering car trouble. In real life, Verstappen was elevated into the victorious position by a quick stop under the Virtual Safety Car but Vettel should have had track position at this point had he not been penalised.
Swing: Vettel should have left Austria with the full 25 points instead of 15.
Points lost: 10 (31 overall)
Actual championship standings afterwards: Vettel – 146 Hamilton – 135
Projected championship standings afterwards: Vettel – 177 Hamilton – 135
German Grand Prix
Spun out of the lead of the lead of the race when it started raining. Scored zero points in a race he should have won — something Hamilton did instead.
Vettel’s biggest error of the season was as big as they come, and also as rare (the last driver to have ashed out of the lead of a race was Fernando Alonso at the 2005 Canadian Grand Prix). Although the late rain storm flipped everything on its head, it seemed highly unlikely that Hamilton’s charge through the field from 14th on the grid would be for anything more than a podium finish.
It’s difficult to work out how this one might have played out as the race had already been plunged into pure chaos. The moment Vettel went nose-first into the tyre barrier, the order behind him was Bottas, Raikkonen and Hamilton. Raikkonen was struggling, so Hamilton could have picked him off before the finish for the final podium position.
Swing: Vettel should have scored 25 points here. I’ll say Hamilton would have only scored himself 15.
Points lost: 25 (56 overall)
Actual championship standings afterwards: Hamilton – 188 Vettel – 171
Projected championship standings: Vettel – 227 Hamilton – 168
Italian Grand Prix
Missed out on pole position, then spun around by Hamilton while fighting for position on the opening lap. Fought back to fourth, but he had the car to comfortably win the race.
Vettel had the car for pole position and victory at Monza. He got neither of them. The German was frustrated with Ferrari’s qualifying strategy, having been beaten to pole by teammate Raikkonen. That meant he was under threat from Hamilton at the start. Raikkonen held the lead into Turn 1 and Vettel took a strange approach to the next corner, leaving the outside unguarded as he looked down the inside of his teammate. Hamilton pounced, sweeping around the outside — but not before a clash of cars.
Vettel spun around and immediately out of contention for the victory or podium. I’ll put this error as two-fold — one for Ferrari not ensuring its lead driver claimed pole and two for Vettel compromising his race so early on. He should have ended Ferrari’s Monza victory drought, no question.
Swing: He should have scored 25, not 12. Hamilton was in a feisty mood that weekend — his actual drive was spectacular — so should have been able to at least dispatch Raikkonen for second position.
Points lost: 13 (69 overall)
Actual championship standings afterwards: Hamilton – 256 Vettel – 226
Projected championship standings afterwards: Vettel – 295 Hamilton – 229
Singapore Grand Prix
There were several. Vettel hit the wall in FP2, losing valuable track time, before Ferrari appeared to muddle up its preparations for his crucial laps in qualifying. That, coupled with some lock-ups on his final lap, forced Vettel to settle for third. In the race, having misheard a radio message from Hamilton, Ferrari pitted early and, instead of attacking Hamilton for the lead, got stuck in traffic and lost third position again to Verstappen.
Like Monza, leaving Singapore without pole and/or the race win was pretty inexcusable for Vettel and Ferrari. The team had the car to do it but instead saw it’s weekend unravel in alarming fashion. We’ll say if the team had been on top of its game in Q3 Vettel could have beaten Hamilton’s mega lap, gaining the track position that is so crucial at the Marina Bay circuit, meaning its strategy blunder the following day would not have happened.
Swing: Vettel scores 25 instead of 10, leaving Hamilton with 18.
Points lost: 10 (79 overall)
Actual championship standings now: Hamilton – 281 Vettel – 241
Projected championship standings now: Vettel – 320 Hamilton – 247
What might have been
By this estimate, Vettel should be leading the championship by 73 points with six races to spare. That’s a buffer of nearly three victories, with six races left. When the results are readjusted, Hamilton would have scored a more modest 247 — just six points more than Vettel actually has to his name currently. Hamilton’s form has been brilliant but several of his best results came when Vettel and/or Ferrari dropped the ball.
Of course, we are not saying the championship definitely would have played out like this — it’s impossible to predict the variables that would have impacted each different scenario. But it leaves no doubt that Vettel and the sublime Ferrari SF70H should be in control of the championship. In this timeline, he could have it wrapped up as early as the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin. Instead, those who love the team in red are facing up to the reality that 2018 might just be a year the team let slip through its fingers.