Sebastian Vettel will look to make the most of an unexpected lifeline this weekend, when he and Ferrari seek to end a run of torrid bad luck at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Vettel has seen a once-comfortable lead in the Drivers’ Championship transformed to a 34-point deficit to Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes after three appalling Grands Prix for the Scuderia.
A humiliating crushing by Mercedes in Ferrari’s home Italian Grand Prix at Monza was followed by an even more embarrassment in Singapore, where Vettel collided with his own teammate Kimi Raikkonen.
If that was not enough, last Sunday’s likely final Malaysian Grand Prix saw Raikkonen fail to start and Vettel fighting through from the back of the grid to finish fourth – before he crashed into Canadian rookie Lance Stroll of Williams on the slow-down lap.
On a triumphant day for Max Verstappen and Red Bull, that final shunt left Vettel driving on three wheels before he had to give up and take a lift back to the pits – the final indignity in a sequence of misfortunes that have left him and his team as red-faced as their cars.
But Ferrari’s luck may finally have turned.
Expecting to go to Suzuka with a likely grid penalty for a gearbox change – the car looked so damaged at Sepang that such a setback seemed inevitable – the team were given a surprise fillip this week with news the gearbox had survived.
Analysis of the gearbox back at Ferrari’s Maranello base revealed it had not been damaged, with the team tweeting it was “available”.
It is expected to be fitted to Vettel’s car again for final free practice at the challenging figure-of-eight track, regarded as one of the most thrilling on the calendar – but a venue where all three leading teams may claim to have a chance of winning Sunday’s race.
With a maximum of 125 points available at the remaining five Grands Prix, Vettel is comforted by the knowledge his Ferrari has been arguably the fastest car at the last two events.
Hamilton has admitted he has been lucky to open up a clear lead while Mercedes has struggled to match its rivals’ pace, but he also knows he has a great chance to secure his fourth title if he remains calm and consistent.
“I had to make a decision in Malaysia when Max was closing me down – not to fight him and risk him crashing into me, because I knew he was giving it everything,” Hamilton said.
“I knew he had nothing to lose and I’d got everything to lose.
“So I didn’t make it hard for him to pass me because I had to think of the bigger picture. It was my decision.
“At this time of the season, reliability comes into play and so too do driver mistakes.
“We have seen a couple from Sebastian, I think, and I am just trying to be smart with my decisions on track.”
Hamilton, it should be noted, has reeled off a run of 20 points-scoring finishes.
After recent races, Vettel is sure to be ready to bounce back as strongly as he can at a circuit he, like all the drivers, loves and where Fernando Alonso hopes he can deliver a strong showing for McLaren-Honda in a ‘home’ race for the engine supplier.
“It is the home race for Honda, so we want to do well there. We know how important it is for the team as about 40 per cent of our engineers are Japanese,” Alonso said.
“Their families will be there and the Japanese fans – so it is a special weekend for us all.”
Equally, following his win last week, Verstappen will be full of confidence, as well as his Red Bull teammate, Australian Daniel Ricciardo – not a man who wants to allow the Dutchman to make a habit of beating him.