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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Lewis Hamilton can win in China and keep Sebastian Vettel's progress in check if there are no dramas

Season's first two races prove if Mercedes-GP do not have a perfect weekend they are beatable. They are quick, but not fast enough to overcome an errant VSC period or a grid penalty falling their way

Lewis Hamilton has already faced setbacks in his 2018 Formula One campaign. Charles Coates / Getty Images
Lewis Hamilton has already faced setbacks in his 2018 Formula One campaign. Charles Coates / Getty Images

Being 17 points adrift after two rounds of the Formula One season is unlikely to faze Lewis Hamilton too much.

He was 25 down on Sebastian Vettel after six races of the 2017 campaign, took the outright lead of the championship for the first time only in September and still won his fourth title with two races to spare.

But, saying that Hamilton will really not want Ferrari and Vettel’s confidence to grow any further with another win in China this weekend.

Vettel has won the opening two races, despite the Ferrari arguably not being the quickest overall package, and he goes to Shanghai on a high as he looks to achieve the 50th victory of his career.

Barring a retirement from the race for Vettel it is unlikely that Hamilton will be arriving in Azerbaijan at the end of the month for the fourth round of the season at the top of the standings.

That will not be the immediate goal for Hamilton this weekend. Just getting back to winning ways will be the fundamental objective.

Including the final three races of 2017, Hamilton is on a winless run of five races.

It is not a crisis. Well at least not yet, as events conspired to deny him in the first two races.

A Virtual Safety Car (VSC) period wrecked his victory chances in the season opener in Australia as he had to settle for second, while a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change in Bahrain left him with too much to do from ninth place and third was a satisfactory result from there.

Shanghai has been a happy hunting ground for Hamilton in the past, and he needs it to be again on Sunday.

Hamilton is the most successful driver in the race’s history, with five wins to his name, three of which have come in the past four years.

Last year he and Mercedes struggled in the opening races as Vettel and Ferrari, on race pace, had the edge on them. China was only one of the opening four races that Hamilton won and it helped him give him belief as Vettel threatened to take control of the championship.

Historically making a slow start to the season, in terms of race triumphs, also makes it very hard for a driver to go on and be world champion.

Only twice in the past 28 years, in 2012 (Vettel) and 2003 (Michael Schumacher) has a driver not won any of the opening three races of the season and still gone on to finish the year at the top of the standings.

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Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel has won the season's first two races. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel has won the season's first two races. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

Now, as said before, there is no need yet for Hamilton supporters to panic. The Mercedes is still an extremely quick package and could, and maybe should have, won both the opening two races.

Hamilton was quicker than the Ferraris in Australia until the VSC bumped Vettel ahead of him.

Ferrari were faster in qualifying then Mercedes, but the German marque were kinder to their tyres in the race and were able to pressurise Vettel.

Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas hounded Vettel in the closing laps in Sakhir, but was unable to get past the German.

Hamilton was only six seconds behind when Vettel crossed the finish line, and he could rightly wonder what he might have been able to do had he not lost time in the opening laps having to make up ground from ninth place on the grid.

The outcomes of those races cannot be unchanged but it does highlight one thing for Mercedes.

If they do not have a perfect weekend they are beatable. They are quick, but not fast enough to overcome an errant VSC period or a grid penalty falling their way.

What Hamilton desperately needs in Shanghai is a normal weekend. No dramas, just a simple set of practice sessions, a good qualifying session and then a straightforward race.

If he gets that then there is every chance he will back stood on top of the podium on Sunday afternoon and have checked Vettel’s momentum.

But, if he does suffer more drama then things will get tougher for him, and history at least, says the path to a fifth world title may just be that little bit harder.