Hamilton extends advantage, but Vettel's Sepang salvage keeps Mercedes on back foot
On the surface, the Malaysian Grand Prix couldn't have gone much better for Lewis Hamilton. Sure, he didn't win, but his championship lead is up to 34 points over Sebastian Vettel, with Ferrari once again failing to capitalise on a track which they were expected to be strong at.
Scratch the surface a little, however, and it is no surprise to see Hamilton leaving Sepang with an air of uncertainty, perhaps even dread, around his prospects for the remainder of the campaign.
By rights, Vettel ought to be well clear in the championship by now.
He qualified on pole in Singapore before his, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen's races were ended at the first corner, while Hamilton admitted after taking second place behind the Red Bull prodigy in Malaysia that the Silver Arrows had expected to lose around eight tenths of a second per lap to Ferrari around the Sepang circuit.
What luck for Hamilton, then, that - after skirting around the early drama to win in Singapore - Vettel and Raikkonen suffered engine problems last weekend.
Though Raikkonen would not start the race, Vettel produced one of the great drives of recent years to finishÂ fourth from the back of the grid.
It remains an accepted truth in the paddock that Hamilton is perhaps the more natural racer of this year's title protagonists, but Vettel's race craft is not to be underestimated.
The four-time champion made up eight places on the opening lap alone and had entered the top six after barely more than a fifth of the race distance.
Verstappen and Hamilton were too far away, but Valtteri Bottas was no match for Vettel and only dogged Daniel Riccardo defence denied the fast-finishing Ferrari a podium.
Bottas' struggles in recent weeks will be of great concern to Hamilton, leaving him without the rear gunner that he could need in the closing weeks, especially as Red Bull continue to make improvements.
Also ensuring Hamilton's vision is over his shoulder rather than straight ahead is Vettel's previous in these situations.
In a well-balanced car, taking on a high-profile rival with greater shunt underneath him - Vettel has been here before, and more than once...
2010 - Five races remaining:
2010 - Final standings:
2012 - Seven races remaining:
2012 - Final standings:Â
Vettel certainly has the pedigree in the final races of the season. He has more wins to his name compared to Hamilton at Suzuka and Interlagos, although the Brit will once again be favourite at Austin, where he has won four of the five races since its introduction to the calendar.
Despite Hamilton's lead, the season seems increasingly set for a last-race showdown in Abu Dhabi, the kind of tight, twisting track that Mercedes have been miserable at this season. Fernando Alonso knows what it is like to lose out to Vettel there, failing to secure the fourth-place finish in 2010 that would have denied the German to win his maiden title.
He may not have the lead he would have hoped for, but Vettel retains the momentum over Hamilton heading to Suzuka.
FINALLY NO BUMPS AS VERSTAPPEN ENJOYS PERFECT BIRTHDAY
Verstappen enjoyed a race to remember, brightening a season that has featured many moments he must wish he could forget.
The Dutchman has completed fewer miles in 2017Â than both Alonso, who missed theÂ Monaco Grand PrixÂ (and has drivenÂ thatÂ McLaren), and Pascal Wehrlein, whoÂ satÂ out the first two events of the season.
Engine blow-outs, brake failures, first corner shunts - you name it, Verstappen has had to put up with it this season, the latter issues often calling some to question his maturity.
But as he departed his teenage years, the recently turned 20-year-old delivered his most polished performance to date, capitalising on Hamilton's early electrical struggles and then leaving the Mercedes for dust.
Verstappen's win did not have the on-track assist that has generally opened the door for Daniel Ricciardo's Red Bull victories, although the absence of the Ferraris was obviously a blessing.
Regardless, it is instructive that Verstappen would have become the youngest race-winner in F1 history, had he not already achieved that featÂ almost a year and a half ago in Barcelona - such remain the tenderness of his years. This was a coming-out performance for Verstappen, and a coming-back one for Red Bull.
They could have a role to play in the title race, yet.