Malaysian GP: Lewis Hamilton in box seat as Vettel plays catch-up in Sepang

Story highlights

  • Vettel trails Hamilton by 28 points in title race
  • France's Pierre Gasly makes F1 race debut
  • Malaysia hosting 19th and last F1 grand prix

(CNN)After the high drama of Singapore, Formula One is set for another weekend of turbo-charged emotions at the Malaysian Grand Prix.

As F1 bids farewell to the Sepang International Circuit after 19 seasons, Sebastian Vettel could well kiss goodbye to his 2017 title hopes if he doesn't dent Lewis Hamilton's lead soon.
For much of the season it has been the Ferrari driver who has had the upper hand. The German led by 25 points after the Monaco Grand Prix in May and by 14 following victory at July's Hungarian Grand Prix but now it is Hamilton in the ascendancy following a blistering run of form.
    The Briton has won all three races since returning from the summer break taking the checkered flag in Belgium, Italy, and most recently in Singapore.
    Hamilton took full advantage of Vettel's calamitous start at the Marina Bay Street Circuit to win the race extending his lead in the drivers' championship from three points to 28 with six races remaining.
    "The last two races were not good -- we are not happy," Vettel told reporters ahead of Sunday's crucial race.
    "In Monza we didn't do our best and equally Mercedes were very strong ... it's mostly in Singapore where we didn't race. Not a great day as you can imagine but the response from the whole team has been very positive.
    "There's not much assessment necessary, we weren't happy but we move on ... what's done is done. You have to look at what's coming and the car is strong."
    Vettel and Ferrari will take heart from their respective records in Sepang -- Vettel has won four races at the circuit -- more than any other driver -- and Ferrari boasts seven victories to Mercedes' one.
    Hamilton won the German constructor's only race to date in 2014 and was desperately unlucky not to win a second last year -- his engine blew up on lap 40 of the 56-lap race while leading, gifting Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo victory.
    But even if another engine mishap befalls Hamilton, the three-time world champion is very much in the box seat after Singapore, says Alan Baldwin, Reuters motorsport correspondent.
    "I think Lewis is a massive step closer to that fourth title that he wants," Baldwin told CNN.
    "You can't take anything for granted in F1 but you have to say Lewis can finish second in the next four races and Vettel would have to win all four just to be on equal terms.
    "I can't see Lewis finishing second in the next four races -- I think he'll win a few of them. So if nothing goes wrong with the car then he's in a really strong position."

    Gasly debuts at Sepang swansong

    As Vettel looks to get his title bid back on track in Malaysia, another driver, Pierre Gasly, will be finding his F1 feet.
    The Red Bull reserve driver and reigning GP2 champion will replace Russia's Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso for the next two races, the Italian team announced earlier in the week.
    "It feels amazing, honestly. Starting my first F1 race this weekend is a dream come true," Gasly told reporters in Malaysia ahead of Friday's practice session.
    "There is no real target. I'm here to learn as quickly as possible. I need to take one session at a time. I've been dreaming about this weekend so many times and it's finally happening."
    The Frenchman spoke to CNN last year explaining his role as a Red Bull development driver and it was clear then that he was itching to break into F1 this season.
    Pierre Gasly simulator training for F1 debut.
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    It's the start of what he hopes will be a long F1 journey, but for the Malaysian Grand Prix it is the end of the road for now -- it was announced in April that the race would not feature on the 2018 calendar.
    Race promoters have struggled with rising costs and declining tickets sales in recent seasons and have been squeezed by competition in Asia from the Chinese Grand Prix and the night race in Singapore.
    Malaysia has hosted some epic tussles down the years. A demanding track configuration coupled with torrential downpours have combined to produce some memorable races -- notably in 2001 where Michael Schumacher led a Ferrari one-two in a chaotic wet/dry thriller.
    There has also been controversy. In 2013, Vettel famously ignored team orders and overtook Red Bull teammate and race leader Mark Webber before taking the checkered flag. The Australian was furious.
    Sepang holds fonder memories for others who have recorded personal milestones at the track.
    Eddie Irvine won the first-ever Malaysian Grand Prix in 1999 -- the Northern Irishman's fourth and final F1 victory -- while in 2003, Fernando Alonso finished third to claim the first of his 97 podiums.
    The same day, Kimi Raikkonen celebrated his first F1 win -- although the Finn wasn't getting too misty-eyed about the race's demise when asked on Thursday.
    "To be honest, I don't know if we're going to miss it. It's a nice circuit but the only thing you see is the airport, the hotel next to the airport and the circuit, so you can choose from that what you're going to miss," Raikkonen said.
    Conversely, Gasly's new teammate Carlos Sainz will be sad to see it go.
    "It's probably one of the best track layouts -- fast corners, and it's one of the most physically demanding," Sainz said, referring to the intense heat and humidity.
    "We will definitely miss it. Never say never. Hopefully it will come back."