With Ferrari rising again, Sebastian Vettel has to like his Formula One title chances next year.
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Lewis Hamilton was bearing down on his third world championship, focused on the pavement in front of him and his place in Formula One history.
If he looked in his rearview mirrors, he saw Sebastian Vettel in Ferrari red, gaining on him lap by lap, weaving his way from the back of the grid to the front. By the end of the United States Grand Prix, Vettel was pushing Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg at the finish line and nearly postponed Hamilton's victory party.
Vettel’s third-place finish in Austin was his 12th podium of the season and yet another statement that Ferrari and its four-time world champion intend to challenge Hamilton and Mercedes in 2016.
“We have great car. I think we have exceeded all expectations,” Vettel said with an eye toward this weekend’s Mexico Grand Prix. “We are getting closer and hopefully next year we can give them a very, very hard time.”
Ferrari has made huge strides over the last year.
Motorsports’ most famous franchise was in a panic in 2014. The team won just once in 2013, and like the rest of the grid, found itself barely able to keep the dominant Mercedes cars in sight once the series switched from the ear-splitting V8 engines to a V6 turbo hybrid. No one was keeping up with Mercedes, but Ferrari decided it was time for an overhaul to match the engine change.
President Luce Cordero di Montezemolo departed after 23 years. Maurizio Arrivabene was named team principal and Vettel, who won four consecutive championships with Red Bull from 2010-2013, was hired to replace Fernando Alonso. Ferrari’s dominant run with Michael Schumacher is ancient history; a Ferrari driver has not won a world title since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007 and the team hasn’t won a constructor’s championship since 2008.
That’s why there is so much optimism for the near future. Vettel’s pursuit of Hamilton last Sunday nearly overtook Rosberg on the final lap. Had Vettel been just 0.532 seconds faster, he would have extended the championship race at least until Mexico City.
Vettel went to Texas with a slim chance of staying in the title chase. But the team opted instead to install a fifth engine, one more than the season limit. That meant a 10-spot grid penalty for Vettel as the team sacrificed his slim title hopes to keep developing their engines for this future.
“Of course there’s a price to pay,” Ferrari spokesman Alberto Antonini said. “It will put us in better position for races from here on.”
Vettel didn't seem to mind. Ferrari’s surging performance has been a return to form for him as well. He has three wins this season, more than Ferrari had the previous two, and is in second in the driver standings, ahead of Rosberg.
In 2013, Vettel dominated much like Hamilton has the last two years. Yet he seemed to know his glory days with Red Bull were coming to an end when he won the U.S. Grand Prix and radioed to his team to savor the moment because they may never get another.
Vettel moved to Ferrari this year and now he’s talking of challenging for a title again. If he could win No. 5, he’d be in striking distance of his hero Schumacher’s seven.
“Of course my target is to win the championship with Ferrari, but I haven’t, you know, put a number to it and I wouldn’t dare to think about equalizing Michael,” Vettel said.
However, he has publicly relished the chance for a head-to-head duel with Hamilton next year.
When it comes to pure speed in 2015, Mercedes is still in front and plans to stay there. Hamilton is the first Formula One driver to win at least 10 races in consecutive seasons and has a chance to equal Vettel’s 13 wins in 2013. Hamilton has gently reminded Vettel he‘s not there yet.
“I hope at some stage we get to do some real racing,” Hamilton said. “At the moment we’ve not really been that close on the track to really go wheel-to-wheel, which I’m looking forward to at some stage.”
Former three-time Formula One champion Jackie Stewart said Ferrari has always been a team of highs and lows, and always finds a way back to the podium.
“Many times they’ve been totally dominant other times they’ve been almost also-rans,” Stewart said. “It’s a very good team.I think there}s a better chance of next year of them being more dominant.”
GALLERY; Lewis Hamilton at the U.S. Grand Prix