Lewis Hamilton extends championship lead but Sebastian Vettel is closer than you think

Matt Majendie 00:15 02/10/2017
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On the surface, it might be ludicrous to suggest it but Mercedes are worried, and with good reason.

Their lead driver Lewis Hamilton currently boasts an impressive championship lead of 34 points, and their advantage in the constructors’ championship is an even more sizeable 102 points with just five races remaining.

Most would suggest both championships are a done deal but the Mercedes team hierarchy were left scratching their heads in the wake of the Malaysian Grand Prix.

That Lewis Hamilton finished second was no small miracle after an incredibly tough weekend in which both Mercedes perpetually struggled for balance and speed.

The ease with which Max Verstappen scythed past the pole-sitter and then pulled well clear is baffling to understand for a team that has been dominant at a few circuits this season and incredibly fast at the vast majority.

In short, no one from Hamilton to team boss Toto Wolff to their rivals and those watching in the stands expected Mercedes to endure such a drop in pace in Malaysia.

After all, the prognosis was that this would be the first circuit at which Hamilton and title rival Sebastian Vettel would truly be racing wheel to wheel, the nuances of a maverick circuit, on paper at least, playing to the strengths of both cars.

The Mercedes engine – generally regarded as the quickest in 2017 – should have been flying down Sepang’s two long straights while Ferrari was expected to be in the ascendancy through many of the corners.

Verstappen overtook Hamilton early on and then pulled away with alarming ease.

Verstappen overtook Hamilton early on and then pulled away with alarming ease.

The fact that Vettel finished only 25 seconds behind Hamilton at the chequered flag having started at the back of the grid said it all about the pace discrepancy, equating to about half a minute over the course of the race.

Mercedes have been here before this year: in Russia and Monaco most notably, where it became a simple case of damage limitation.

The Mercedes thrives in those 90-degree left-right corners, ones in which both driver and car can be aggressive, but in other corners suddenly the balance goes completely awry.

As they transition out of such corners, the rear end comes imbalanced and it creates a double whammy of oversteer and understeer. The car thereby loses its flow and with it raw pace, plus it causes increased degradation on the tyres.

And Hamilton struggled on both the softs and super softs in Malaysia.

What’s the answer? Somewhat worryingly, Mercedes don’t have one. It is, as they put it, a “fundamental issue” with their car for which there is no short fix.

Team boss Wolff’s succinct summary was thus: “How can a car that is so fast on many circuits lose so much with the tyre that is overheating?”

The vagaries of the Mercedes from one race weekend to the next is what makes the last five races of the championship so thrilling, and mean Vettel is far from out of it.

The Ferrari is quick and, for the most part, reliable, plus they have the added strength of a resurgent Red Bull whose drivers could potentially park themselves between the Ferraris and the Mercedes.

It’s all speculation of course as Mercedes have had a propensity for bouncing back but there are just six days until the next race in Japan.

Suzuka should be a better fit for Mercedes, but Ferrari will be the more confident going into the race weekend.

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