Did Sebastian Vettel Sabotage His Own Championship Chances?

A very close look at the Ferrari ace's season reveals plenty of blown chances to unseat Lewis Hamilton in the WDC.

Lars Baron, Getty Images Sport

Fifty-nine points behind Lewis Hamilton in F1's world driver championship standings, Sebastian Vettel's hopes of winning it this year are almost gone. Suffering from three unlucky race weekends in a row—a crash in Singapore, a grid penalty in Malaysia, and an engine failure in Japan—many Formula 1 fans will chalk up 2017 as a season when he could have won, were it not for factors outside of his control. 

But I wonder is the very opposite is true. Could Vettel right now be competing for the championship if not for mistakes of his own making? Has he taken every point available to him, or has he made mistakes that put him in a situation where reliability problems will cost him a championship?

I looked back at the season's 16 races so far, looking for weekends where Vettel's own performance could conceivably be cited for the disparity between what could have been and what has come to pass. Naturally, every weekend where Vettel won can be ignored, there are no points to be reclaimed from any of Vettel's four wins, which include Australia, Bahrain, Monaco, and Hungary.

So where did Vettel lose ground?

1. Chinese Grand Prix, April 9

Hamilton's performance was untouchable and allowed him to take home the Grand Chelem: pole, fastest lap, and every lap led. To claim Vettel could have extracted more from his car to surpass a prime performance by Hamilton would be dubious at best.

2. Russian Grand Prix, April 30

After the race start, Valtteri Bottas scrambled away to build a healthy lead, but after pitting on lap 28, his pace suffered relative to Vettel's, as Mercedes' setup and tire temperature problems in the early season left them with a narrow window of operation. With tires seven laps newer, and pace as much as 0.989 seconds per lap faster than Bottas (who had to deal with a nasty flat spot), Sebastian had every reason to catch and overtake the struggling Finn. Vettel, however, who has a history of losing his cool when he expects a blue flag, got his feathers ruffled in the closing stages of the race by backmarker traffic, and failed to close in on Bottas, losing out on seven points.

3. Grand Prix of Spain, May 14

After Ferrari was duped into an early pit stop, Vettel pitted a lap after Hamilton (laps 38 and 37, respectively) for medium tires, with Hamilton on softs narrowly missing out on the pass due to an aggressive first corner defense by Vettel. The maximum lifespan of the soft tires, if F1 Fanatic's tire strategy charts are correct, was in the low thirties, so Hamilton couldn't afford to take too much out of his tires if he wanted to both pass Vettel and maintain the lead. 

Recall the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix, when that very strategy failed for Ferrari. While Räikkönen and Verstappen used the same tire compound, as opposed to differing compounds, the situation is paralleled in that the driver on better tires was trailing the race leader after the final pit stop, and had to use a narrow window of opportunity to overtake the leading car for a chance at the race win. Räikkönen, despite being up to a second a lap faster, suffered from accelerated tire wear due to repeated overtake attempts and following closely in Verstappen's dirty air, and was unable to pass for the lead on the notoriously tricky Catalunya circuit.

2016 showed that even with a faster car, and better tires, the trailing car will still have a hard time getting past the leader in Spain. We can be sure that Hamilton knew this, and on lap 44, number 44 made his move around the outside of turn 1 to take the race lead, which he maintained until the checkered flag. 

As was shown to be possible in 2016, staying calm and not overreacting to a driver approaching from behind can be the difference between keeping and losing position at the tricky Catalunya circuit. Though the overtake itself was complete prior to the braking point, unlike the attempts seen in 2016, with Kimi being all too eager with his attempts to pass Verstappen, we can't help but wonder if there was more Vettel could have done to hold back Hamilton.

With how difficult it is to determine if Vettel squeezed every drop from his SF70H, and whether or not there was more to give, the net result is that a win for Vettel in Spain would have had the effect of narrowing the gap as it stands now by 14 points, not 7, as the extra points Hamilton took with the race win would have been transplanted to Vettel's score.

Due to how contentious this hypothetical is, it will be mentioned again later, in the final tally of the season's point losses so far. Excluding Spain leaves the running total at 7 points lost for Seb.

4. Grand Prix Du Canada, June 11

In turn 1, Vettel's front wing was clipped by Verstappen, forcing him to pit early. Vettel recovered admirably from this wrench thrown into his plans, eventually finishing P4, with Verstappen's Renault Tag Heuer engine doling out justice for the slight in the form of self-termination. Sebastian's point loss in Canada cannot be attributed to his own performance.

5. Azerbaijan Grand Prix, June 25

In one of the season's most controversial moments, Vettel accidentally collided with Hamilton, accusing him of brake checking him when Hamilton let off the throttle. The FIA later checked the telemetry of the car, and concluded Hamilton didn't touch the brakes, but Vettel, seeing red, pulled alongside Hamilton, and gave him an angry thump, earning himself a ten second stop-and-go penalty, a relative slap on the wrist for having deliberately caused a collision.

Hamilton had headrest issues, and had to pit for a quick fix, which would have left Vettel with a comfortable race lead over Daniel Ricciardo, had he not earned himself his penalty. After the penalty, however, Sebastian eventually finished less than six seconds adrift of Ricciardo, and would have been capable of winning, were it not for his shenanigans, which cost him 13 points. Running total: 20.

6. Austrian Grand Prix, July 9

For this race, Vettel lacked the decisive pace advantage that could have earned him a race win in Russia, and despite clinging to Valtteri Bottas' rear wing as closely as he could manage, the pace between the two cars was close enough that the odds of an overtake for the race win were almost reliant upon Bottas making a mistake. The Finn, though, kept his cool until the checkered flag, to take the second race win of his career.

7. British Grand Prix, July 16

At the tail end of the race, Vettel was on track for a P4 finish, though he looked for a short time to be the benefactor of Kimi Räikkönen's front left tire failure, when he was temporarily promoted to P3 before his own front left went limp. Shuffled back to P7, Vettel missed out on 6 points he would have earned, had tires failed on neither car. Was he responsible? Nope: Pirelli absolved Ferrari of fault for the blowouts.

8. Belgian Grand Prix, August 27

A collision between the Force Indias sprayed shards of carbon fiber across the surface of the Kemmel Straight, soliciting a safety car for cleanup. When the race restarted, both drivers were on fresh tires: Hamilton on softs, Vettel on ultra softs. While Hamilton got the jump on Vettel after the safety car relinquished control of the race to the Mercedes driver, Vettel was right there with him at the entry to the chicane, his tires allowing him a later braking point. Though an overtake attempt down Kemmel Straight was attempted, the grunt of the Mercedes W08's engine and its more efficient high-speed aero allowed Hamilton to pull ahead before the braking zone.

Could Vettel, with a snappier reaction to the race restart, have overtaken Hamilton into the chicane? Maybe, but he would have had to face Hamilton drafting him down Kemmel Straight instead, which could have amounted to the same result come Les Combes. Furthermore, Vettel had no decisive lap time advantage, and while he set the track's race lap record, a 1:46.477, Hamilton's best was a minuscule 0.026 off. Vettel performed to his best, but the win was probably out of reach. It is difficult to imagine Ferrari winning Belgium this year, in any circumstances.

9. Italian Grand Prix, September 3

If anything, Vettel should be lauded for the damage control he achieved at a track that favored Mercedes so heavily. In the last fifth of the race, the threat of Daniel Ricciardo emerged, with Vettel's P3 finish at risk to the Honey Badger, who was probably seeing red and out for blood. After leaving the pits on lap 38, Ricciardo was consistently close to a second a lap faster than Vettel, and the Red Bull Racing pit wall predicted he would chase down Vettel by the end of the race. Sebastian, however, maintained a steadfast pace, whereas Ricciardo, be it due to worn tires or a lower engine mode, saw slower lap times starting on lap 50, the gap just too large to overcome. 

10. Singapore Grand Prix, September 17

The low point of the season for the Tifosi, Vettel, Räikkönen, and Verstappen came together before turn 1, resulting in the collateral damage of Fernando Alonso, totaling four drivers KO'd from the incident. The topic has been exhausted, and the conclusion is almost unanimous: Vettel dun goofed. There is little left to say about the incident, so I'll examine an alternate scenario in which these drivers didn't collide after the race start.

Verstappen revealed after Malaysia that he feels he can be harder on drivers fighting for the championship, so we have no reason to believe Verstappen would have backed out of an overtake attempt on Vettel into turn 1, and Kimi's lightning start would have given him the position to make a move of his own. From here, there is no telling who would have come out in front.

In a crash-free scenario, with all those affected escaping turn 1 unscathed, Vettel can be given a conservative minimum of a P3 finish, with the change in points standing for Vettel changing from -25 to +3. This ending would have had a net effect on the point gap between the two drivers of 28 points, and more if Vettel would have finished further up the podium. The running total stands at 48.

11. Malaysia Grand Prix, October 1

Doomed to start from P20 due to an engine failure in free practice, this race was—like Italy—entirely about damage control. Also like Italy, it featured a Ricciardo-Vettel scrap for the final podium position in the twilight laps of the race, though with positions reversed: RIC led VET. Lap times show Vettel with a significant pace advantage over Ricciardo, regularly as high as 1.5 seconds per lap. When the German at last caught his former teammate, however, the Honey Badger bared his teeth, and through strong race craft alone, kept Vettel behind him. A few laps later, Vettel's lap times did a full scorpion faceplant, with his 56th and final lap almost 6 seconds slower than his 51st.

Engine turned down, and tires depleted? Probably. It also indicates that even if Vettel had managed to get around Ricciardo, the degree to which he would have suffered for pace would have made him easy prey for Ricciardo to retake.

12. Japanese Grand Prix, October 8

This sealed it, didn't it? Ferrari had concerns about Vettel's engine prior to the race, and the Scuderia tinkered with it before the race's start, hoping to relay reliability problems until later. It wasn't meant to be, though, as Vettel retired with engine problems, and Hamilton went on to take the race win.

The Final Analysis

Mistakes or poor performance on Vettel's part saw him lose a total of 35 points, and his mistake in Singapore directly gave Hamilton an extra 13 points, allowing him a race win instead of a best-of-the-rest P4 finish. This accounts for 48 points of the gap, which stands at 59 before this weekend's race in Texas. The remaining 11 points? Murphy's law.

But we need to talk about Spain again. Remember, the loss of the race win was worth 14 points in the championship fight, and when combined with the 48 that could have been made up in Russia, Azerbaijan, and Singapore, the total reaches 62 points, enough to put Vettel in the lead by 3 points.

Whether or not Vettel could have won Spain is up to the reader. As was highlighted above, the fight for the win at this year's Spanish Grand Prix closely resembled that of last year's race, albeit with a different ending. Vettel had track position on one of the least pass-friendly stops on the calendar, and despite Hamilton possessing softer tires, Mercedes' window of opportunity was shrinking fast. Delaying the overtake would have burned through Hamilton's tires enough to make an overtake attempt questionable, and even if one succeeded, holding on to it until the race's end would have been uncertain.

Should you be on Vettel's side, and consider a win in Spain out of reach, then one question remains: can Vettel outscore Hamilton by 12 points or more over the next four races?

Multiple of the tracks remaining emphasize top speed, a strength of the Mercedes W08, with the United States, Mexico, and Abu Dhabi featuring lengthy straights on which the Mercedes can stretch its legs. The odds don't favor Vettel, but have faith in him; with the season written off for Nico Rosberg after the 2015 United States Grand Prix, he came back steeled for Hamilton's challenge, winning the next three races, and the following year, the championship.

Of course, the 2017 championship is not over yet—mathematically speaking, anyway. The odds of Vettel winning are microscopic, but this year's title race won't be settled unless Vettel stumbles to a P6 finish or lower this weekend, with Hamilton winning the race. Also keep in mind: it would also take but a single engine failure for Hamilton to bring him back within range of a rallying Sebastian Vettel.