By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Ferrari have won the last three races, and enjoyed three successive pole positions, but Formula One leader Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team need not lose much sleep about the situation.
The team talk after Singapore was of a hard weekend, strategic mistakes made, open goals missed, tough opponents and the need to improve fast.
“It feels like they are hungrier at the moment,” said Hamilton of Ferrari.
“We’ve just got to stop dragging our feet and get on.”
Every defeat is painful for a team like Mercedes, who have won every championship since the start of the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, and drivers rarely look beyond the next race or take anything for granted.
But the fact remains that, even if individual races are not going Mercedes’ way, the title battle remains as one-sided as ever.
Ferrari are deservedly in the spotlight, enjoying a resurgence and the excitement of 21-year-old Charles Leclerc stepping up as a multiple race winner in his first season with the team. But it is also something of a sideshow.
Hamilton’s only real rival is his own team mate Valtteri Bottas and the Finn is miles behind — 65 points with six races remaining.
So long as the Briton keeps beating him, and does not suffer any retirements, then the five-times world champion remains on course for number six.
Bottas needs to win big to erode Hamilton’s advantage and a resurgent Ferrari, as well as a competitive Red Bull, only makes his task harder.
There are a maximum 156 points to be won, thanks to this season’s novelty of a point awarded for the fastest lap making each win worth a potential 26, and the next race is at Russia’s Sochi circuit on Sunday.
Hamilton is 96 points ahead of Leclerc and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen as the next closest rivals.
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari’s winner on Sunday, is 102 points behind Hamilton and would need four blanks from Hamilton from the final six races just to be in with a shout.
The points gap between Hamilton, fourth in Singapore, and Bottas, fifth under the floodlights, is exactly the same now as it was after Leclerc’s first win in Belgium.
In two of the three races won by Ferrari, Hamilton has actually extended his overall lead.
While past performance does not dictate future success, Hamilton won four of the last six races in 2018 and Mercedes have yet to be beaten in Sochi since the first race there in 2014.
His record in Japan is even stronger, with four victories in the last five races at Suzuka, while Mercedes have also won every race in Abu Dhabi since 2014.
The jury is still out on how much of a performance leap Ferrari have really made, with some special circumstances coming into play in Singapore.
But should they keep up the momentum then there will be real concern at Mercedes — mainly as a harbinger for what might lie in store for 2020.
The champions are 133 points clear of the Italians in the constructors’ standings — a comfortable margin given that, despite winning the last three races, Ferrari have managed to reduce the gap by only 26 points since the August break.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge)