Sebastian Vettel’s odds were long for keeping the Formula 1 World Championship alive heading into Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix, down 66 points to Lewis Hamilton and needing to finish first or second while hoping Hamilton finished outside the top-five to have any chance.
He got one of those two bullet points accomplished as Hamilton ended ninth, but the reason he did so was in part because of opening lap contact that changed the race and title fight on its head.
After losing the lead from pole off the line, into Turn 1, Vettel collided with both Hamilton and Max Verstappen on the opening lap. Vettel sustained front wing damage to his Scuderia Ferrari SF-17 in contact with Verstappen, then also had contact with Hamilton that left the Englishman with a puncture.
Both drivers pitted immediately thereafter, which dropped Vettel and Hamilton back to 16th and 19th respectively, forcing them both into a fightback the rest of the day.
Vettel made greater progress as he was back to the points by Lap 29 in the 71-lap race, then pitted under the Virtual Safety Car period which occurred once Brendon Hartley’s Renault-powered Toro Rosso had yet another Renault issue.
As Vettel got within striking distance of the top-scoring drivers, he was able to dispatch of Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, Sergio Perez’s Force India, Lance Stroll’s Williams (below) and finally Esteban Ocon’s Force India to get up to fourth.
But as Vettel was nearly a minute back of Valtteri Bottas in second, which is the minimum he needed to keep his remote title hopes alive, there was nothing else he could do the rest of the race.
A resigned Vettel ended fourth, the position that matched the number of titles Hamilton has equaled him on today.
Speaking to NBCSN post-race, Vettel had nothing but praise for Hamilton after their season-long battle.
“I’m down, obviously,” Vettel said. “It’s tough to cross the line and realize… you aren’t in the fight anymore. That sums it up. The rest isn’t that important.
“The most important thing today is it’s Lewis’ day. He’s been crowned World Champion. He was the better man. He did the better job.”
This result means Vettel and Hamilton have, combined, won eight of the last 10 World Championships over the 11 years they have been in the sport. Both drivers debuted in the 2007 season.
This year marks only the second time Vettel has lost a championship fight he’s actively been a part of (2009 to Jenson Button), and the first where he led the championship over the course of the season but didn’t bring home the title.
“I would have loved to go one up on him. But it’s his day. It’s his year. He deserves it,” he said.
“For us, we’re left with whatever’s left. Right now, it’s disappointment. Next year will be a different story. Right now isn’t about next year. In this moment you have to give credit to the best man. That’s him.”