It was another bad for Ferrari

Ferrari failed to capitalize as the weaknesses of the Mercedes W08 are brought into the spotlight once again by the Red Bull of Max Verstappen.

For the second time in so many weeks, Ferrari blew it.  This week’s mysterious gremlin, a spark plug, a tenant of the internal combustion engine that has powered Formula One cars since the days of Fangio and Ascari.  It seems almost impossible to believe that something as basic as a spark plug could be what has effectively ended any hope of Sebastian Vettel bringing a title back to Ferrari, but a spark plug is what failed and Ferrari’s inability to get one changed in time led to a quick drop down the order and ultimate retirement of Vettel’s car.

Ferrari first noticed the problem on Vettel’s formation lap.  They attempted to change it as the car sat on the grid, but due to the tight packaging of Ferrari’s engine, they were unable to do so.  By contrast, it would appear Mercedes feared a similar problem after qualifying and was able to change one of Hamilton’s spark plugs in a matter of fifteen minutes.

The blame for the failure then falls squarely on the shoulders of Ferrari.  But not merely for their inability to replace the offending plug.  No, the blame should also fall on them for not anticipating such a problem.

Formula One, especially in the cost-cutting, engine-restricted modern era, is a war of attrition.  While failures of the MGU-H or MGU-K are what make headlines, the sport is such that even something as mundane as a spark plug cannot be overlooked. The only way to win a championship is painstaking attention to detail and a near obsessive need to ensure a fully functioning car.

Ferrari, in the course of the past two races, have proven not to have that grit.  The mere fact that when designing this year’s car, they did not anticipate such a mundane failure and the time it would take to fix shows that while they are competitive, they do not have the foresight to win the championship.

That said, stranger things have happened.  Should Hamilton suffer the wrath of the racing Gods in Austin, this championship could remain open for the taking.  But even with a Hamilton DNF, a 54-point advantage is a hard obstacle to overcome even for some one as talented and resilient as Vettel.

But I digress.

While Hamilton was able to dominate qualifying in a way that surprised even the most seasoned fans, his performance on Sunday was not exactly the all around masterclass that some are claiming it to be.

Do not let yourself be fooled, Hamilton struggled.  But what is most concerning for Mercedes is not there mere fact that he struggled, but that he did not appear to be struggling in the car.  He was not fighting for grip or managing his tires nor was he saving fuel or nursing an engine problem.  No, he appeared to drive a calm and collected race with minimal input on the steering wheel.  Yet, he was never able to fully pull away from the Red Bull of Max Verstappen.

Verstappen, thanks to a quick start and a brilliant move around an ailing Vettel into the hairpin on lap one, found himself in 2nd in the early stages of the race.  Hamilton attempted to build the gap between himself and the young Dutchman over the course of the race, but he never seemed to be able to pull away.  The gap from P1 to P2 never really extended more than five or so seconds.

Then, in the closing stages, it seemed as if Max would be able to get past.  He was up in Hamilton’s gearbox on the penultimate lap, no doubt prepping himself for a brilliant move into Spoon or perhaps the Casio Triangle, but along came Alonso.  The Spaniard blocked Verstappen out of the Hairpin, effectively ending any chance the Dutchman had of overhauling Hamilton for the lead.

Now, there will be those who will be quick to criticize Alonso and call his actions unsportsmanlike, but remember this: Alonso was about to overtake Felipe Massa and by being forced to yield to the two leaders, he effectively forfeited any chance of making the pass for 10th and bringing home a point for McLaren.

Had there been another lap or two to the race, I have no doubt both Verstappen and Alonso would have been able to make their moves and jump up into position.  But the thing to take away from all of this is twofold.  One, Red Bull is by all measurable means back to the race-winning form we grew accustomed to from 2010 to 2013.  And two, the flaws of the Mercedes that were highlighted in Malaysia were on display once again in Japan.

During qualifying, Hamilton looked untouchable.  During the race, he did not.  Why is that?  Well, during qualifying, the track temperature was around 78° F, during the race, it was 110° F.

It has been written about before but is becoming more and more clear that the W08 is not a car that responds well to the heat.  And while Hamilton will more than likely win the championship, if the rain holds off in Austin, Mexico City, and Sao Paolo, the heat could very well play into the hands of Red Bull and Ferrari.

Simply put, we may see a boring end to the championship, but we could just as well a very exciting last several races.

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