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Smith: Did Sebastian Vettel kill his F1 title hopes in Singapore?

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Formula 1 had waited 10 years for its first wet night race, and boy, did Sunday’s Singapore Grand Prix live up to the hype.

A short, sharp rain shower in the lead-up to lights out at Marina Bay drenched the track, perfectly saddling the gap between intermediate and extreme wet tires being required.

All of the front-runners opted for intermediates, including pole-man Sebastian Vettel, who entered the race as the overwhelming favorite for victory.

And then the F1 title race took a huge, huge twist.

The pictures have been shared far and wide. We’ve all seen them. The video clip has even been set to Titanic music. But the blame is still hard to pin down.

Vettel made the slowest start of the three drivers involved, sitting on the outside line on the run to Turn 1. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was able to make a slightly better getaway to start pulling alongside, but it was the fastest of the three, Kimi Raikkonen, that was the driver Vettel missed.

Moving across to try and defend from Verstappen, Vettel inadvertently pinched the Red Bull driver between himself and his teammate. Raikkonen had nowhere to go and was too committed to pull out, leaving the Finn to be turned into a spin by Verstappen and into the path of Vettel ahead.

Raikkonen and Verstappen’s cars were sidelined immediately, while Vettel spun on the run to Turn 4 due to the damage sustained.

Lap 1, three DNFs. Game over.

And, in the title race, it might well be the incident that makes it game over for Vettel as well.

SINGAPORE – SEPTEMBER 17: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H on an installation lap before the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 17, 2017 in Singapore. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Luck is always a factor in the race for the championship. Lewis Hamilton learned that the hard way in 2016, with his cruel DNF in Malaysia arguably denying him a fourth world title. But things swung back his way on Sunday as he dodged the start-line chaos to take a third straight win, something he thought unlikely after being off the pace in the dry and qualifying down in fifth.

This was meant to be Ferrari’s weekend. The margins with Mercedes have been so fine this season that it has largely been a track-by-track swing in momentum, with the tighter, twistier stuff playing to the Prancing Horse’s favor.

One-two finishes in Monaco and Hungary gave Vettel and Raikkonen hope of producing a similar result in Singapore. While Red Bull was much closer this time around, Vettel’s stunning Q3 lap on Saturday and strong record at Marina Bay made him the man to beat.

It was a weekend that could have really put the championship in Vettel’s favor. While the weekends where Mercedes dominated such as Spa and Monza saw Vettel still be best of the rest, hitting the podium both times around, this was a chance for Ferrari to get a greater net gain with Mercedes being the third-fastest team. Had the race gone the way of qualifying, Vettel would have left Singapore with a 12-point lead.

Instead, he’s 28 points back, and in deep, deep trouble.

Should Vettel have played it safe at the start? Hindsight is a beautiful thing – but the truth is that Vettel knew losing out to Verstappen could have dealt a big blow to his title hopes, potentially denying him the extra seven points between a first and a second. He had to make the squeeze – he just didn’t know that Raikkonen was there.

That said, in the wet, maybe it would have been wiser for Vettel to not pull across the track as quickly as he did. The old adage of not being able to win a race at the start but lose it rang very true.

Ferrari won’t get another chance to dominate as it could have in Singapore this year. Suzuka, Interlagos and, in particular, Abu Dhabi will be the best chances, but it is difficult to see anyone stopping Mercedes in Malaysia, Austin or Mexico.

Were Vettel still only a handful of points shy, that would be so bad. The fact he is now 28 points back means that Hamilton is almost at the point where he can play the percentage game, much like Rosberg did en route to the title last year.

If Hamilton wins in Malaysia with Vettel finishing second, the gap will be 35 points with five races to play. On that basis, if Vettel were to then sweep the calendar with Hamilton P2 each time around, they would close out the season tied on points, Vettel winning on countback.

But Mercedes also has Valtteri Bottas in the picture, the Finn proving to be a much greater force in the title race than Ferrari’s Raikkonen has. All Bottas would have to do is finish in the top two once, and the picture becomes even bleaker for Vettel.

SINGAPORE – SEPTEMBER 17: Race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 17, 2017 in Singapore. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

As for Bottas’ title hopes? Mercedes will not publicly go on record and say it is all behind Hamilton, with Toto Wolff fearing it could affect Bottas’ mentality at the front of the pack.

But in reality, the team is already pulling in the obvious direction. Hamilton has a 51-point lead over his teammate, something that won’t turn around quickly.

Bottas has done everything right this year since joining Mercedes, and now with a new contract under his belt, he can play a part in a double championship win.

The cards are stacked in Hamilton’s favor. He has the points lead, the theoretical advantage at more of the remaining circuits, and the stronger ally with Bottas on board.

And if we come to look at another failed title bid for Ferrari come the end of the season, a great deal will be pinned on Vettel’s start-line maneuver in Singapore.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Road America

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Here’s what IndyCar drivers had to say – courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations – after Friday’s two practice sessions at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think we are relatively pleased. The car has been easy to work with, which is great. It is nice when you don’t have to change too much. We’ve been trying things to make sure we understand sort of both ends of the car and where it can go if we adjust either end of it. Seems quick right out of the box. We haven’t had to do too much with it. The Chevy package is working really well, which I felt like it would be strong at this kind of track. We’ve been working hard with that group to make sure our power down and everything else is great. So far, so good with the Verizon car. We have a solid start; we just have to maintain it throughout the weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Pretty productive day. Obviously, we tested here last week, which I think helped us roll off with a solid car. For Practice 2, we decided to go in a little different direction with our setup, just to try and cover our bases, so we have a lot of data to look over tonight. We have pretty good pace on the blacks (primary Firestone tires) and were into the top five, but when we put the reds (alternate Firestone tires) on, we just didn’t find the grip that we normally do; we’ll look into that. This Arrow Electronics SPM team’s got a way of turning things around and being strong in qualifying, so hopefully, we can do that and get the job done tomorrow.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I think it was a pretty decent Friday. The Lucas Oil car feels good and we’re making good progress. We were top five in both sessions, but it’s only Friday, so we still have to work hard and keep our heads down. Initial signs are pretty positive for, hopefully, a good weekend.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I think we started a little bit slow for some reason and had some work to do after the first practice session here at Road America. We know our way around here though, and after some changes tonight, I hope we can have the PNC Bank car pointed in the right direction, and closer to the top time the other manufacturer set.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m obviously not thrilled with the results today with the First Data Honda, but we know Scott (Dixon) had a great car here last year and won the race, so there is good data to look at tonight. We have some work to do for sure, but I’m confident in our team that we can find what we were missing today in practice and be ready for qualifying tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “We definitely changed the setup a bit, then went back. I think the track had really low grip at the beginning of every session, then got better. Kind of a little bit hard to pick what to do. But obviously, Josef (Newgarden) is really quick, so got plenty of data to look at. We’ll just keep working away at it.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “It was a good finish to the day for the GEHL team. We pushed hard and made some changes between the sessions and I think we went the right direction. This morning we had some mishaps, and unfortunately, it lost us the session, but we had a good recovery. We’ll try to keep improving the car a little bit and see what we can do in qualifying.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda): “(I’m) pretty happy. I think, obviously, we didn’t test, a couple of guys did. Felt a little bit off this morning. We’re pretty confident because it was just mostly understeer in the car. Just pretty happy with the day. Our guys did a good job. The Firestone red (alternate) tires are definitely giving a huge amount of grip in comparison to the prime. But for us, it really wasn’t much of a balance change, so that was nice. Could definitely get a pretty decent run. Consistency was quite good, as well. Looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s awesome driving an Indy car here. I love the Road America track and I’m excited to be back here. We had a tough second session today in our Paysafe car, but we made big improvements from our first practice, which is really encouraging. What Sebastien (Bourdais) has seems to be working really well, so we’ll look at that and also at what I need to work on to improve. With that and some steady improvements, we should be looking good for tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It is quite difficult to learn the circuit, relative to others that I have driven on. For example, St. Pete, it just felt a little bit easier to pick up the smaller parts. I feel quite comfortable in the car now, but it took a bit longer to get there in this morning’s session. It’s a longer circuit and requires a lot of confidence with the high speed and blind corners; when it’s only 45 minutes, you end up eating into your track time. I felt quite good in this afternoon’s session and we have a better idea of what direction we want to go in. A little bit annoying we haven’t quite jumped on it straight away, still a bit of progress to be made. Looking forward to having a good night’s sleep. I always find that when you are able to chill out, think about it, and sleep well it makes the second day much nicer. We all know where we need to go with the car and should be quicker tomorrow.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “It was a pretty difficult day for us. We are kind of struggling to zero in on the balance and the setup that we want. We know what we need the car to do, we just have to try and find a way of getting it there. We are going to try and find some things overnight, then get the Direct Supply car handling a bit better and get more speed out of it tomorrow.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We’ve made big improvement this weekend. It is obviously another very important weekend with Menards on the car. This is John’s (Menard) country here. I am eager to do very well, and the whole No. 22 team is using the momentum we gained at Texas. It feels like a really good weekend so far. I think we have more in the car; I didn’t extract all the best out of during practice. But, it felt really good. Chevy is giving us a lot of power around here which is always useful on those long straightaways. Now we are just going to have to put it all together in qualifying tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Obviously, that wasn’t the day we wanted for the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet. We’re struggling for balance and grip-a little bit of both. But we’ve got some good ideas, good data to look through and some concepts to think about. We’ll make solid, reasonable, intelligent changes for tomorrow. Hopefully, we can pick a good direction out of that and be ready for qualifying.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Overall, it was a pretty good day for us in the Relay car. We know, confidently, that we have a car good enough to be in the top 10, maybe in the top six. We’re fighting a bit of an issue throughout the second session, but we know what that is, so we’ll fix it and get the speed we need tomorrow. I haven’t felt this confident in an Indy car yet – but I said that at Detroit and I said that at Texas. I really just feel like we are coming into our own and this is going to be our best weekend yet.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Today wasn’t the best Friday that we’ve had. I think we are stepping through changes and making small improvements, but we didn’t find the big improvement that we need, which is disappointing. Fortunately, we have another session tomorrow and three teammate cars to try and put our heads together and come up with a solution. Right now, we need a pretty big step in performance to be fighting for pole.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We made some progress with the DHL car today, we need to make another step tomorrow. We didn’t really have a clear lap, but if we had, I think we would have been around P4 or P5 and we can work from there. We’ll put our heads down tonight, check in with the teammates and see where we are at tomorrow. We have one more session before qualifying and we’ll put it to good use.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was a good day, a productive one. We wanted to improve a little more than we did in the second session, but overall, we tried a few things and we learned a few good things and a few not so good. I think we can continue improving for tomorrow.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today was going pretty well until the last practice. The day started off well for us. I was happy with the balance and I am still happy with the balance. We worked on some changes and I was happy with the direction we were going in. The second practice was going pretty good up until my incident. It is really unfortunate we have now lost this track time, but we will work hard and bounce back for tomorrow.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “It was a challenging day at the office here at Road America for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet. This is one of my favorite tracks – I know I can pedal a car around here pretty well. We were fighting for top six last year, so I’m trying to just drive the same, obviously, with less downforce. We’ve got an underlying balance issue – whether it’s new tires or old tires, it’s really just wherever we are, we’ve got the same issue that we just can’t seem to iron out. It’s slightly frustrating for a new team with the lack of testing we’ve been able to do, so we’ve got limited time to try and sort it. We’ll work it out tonight and if we can make some significant progress toward the end of FP3, I’m sure we can have a fairly decent qualifying.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a great track and a lot of fun. Today was a bit challenging, as we are just working through our plan, but we found a big chunk of time between Practice 1 and Practice 2 today. That is very encouraging as we get ready for Practice 3 tomorrow. There are some things we are going to try out and that will hopefully take us to the next step to doing a great job in qualifying and then the race.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “I was definitely happier with the car this morning. We kind of went in a different direction for the afternoon session and lost the car. We definitely have a clear direction on where we need to go and we’ll put that to use to go forward tomorrow with the U.S. Concrete car.”

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