Ninth place at the Mexican Grand Prix was all that Lewis Hamilton needed to bring home his fourth World Drivers’ Championship. It was a luxury that Hamilton was able to afford after an astonishing run of races following the summer break. Starting from the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in late August, Hamilton won five of the last seven races, with his only shortcomings being a second-place finish in Malaysia and the ninth-place in Mexico. Coming into this past Sunday’s race, Hamilton already had such a commanding advantage atop the championship standings. The man known for “Hammer Time” needed one final nail to firmly secure the 2017 championship.
After winning two out of three intra-team championship battles with then-teammate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton took on an inter-team foe this year, as Sebastian Vettel led an imposing Scuderia Ferrari campaign to topple Mercedes at the top of the grid. Ferrari’s SF70H machine was widely-considered as the best car among the rest of the field due to its versatility—it worked well on both low-speed and high-speed tracks. But Mercedes has been the best team in F1 since 2014 for a reason. Aside from still having the grid’s most powerful engine at the back of the W08 Hybrid, they executed as a team when it counted most, capitalizing on their rivals’ mistakes and making no mistakes of their own.
Mercedes clinched the Constructors’ Championship last weekend in the US Grand Prix, their fourth consecutive title, but the Drivers’ Championship had been openly up-for-grabs all season (at least up until the Hungarian Grand Prix). Vettel and Hamilton traded race wins very early on, as an unpredictable duel for the driver’s crown was built up.
For the past seven races, however, that particular duel has been a rather one-sided affair. The summer break was the turning point of the title race, where one driver (along with his team) kept his nose clean while the other driver (along with his team) not so much.
Hamilton carved a defining championship run over the past two months, beginning at the Belgian Grand Prix. At Spa, during a Safety Car restart, Vettel had one chance to challenge for the race lead but Hamilton eked out enough power out of his Mercedes engine to hold his rival off.
The following week, Mercedes marched into the Scuderia’s backyard and annihilated the entire field in what was arguably their most imposing race of the season, scoring the one-two finish with Hamilton taking the win. At that point, Hamilton took the championship lead but many thought that his new advantage would be short-lived, considering that the next few tracks supposedly favored the Ferraris.
Indeed in Singapore, the two best cars were the Ferraris and the Red Bulls. Vettel put on a breathless qualifying lap to assume pole position for the night race. The following night, a rain shower pelted the streets of Singapore right before the start of the race, an unprecedented situation of a wet night race. Heavily favored to win, it only took just over a hundred meters for Vettel’s race to meet catastrophe. Hamilton, starting from fifth on the grid that night, took the lead as the two Ferraris and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen all took each other out within the first half minute of the race. Counting his lucky stars after a calm, trouble-free start, he tiptoed his way around a damp Marina Bay Street Circuit to clinch the win and more importantly, an instant 25-point advantage against Vettel.
Looking for a bounce-back performance in Malaysia, Vettel would instead be hindered after an engine failure in Qualifying forced him to start the race from the very back, while Hamilton secured another pole position. For the Mercedes driver, all he needed was keep his cool under the punishing Malaysian sun. For the Ferrari driver, a valiant comeback drive was required. Hamilton led early but the red-hot Red Bull of Verstappen was hungry for a race win. Hamilton played it safe to finish in second place. Meanwhile, Vettel delivered on his requirements, clawing his way up the field to finish fourth.
A week later in Japan, the Mercedes looked strong, as Hamilton scored another pole position. Needing to keep pace with his rival, Vettel’s luck would run out completely when a rare spark plug issue forced him to retire from the race after only a few laps—easily another zero-points weekend for the Ferrari driver. Hamilton, shaking off a late challenge from Verstappen, would claim victory in Suzuka.
At the US Grand Prix, Hamilton started the race from pole and won. Vettel took the lead at the start but was overtaken later on. The Ferrari had no answer to the Mercedes as it became clear that Hamilton was running away with the championship and Vettel’s hopes were dimming.
Even with the odds heavily stacked against him, Vettel still fought for and claimed a pole position in Mexico. The Mercedes was again challenged, so Hamilton qualified third. At the start of the race, it was Verstappen, the second-place starter, who impressed with an overtake around the outside at Turn 1. Having lost the lead right away, Vettel drove a bit clumsily, losing pieces of his front wing following contact first with Verstappen and then Hamilton. The second contact resulted in a puncture to Hamilton’s right-rear tire. The two championship contenders had to pit immediately for the damages they sustained, falling to the back of the field. Vettel fought back to a fourth place finish while Hamilton could only go as far as ninth, since he lost more time in the first lap. Nonetheless, that result was good enough to beat Vettel in the championship fight.
There’s no doubt that Vettel pushed himself to the limit when it was required of him, as seen in his performances in Malaysia and Mexico. The costly accident at the start of the Singapore Grand Prix was a staggering blow to his chances but his early exit from the Japanese Grand Prix due to a faulty spark plug was the one that really hurt. On both occasions where Vettel was helpless, Hamilton maximized the damage by scoring wins.
Both the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ titles have made it back to Brackley. In a tense championship fight, Lewis Hamilton emerged triumphant by stringing together a strong seven-race run that proved decisive.
There are two races to go this season but no more titles are on the line. From now on, it’s all about bragging rights.