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Opinion | The sun sets on Ferrari hopes in Japan

On Sunday, Vettel realised desperation is not enough. The German driver had qualified eighth at a time when he needed exclusively to win in order to keep distant championship hopes alive.

other sports Updated: Oct 09, 2018 08:59 IST
Raja Sen
Raja Sen
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
formula one,japan grand prix,F1
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel ahead of the race on Sunday.(REUTERS)

“If I don’t go for that gap and the gap was there… Might as well stay at home.” That’s what Sebastian Vettel told his team while slowing his Ferrari down after the Japanese Grand Prix. It sounds like a suitably samurai approach, evoking the tattoo-worthy Ayrton Senna quote: “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.”

The Japanese Grand Prix is held at the iconic circuit of Suzuka, where Senna had his most memorable duels with nemesis Alain Prost. In 1988, Senna drove a wet-weather masterclass to win and take his first world title. In 1989, both drivers crashed as Prost made sure not to give Senna room, but Senna restarted his car, improbably — and gloriously — still crossed the line in first place, yet was disqualified for cutting a chicane. In 1990, championship leader Senna drove into the side of Prost to take out both drivers. The incidents barely qualify as accidents: Prost closed the door defiantly in ’89, and Senna’s lunge in ’90 was intentionally savage. Anything for the win.

On Sunday, Vettel realised desperation is not enough. The German driver had qualified eighth at a time when he needed exclusively to win in order to keep distant championship hopes alive. He started the race heroically — bolting past three cars on the opening lap — but then, at the ever-sticky Spoon curve, he tried to slice past a defiantly obstinate Max Verstappen. They made contact and Vettel spun out. He was now last. He recovered to sixth place by the end, but the hara had been kiri’d.

The question is not whether the gap was there — it might just have been, from Vettel’s view — but Verstappen never gives room, and any gap involving him ought be considered half its width. For me, the moment is more questionable than the lunge. Verstappen was slower, and had been given a 5-second time penalty for unsafely rejoining the track. Vettel was, effectively, already ahead and in third place. All the Ferrari driver needed was to hold his (prancing) horses awhile.

A few years ago, the Senna quote was popularly tailored to suit an infamously crash-happy driver: “If you go for a gap that no longer exists, you’re Pastor Maldonado.” Vicious, but true. Vettel ended up closer to Maldonado than Senna this weekend.

Lewis Hamilton may be minding a different gap. The British driver is now 67 points ahead in the world championship standings, and, given Vettel’s form, can choose not to show up at the next four races and still nab the title. Hamilton is, however, showing up. With this performance — his fifth win in six races — he has moved to 71 wins. That’s 20 behind Michael Schumacher’s seemingly insurmountable record of 91. He might have it easier if Sebastian stays at home.

(Raja Sen is a film critic and one of India’s longest-running Formula One columnists)

First Published: Oct 09, 2018 08:58 IST