SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (AP) — Sebastian Vettel needs to quickly start closing the gap on Lewis Hamilton or he risks watching the Formula One title slip out of his grasp once again.
Vettel lost his way after the summer break last year, winning only one of nine races compared to five by Hamilton.
As the second half of the season resumes at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, the situation is urgent. He already trails Hamilton by 24 points.
“We went into that break with the best feeling as a team,” Hamilton said Thursday. “We know the areas we need to improve on … There’s more juice to come.”
Vettel led Hamilton by 14 points at the same stage last year and still lost the title by 46.
Hamilton acknowledges his position of strength has boosted him after Vettel seemed in the ascendancy earlier in the season.
“When you do have a little bit of a buffer, subconsciously for sure there must be some positive effect,” Hamilton said. “But I still have exactly the same approach as the previous races, which naturally means extension (of the lead). I don’t want that pendulum to go back the other way. So how do I stop that? That’s the question.”
Both drivers are chasing a fifth F1 title – to move level with Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio – but it’s Vettel who has more questions to answer.
Hamilton took the momentum from Vettel last month by winning back-to-back races heading into the summer break, aided by a glaring error from Vettel when he crashed out of the rain-soaked German GP while leading by a comfortable margin of 10 seconds.
Vettel then made errors in qualifying at the Hungarian GP – once again in the rain – effectively gifting Hamilton a win from pole when Mercedes was struggling with a slower car.
“He can only tell you if he feels the pressure,” Hamilton said. “The pressure on me is as great as it can be, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I welcome it.”
While Hamilton rarely loses his composure, Vettel remains prone to lapses in concentration and makes unusually sloppy errors for a four-time F1 champion.
The German GP at Hockenheim last month and the 2017 Singapore GP – where he crashed from pole position when poised to regain the championship lead – are the most striking examples. In the space of three races last year, Vettel dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.
The German driver must find a way to avoid another slump. He will have no excuses if he doesn’t with Ferrari’s car arguably quicker than Mercedes.
This weekend’s Belgian GP at the Spa circuit – which at 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) is the longest in F1 – could offer Vettel a way back in.
“They seemed to have a step in power and this is a power circuit,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know how we will fare with them power-wise.”
Hamilton recharged his batteries during the summer break by travelling extensively and turning his phone off, he said – he’s usually very active on social media.
“I left the phone in my hotel, in the safe, didn’t charge it every day and went through several days without it,” Hamilton said. “It was one of the best things.”