Desperate for win: Sebastian Vettel, in the pit lane surrounded by mechanics at last week’s Russian Grand Prix where he came third, must win in Japan to keep his title hopes alive. Picture: REUTERS
Desperate for win: Sebastian Vettel, in the pit lane surrounded by mechanics at last week’s Russian Grand Prix where he came third, must win in Japan to keep his title hopes alive. Picture: REUTERS

Suzuka — Sebastian Vettel may need to rely on a stroke of luck at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday if the German wants to keep alive his diminishing hopes of claiming a fifth Formula One title.

Even victory at Suzuka may be a case of "too little, too late" for the Ferrari driver, with Lewis Hamilton sitting 50 points clear and just five races remaining.

The simple mathematics mean the Briton, who has won five of the last six races for Mercedes, including in Russia last weekend, does not even need to register another victory this season to claim a fifth world title of his own. "Maybe the next couple of tracks are better suited for us, we will know when we get there," said Vettel, who has five wins to Hamilton’s eight in 2018 and finished third in Sochi and in Singapore.

"We need to keep pushing and try. Who knows what will happen in the next races. It takes one DNF [did not finish] and then all of a sudden things look different," he told reporters after Sochi. "Ideally two — which I’m not wishing on Lewis, but you never know what happens."

Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene likened the sweeping, high-speed Suzuka circuit to Silverstone, the British Grand Prix venue where then championship leader Vettel won in July.

"If it goes well, we will know that, despite the difficult situation in terms of the classification, we still have the right tools with which to fight all the way to the very end," the Italian said.

Even then, there remains a sense that Ferrari are simply clutching at straws.

Red Bull assistance

Hamilton won in Japan in 2017, while Vettel failed to finish, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo claiming second and third.

This time, Vettel will be hoping the Red Bulls can get back into the mix to his advantage.

The former champions showed impressive speed in Russia, despite engine penalties dropping the cars to the back of the grid, with Verstappen climbing up from 19th to the race lead until a late pit stop saw him finish a creditable fifth.

Although Suzuka is expected to again suit the Red Bulls, Mercedes have won the last four races in Japan, three courtesy of Hamilton, and will be favourites to extend that run. It is a position the German team have enjoyed for most of the season yet they are taking nothing for granted.

"Suzuka will be another challenging weekend for us," declared Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff, whose team are 53 points clear of Ferrari in the constructors’ standings. "It’s a track that shows some similarities to Silverstone, where we didn’t perform as strongly this year as we had done in previous seasons.

"So we’re going to Japan knowing that we all have to be at our very best if we want to claim the win." Sunday’s race could also mark a happier home coming for Honda, after the difficult McLaren years, as engine partners to Toro Rosso. The Japanese manufacturer also absorbed engine penalties in Russia to position themselves better with an upgraded power unit for their home race.

Reuters

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