KNUTSON: Fun While It Lasted

Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Well, it was fun while it lasted. Mercedes has dominated Formula One since the hybrid turbo power units were introduced in 2014, and Lewis Hamilton has dominated as well. His victory in the Japanese Grand Prix was his 50th with the Mercedes team.

The lone exception, of course, was in 2016 when Nico Rosberg won the championship, but then he was in the other Mercedes.

To me, real racing involves as least two competitors interacting on the track and not one driver leading every lap. In my ideal racing world, the FIA Formula One world championship would go down to the last race with half a dozen drivers all tied in points starting the last lap side by side.

Therefore, it was really great to see Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel give Mercedes and Hamilton a run for their money — and the championship — this season. OK, it was only two drivers fighting for the title, but that is better than one.

After he won the British Grand Prix, race 10 of 21, Vettel had an eight-point lead over Hamilton in the drivers’ championship. Two weeks later, Vettel made a small mistake in the rain and threw away a victory in his home Grand Prix of Germany. Hamilton proceeded to win that race as well as in Hungary a week later.

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When Vettel bounced back with a victory in Belgium, it looked like maybe he and Ferrari had things back on the winning track. But it was a false dawn, as proved by Hamilton whose triumph in Japan was his fourth in a row and sixth in seven races.

“We’ve stayed on course of our plan and we’re continuing to deliver at the strength and pace we have for a while now,” Hamilton said.

Ferrari, meanwhile, had gone off the rails and Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene called for the entire outfit to stop making mistakes and to improve.

Ironically, Hamilton is disappointed that the Ferrari/Vettel challenge is fading.

“When we were having the race like Monza — I loved that race,” he said of his wheel-to-wheel battle (plus the collision) with Vettel in the Italian Grand Prix. “I would’ve been happy to have had that every race following that. I honestly thought that we were going to have that. I thought that was how it was going to be being that they were so strong at the previous two races. But they just lost a lot of performance and then it’s been obviously a little bit difficult for them.”

Hamilton wants the championship battle to go down to the wire.

“Every single race I want battles like Monza,” he said. “I would welcome them more and more, but unfortunately it just isn’t the case. I can’t let that take away from the great job that we’re doing and from our happiness.”

Did Hamilton and Mercedes “break” Ferrari’s momentum?

“I think together we can claim credit for applying the pressure,” Hamilton said, “and ultimately maybe that’s what happens in head-to-head battles with top competitors — eventually, even though they’re still performing great, one of them can’t always be performing the same. It’s the psychological battle — war — that we’re in. It’s collectively done from everyone. Everyone’s putting in 100 percent and everyone’s delivered time and time again. I’ve been grateful to have also delivered when the team has delivered.”

Vettel wasn’t giving up.

“Well there’s still a chance,” he said after the Japanese Grand Prix. “The last couple races we made it a bit too easy for them, but also credit to them — they executed well. But we need to look after ourselves, do our best in the next couple of races, and then we’ll see.”

Arrivabene told Sky TV, “I know the situation looks impossible but our job is to challenge the impossible.”

The title fight was good while it lasted, but it is over. While I am in no way suggesting Ferrari now gives up, the reality is the Prancing Horse Scuderia and Vettel have lost the 2018 world championship.

They need to learn from all their mistakes, which they realize of course, and bounce back next year with a challenge that will not go off the rails part way through the season. And, hopefully, we can see a championship fight that goes down to the last lap of the last race.