Did Sebastian Vettel Blow His Championship Chances in 2017?

While reliability issues hamstrung Vettel, the role the driver played is undeniable.

Lars Baron, Getty Images Sport

Back in October, after Sebastian Vettel's engine called in quits during the Japanese Grand Prix, many proclaimed the German's championship fight over, killed off by unreliability issues. I examined Vettel's season up to that point and concluded that while the reliability issues endured in Malaysia, and Japan stung, it was partially down to numerous mistakes on Vettel's part that he was behind Hamilton in the championship. He missed out on available points hauls in Russia, Azerbaijan, Singapore, and arguably, Spain. After tallying the points lost, I found that Vettel could have been a mere 11 points adrift of Hamilton with four Grands Prix remaining, had he capitalized on the opportunities I outlined. 

These include winning Russia and Azerbaijan, finishing P3 in Singapore, and I argued that I think he may have been able to win in Spain, despite his team's strategy misstep. With these alternate outcomes in mind, I concluded that if Vettel outscored Hamilton by at least 12 points over the last four races of the season, he could have been the champion—in place of Lewis. The season came to an end Sunday, granting me the data I need to finish analyzing Vettel's 2017 performance.

13. United States Grand Prix, October 22

Vettel may have led the race after the first corner, but he succumbed to Hamilton's overtake on lap six. Hamilton, who was consistently faster than Vettel until lap 40, built enough of a gap that Vettel, who ended up setting the fastest lap of the race, was unable to close in on him to challenge for the win. Ferrari was simply not competitive with Mercedes this weekend so the point loss can be attributed to factors beyond Vettel's control, expanding the gap to 18 points.

14. Mexican Grand Prix, October 29

In the real world, the championship ended here, with Lewis finishing a humble P9 to secure the title after a first lap incident marred both his and Sebastian's races, with Vettel sustaining front wing damage and Hamilton, a punctured tire. If anything, the collision aided Vettel, turning a race that Hamilton could have feasibly won into a scramble to recover points. So the idyllic season for Vettel would not change this result, as it is hard to imagine a more favorable outcome for Vettel than finishing five places ahead of his rival. This race serves to cut 10 points from the gap of 18, down to a mere eight points.

15. Brazilian Grand Prix, November 12

Hamilton flubbed qualifying, crashing out in Q1 having not set a lap but was allowed to start from the pit lane. Vettel, however, started from the front row, and surged past Valtteri Bottas in the first corner, eventually taking the race win. Hamilton fought through the field, recovering to P4, but Vettel would have succeeded in gutting Hamilton's lead, taking home 13 more points. Vettel would have ended the weekend five points ahead of the Brit.

16. Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, November 26

Abu Dhabi is where the waters become murky. We know who was fastest: Valtteri Bottas earned himself the Grand Prix win without a doubt, and Vettel needed to minimize damage at the Mercedes-favoring circuit by finishing as high as possible, which he did, securing the lowest step on the podium, a distant third to the masterclass Mercedes. In doing so, he attained three fewer points in the season-ending race than Hamilton, just enough to leave him two points ahead.

This result doesn't close the book on the season, though, as there is something to pay heed to, Mercedes could have issued team orders to Bottas to let Hamilton usurp him for the win, and thus, the championship, had it been on the line. I contacted Mercedes' Head of Motorsport Communications, Bradley Lord, for comment on this suspicion, and he confirmed that it would indeed have been done if it meant the championship.

"We’d have done everything necessary to win, within the rules, if we had needed to," said Lord.

Though Vettel slid three points relative to Hamilton, in reality, the team order scenario, with the title up for grabs, would put him at a net loss of ten points, and five behind Hamilton once again.

The Verdict

How and where is Vettel supposed to make up a five-point gap, even in an ideal year? Already outlined, in the first installment of this review.

The only two races at which more than five points are feasibly available to Vettel are Spain and Singapore. I already described how 14 net points were within reach at the former race, but the latter, I made a conservative assumption that Sebastian would have finished a humble P3, if not for his crash, instead of higher. The race win would have been adequate to net him the championship, and given his three straight victories between 2011 and 2013, as well as a fourth in 2015, there is a precedent to say he may have been capable of standing atop the podium in 2017, had he not pushed Verstappen into Räikkönen.

One can conclude for themselves whether or not they think Vettel missed out on this year's championship due to faulty engines based upon how much faith they have in his capability to win either Spain or Singapore. Could he have triumphed in either, leaving him responsible for the tanked championship, or was Hamilton's consistency and reliability too big an advantage to overcome?

The answer is for you, the reader, to decide.