Two moments stood out at Suzuka in Japan where the race for the championship between Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was expected to see the points gap between the two narrow, but instead went in the opposite direction.
First, on the 17th lap, and following Vettel’s agonising exit from the race, Ferrari’s F1 chief Maurizio Arrivabene and Vettel were having a chat, a candid assessment of what had just transpired.
Both men had an arm on each other’s shoulder and seconds later, the quick hug they exchanged had more of the boss giving Vettel a shoulder to lean on as he did his best to console the four-time champion.
The other moment came after the race, when Hamilton, having been chased for the better part of the 53 laps by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, had just parked his car at the winner’s spot.
Seconds after exiting his car, Hamilton went on his knees and patted the front part of it, as though to thank the machine for its reliability.
The weight of the gap he had opened with only four races to go sunk in and it hit him hard.
As recently as August, Hamilton had trailed the German in the race for the championship.
Since the start of the year, the Brit had not tasted the lead in that race, something which happened a week later at Monza.
In a span of three races, all in Asia, Vettel’s title challenge has swung from within grasp to almost well beyond reach, twice for reasons beyond him and once for an aggressive start that saw him and Verstappen cause a spectacular collision that took out the two as well as Vettel’s teammate, Kimi Raikkonen.
It is unfortunate that the championship should be decided by unreliable engines, but 2017 seems to be the case rather than a closely fought battle right to the very end as was initially panning out to be.
It should also be remembered that Hamilton lost last year’s title to Nico Rosberg by five points, with the three-time champion having suffered an engine failure in Malaysia while he was comfortably leading the race. The spark plug failure on Vettel’s car saw him lose positions in uncharacteristic fashion.
First, Verstappen aggressively overtook him on the first lap, the German holding his calm even though he had the right to use the inside lane to navigate the corner, proving how brittle the quest for the championship has become that a defence, despite the right of way would be such a costly affair.
At the end of the fast lap, Vettel went from third to sixth as the Force India of Esteban Ocon, the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo and the Mercedes of Valterri Bottas all took advantage of the limping Ferrari to gain a position.
Vettel was soon after told to box and retire the car.
The race was left for Hamilton and Verstappen to fight for.
By the 21st lap, Hamilton had opened a five-second gap on Verstappen from an initial 1.3-second gap on the seventh lap. Verstappen went in for a new set of tyres on that lap.
His first and fast pit stop saw him manage to exit just a hair’s breadth ahead of the charging Raikkonen, to the relief of the Red Bull crew.
On the next lap, Hamilton was ordered to do likewise.
Hamilton caught up with his teammate and found him a liability on the 29th lap. He was almost fully reeled in by Verstappen, save for Bottas who moved aside to let him pass.
The Finn was told to pit in the next lap.
The next incident for the leading drivers came at the very end as Hamilton encountered backmarkers, Fernando Alonso and Felippe Massa.
With Verstappen chasing but also having to deal with the two, Hamilton was able to maintain his lead up to the chequered flag, finishing just 1.2 seconds ahead of the Red Bull but 59 points ahead of his closest competitor, Vettel.
Bottas is just 13 points behind the German.