F1 Raceweek: Vettel hopes hang by a thread in Japan
The Formula One title race has taken on an air of inevitability in recent weeks, with Lewis Hamilton opening up a 50-point lead over Sebastian Vettel.
After three consecutive victories for defending champion Hamilton and a disastrous qualifying session for Ferrari in Japan on Friday, Vettel's hopes of a fifth drivers' crown are fading fast.
He will start from eighth at Suzuka, with Hamilton on pole and shielded by second-placed Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who has shown he is receptive to team orders that aid his colleague's cause.
Vettel has won only one of the last six races - the only one Hamilton has not won in that period - with the Briton building a run of form similar to the one that landed him the title in 2017.
That sequence included victory in the Japanese Grand Prix and an 80th pole position sees him well placed to succeed again this weekend.
And the omens are good for Hamilton if he can turn that pole into another victory, with the winner of this race having gone on to win the drivers' title in each of the last six seasons.
FERRARI FURY AT QUALI BLUNDER
Ferrari made a mess of their tyre choice for Q3, sending Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen out on intermediates before switching back to slicks in time for the heavens to open once more.
Vettel defended the decision after the conclusion of the session but team boss Maurizio Arrivabene was less forgiving.
"From the way things were done, I do not think that pole position was within our reach, but what happened today is unacceptable," he told Autosport.
"I am very angry. It is not the first time that these mistakes have occurred.
"I do not feel like pointing my fingers at someone in particular, but I'm very disappointed."
HAMILTON AND MERCEDES EXPOSING 'STEP BACK'
Ferrari's failings have played right into the hands of Hamilton, who says Mercedes have remained focused on their own responsibilities.
"Ferrari have taken a step back for whatever reason but we've not let that deter us from improving the car and stepping forward," he told Sky Sports.
"Naturally it's great when you see us do pretty much a perfect job. it's hard for others to compete with that when you have the strength that we're showing."
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
4. Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)
5. Romain Grosjean (Haas)
6. Brendon Hartley (Toro Rosso)
7. Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso)
8. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
9. Sergio Perez (Racing Point Force India)
10. Charles Leclerc (Sauber)
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 306
2. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 256 (-50)
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 189 (-117)
4. Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) 186 (-120)
5. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 158 (-148)
1. Mercedes 495
2. Ferrari 442 (-57)
3. Red Bull 292 (-203)
4. Renault 91 (-404)
5. Haas 80 (-415)
2017: Lewis Hamilton
2016: Nico Rosberg
2015: Lewis Hamilton
Following the rain that affected qualifying, there is a brighter outlook for Sunday's race, which should help Vettel in his bid to make up early ground on Hamilton.