Sebastian Vettel may have made mistakes this season, but his manner following Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix wasn’t one of them.
Apart from prioritising the need to personally congratulate Lewis Hamilton instead of completing a post-race interview with David Coulthard, Vettel also took the trouble to visit the Mercedes boffins and shake each one by the hand. As Seb knows only too well, it’s not just the driver but a combined and meticulously organised group effort that wins championships even though Vettel will probably reflect that his part in Ferrari’s failure was greater than that of his team.
The downside of doing everything possible to score maximum points on Sunday was the subsequent visit to the media centre, as required of the top three finishers, and having to answer painful questions about the realisation that his championship challenge was over, 19 races and 31 weeks after it had started in Melbourne.
His simple answer “It’s a horrible moment” needed little elaboration. But Vettel went on to describe how that moment, with agonising analysis, expands into the days, weeks and months of planning, testing and racing from the moment one championship is lost and the focus becomes even more intense as it switches to winning the next one. Then, suddenly and publically, it’s gone and the process has to start all over again.
Without wishing to downplay his excruciating mistake at Hockenheim when 33 points (net) slithered across the gravel and into the barrier, Vettel said Singapore was a defining moment. Following on from the disappointment of Monza, Marina Bay was where Ferrari began to lose their way for a crucial three races.
It was also, he might have added (but didn’t), the scene of his rival’s most outstanding performance in 2018. Hamilton’s pole position that evening was nothing short of sensational; a lap of such precision carried by a form of otherworldly speed in the manner of his hero, Ayrton Senna, at Monaco in 1988. If this 96 seconds of jaw-dropping perfection went beyond even the high expectation of Lewis’s most ardent supporters in the Mercedes garage, it must have quietly destroyed Seb and a team already beginning to rock onto the back foot.
Inevitably, Hamilton has his critics but even the most zealous would be hard pressed to point to a serious mistake during more than 5,500 kms of racing so far. Consistency may have racked up points in a manner that wins championships – helped occasionally by his rival’s mistakes (Baku, Paul Ricard, Hockenheim) and a wet track at the right moment (qualifying in Hungary) – but Hamilton also remained calm when the going got tough. He and Mercedes did the best all-round job even though Ferrari had the marginally better car for at least half of the races, albeit determined by the blink of an eye over a single lap.
Recalling their brief but sporting moment together in parc fermé on Sunday, Vettel said he had asked Hamilton to "keep pushing for next year. I need him at his best to fight him again."
That touches on an interesting question. Winning five titles is a mammoth achievement and it’s reasonable to wonder if Hamilton will be able to, or interested in digging deep and enduring yet another season of relentless pressure. But having reached five – an achievement that even Lewis would have thought unlikely 10 years ago next weekend when he scraped home to his first in Brazil – there must be a temptation to go for seven, a target that Michael Schumacher seemed to have pushed beyond the reach of any driver, no matter how brilliant.
Another challenge beckons in the short term. Hamilton has failed to win a race following the acquisition of any of his previous titles before the season’s end. It’s a slim hope for Vettel as he tries to help bring the Constructors’ Championship back to Maranello for the first time since 2008. That would be some consolation for Ferrari and give the Mercedes crew an opportunity to return Seb’s gracious act.