F1: What Sebastian Vettel's win at Spa indicates about the world championship?
Perhaps it may not be wrong to suggest that had it not been for the spellbinding rivalry between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, the current narrative of Formula 1 may have seemed rather pale and bland.
The thrilling contests between these two racing heroes; icons in their own right have truly lifted the spectre of motor racing.
Every sport needs a great narrative against which it casts its destiny.
In the absence of Nico Rosberg, who could go as far as thwarting Lewis’ menacing charge in only one season – the 2016 championship- only Sebastian Vettel has emerged as the sole driver on the grid to push Hamilton on the limit.
This has effectively produced both heroic drives from the German driver as well as given a chance to Hamilton to stamp his authority in the topmost echelons of four-wheel racing.
In 2015, Lewis left little to the imagination in his all-conquering drives pretty much everywhere including the European circuits and the ones in the Americas, he would be halted in 2016.
A year later, after seeing Nico eclipse with the glory, 2017 once again produced an indomitable triumph from Lewis Hamilton, who at Mexico became a four-time world champion. His deserving crown was so stoic in its arrival that despite being visibly crushed at Mexico, Vettel walked up to the Briton in his gracious acknowledgement of Hamilton’s fury.
The way Mercedes, continuing its commanding hurrah of the turbo-powered V6 era, bounced back to grab the championship during the climax of 2017 was a statement of intent. On some occasions, where Vettel did appear to have brain-fade moments, it did appear as if Ferrari were simply denied any reasonable opportunity of a win.
To break down Mercedes’ authoritative charge in 2017 further, it may be useful to note that upon resumption of the season, post the mid-season break, Mercedes-powered Lewis Hamilton won 5 of the remaining 9 races. Of these, the Brackley-based outfit won 6 Grands Prix out of the pending 9 contests.
Hamilton, through fantastic wins at Spa-Francorchamps, Monza, Singapore, Suzuka and, the United States proved his might. And where he couldn’t, Valtteri Bottas stepped in to claw Ferrari further, at the season-concluding Yas Marina, home to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
While a solitary win from these 9 races in the post-mid-season break belonged to Red Bull, thanks to Verstappen’s attacking win at Sepang, Vettel could only go as far as winning at Interlagos, by which time it was already too late to counter what’s aptly described as the ‘Hammertime.’
The way Lewis forged his power through superior drives at Singapore, continuing dismissive form in Mexico, Brazil and the United States, reiterated why Hamilton commands such a massive fan-base, after all.
Despite constant backlash over the Internet where he’s often chided and subjected to numerous trolls, there’s something that the true Hamilton critic cannot deny.
Today, he is, inarguably, one of F1’s all-time greats, who in the wake of his Mercedes performances (and unparalleled consistency) has raised the bar for what it means to be a great driver.
At the same time, it might make sense to concur, his triumphs at the highest level may not have been so highly regarded had his calibre may not have been tested against his archrival’s.
But that was 2017. What has fundamentally changed this year?
While the story of 2018 season may still be favouring Hamilton statistically, who by virtue of his 17-point advantage over title rival Vettel is on top of the standings with 231 points, would you consider Vettel done and dusted, despite being on second?
Two great drivers, one admired for his immense consistency and never say die attitude and the other revered for his concentration and commitment stay tied on four world titles.
Formula 1 may not have asked for a better narrative than another precious world-championship hanging on the knife’s edge?
While an Alonso fighting in a better, fighting machinery and a Kimi win out of nowhere would’ve spiced up the 2018 fight a great deal more, the sport ought to tip its hat to Vettel and Hamilton.
In here, rests an absolute change of fortune.
There's something that compels one to look beyond stats.
When Sebastian Vettel entered the mid-season break in the 2017 Formula 1 season, he did so with a commanding win at the Hungaroring. Supported by his teammate Raikkonen’s second-place finish, the two drivers orchestrated a brilliant Ferrari show at a circuit where Hamilton had registered 6 wins.
There possibly cannot be a better feeling to enter a mini-break of sorts to see your name looming large on the standings. Of course, what happened, later on, is a different story.
But this year, as Vettel entered the mid-season break, he failed to win at Hungaroring, wherein he’s only gone on to score a win on 2 previous occasions.
The same way there’s a great relief to see one’s name as the victor and right on top before the season breaks, there’s disconsolation knowing your arch-rival has won where you didn’t and that he’d resume his charge upon the break with the momentum resting in his favour.
In 2017, Spa-Francorchamps unfurled an interesting wheel-to-wheel battle where Mercedes, arguably assisted by better downforce and straight-line speed grasped the contest by the scruff of the neck.
One could only do as much as feel for Sebastian, who saw Hamilton conquer Spa, responding brilliantly to the German’s win at the previous event, at Hungaroring.
But what do we see this year?
Coming into the climax of the 2018 season, Vettel resumed action with his back against the wall. There was the added pressure of seeing Hamilton right on top at Spa-Francorchamps qualifying where had it not been for the German’s special triumph, Hamilton may simply have gone on to repeat last year’s result.
On both occasions, Hamilton’s impressive qualifying performances put him right on top at Spa.
The only difference and a fighting one at that were Vettel coming in way of Hamilton’s march to victory at Belgium in 2018, a site he wasn’t able to quite manage in 2017.
The way in which Sebastian turned a corner at Spa, inside the opening lap, keeping Hamilton and Ocon at bay, right after the skirmish seconds from the start was about as dominant as Hamilton’s fight-back last year.
Vettel couldn’t have asked for more.
Let’s just consider, for a second, what might have happened had Vettel, aided by Ferrari’s imperious pace at Spa not have won in the end?
Had Vettel not won the race, the current 17-point gap to Hamilton may have actually been well over 25 points. In hindsight, Vettel’s turnaround at Belgium would’ve meant him entering Ferrari’s dominion, at Monza, with a faint heart.
Another win, which fundamentally seems possible given Ferrari’s flying race-pace as witnessed at Spa could mean Vettel reaching 239 points. And should Hamilton finish second, at 249, it would mean Vettel cutting down the gap to Hamilton by a good 10 points.
But as the future will unfold what will truly happen, it must be added that seeing Sebastian Vettel fight as good as he is, is in itself, worthy of some consideration.
When Sebastian Vettel lost control of his Ferrari in the dying moments of the German Grand Prix where he'd all but won, he saw Hamilton claim what was, until then, destined to be his race. It was the exact polarised opposite of his fortunate win at Silverstone, where Hamilton found his cradle rocked. Yet, on both occasions, despite massive heartbreaks, both legendary drivers unfurled mental toughness to forge a fighting comeback and reverse the tide.
It is moments like these where Formula 1 can both make or break a driver. It is during these intense battles where one can either leave a strand of one's own fighting DNA on the sport or perish without a fight.
To that end, there could be nothing more incredible than the fan triumphing in the end, being uplifted by the prowess of two incredible drivers. It will leave the sport with its legions of globetrotting fans buried to the edge of their seats should Sebastian continue his marauding form. It will, in turn, transform the current world championship into being this war of sorts, forged by speed and decided by guts and glory.