Within the space of a few weeks, the 2018 Formula One title race has gone from an intriguing head-to-head battle to little more than a victory procession for Lewis Hamilton.
It had seemed Ferrari was poised to mount a charge in the second half of the season after Sebastian Vettel’s scintillating Belgian Grand Prix performance in August to close the gap to 17 points.
But victories for Hamilton in back-to-back grands prix in Italy and Singapore – a combination of sublime driving and Ferrari errors – helped the Briton take a firm grip on a fifth world title.
And following Mercedes’ much-maligned ruthlessness in Russia, ordering Valtteri Bottas to move aside for Hamilton, and Sunday’s victory in Japan, the 33-year-old can wrap up victory at the US Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.
Should Hamilton win in Austin, Texas to secure a seventh win in eight races, Vettel would need to finish second to ensure the title race goes on for another week.
“It’s like it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Hamilton told reporters Sunday. “I did long-distance running when I was a kid, cross country, and you just run out of stamina to keep hold with those who, for whatever reason, had the stamina at the time.
“We seem to have the stamina this year.”
But while Mercedes has been a well-oiled machine this season, several costly errors from Ferrari and Vettel have allowed their rivals to build a near-unassailable lead.
Some of the criticism has been scathing, with British F1 journalist Jonathan McEvoy saying the Italian manufacturers “practically gift-wrapped the world title” for Hamilton.
Vettel’s latest miscalculation came Sunday, trying to overtake Max Verstappen on the notoriously difficult Spoon Curve in an attempt to climb from eighth on the grid after a tire misjudgment from Ferrari in qualifying.
The pair collided, leaving Vettel to spin out and end up at the back of the pack. He recovered well but could only claw his way back to eighth.
Hamilton points to the close-fought race in Monza, when he battled with Vettel’s team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and eventually passed him with nine laps to go to clinch victory.
“Honestly, I thought that was how it was going to be, being as they were so strong in the previous two races. But they’ve lost a lot of performance and it has been a little bit difficult for them,” he said.
“Of course, I would love to have a race right to the end. Every single race I want battles like Monza. Those are the races that I love. But we can’t let it take away from the great job that we’re doing and our happiness.”
Such is Mercedes’ dominance in recent times, the German manufacturer is on the verge of winning a fifth consecutive drivers’-constructors’ championship double and equaling Ferrari’s and Michael Schumacher’s record from 2000-2004.
The question is now rightly being asked as to whether Hamilton will one day equal Schumacher’s all-time record of seven world titles.
The Brit already holds the record of 80 pole positions, in just 225 races, compared to Schumacher’s 68 in 307 and is just 24 podium places behind the German legend’s record total of 155.
But despite Hamilton and Mercedes boasting a comfortable lead in both heading to the US, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff is taking nothing for granted.
“This is a tough fight and nobody is prepared to give an inch, not us, not our competitors,” he told the Guardian before the weekend’s race. “It’s five races to go, lots of points to score and that is why you cannot take your foot off the pedal.
“We must be relentless and resilient. I always fear losing the world championship, even now because this is motor racing and things can change pretty quickly.
“Every time when we become a little too optimistic I remind myself of the championship Lewis lost by one point in 2007. He was in the lead by what would be today 45 points with two races to go.
“So the thought of the possibility of losing is omnipresent.”
Hamilton echoed his team boss’ thoughts following Sunday’s win. “I’m very, very strict on not being complacent,” he said.
“There are still 100 points available and we still have to continue the job we’re doing now right until the last lap. So that’s the goal and also, from past experiences, so much can happen.”
Wolff describes Hamilton as “a complex individual, multi-faceted” and praises his positive attitude in the face of adversity, something Ferrari haven’t dealt with quite as well this season.
“Together we can claim credit for applying the pressure and, ultimately, maybe that is what happens in head-to-head battles with top competitors,” Hamilton said of his opponent’s capitulation.
“Even though they are still performing great, one of them can’t always perform the same. It is a psychological battle, war, we are in.
“It’s collectively. Everyone has putting 100 per cent in and everyone has delivered time and time again. I am grateful to have also delivered when the time has been to deliver.”