Sebastian Vettel needs to show his character at Malaysian Grand Prix to get F1 title challenge back on track
The Ferrari driver trails Lewis Hamilton by 28 points with six races of the season remaining.
A month can be a long time in Formula One.
Four weeks ago, Sebastian Vettel arrived at the Belgium Grand Prix with a 14-point lead at the top of the standings and on course to give Ferrari their first drivers' title in 10 years.
Fast forward to now and the four-time world champion will arrive in the paddock in Sepang on Thursday ahead of Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix trailing Mercedes-GP's Lewis Hamilton by 28 points with six races remaining.
That represents a drastic 42-point swing in favour of the Briton, who has won all three races since the summer break and has momentum on his side as the season moves towards its climax at the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 26 at Yas Marina Circuit.
There will still be a maximum 125 points available after Sunday's 56-lap race so it will not be the end of the world for Vettel if he is second or third behind Hamilton around the sweeping turns and long straights of the 5.5-kilometre track.
But thanks to his non-finish in Singapore, where he suffered race-ending damage in the coming together on the run to Turn 1 with teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull Racing's Max Verstappen, he has little room for error.
Another non-finish in the remaining six races would almost certainly deal a terminal blow to his title hopes, so while Vettel must race hard to win, he must ensure that risks are kept to a minimum.
He went to Singapore three points adrift of Hamilton, starting from pole at a track that suited the Ferrari, and would have expected to regain the title lead.
What Vettel did at the start has been well documented and it will be interesting to see how he handles himself with the media on Thursday. He gave some brief comments to TV reporters after the crash where he appeared to be shell-shocked by what had transpired.
The fact he was not instantly playing the blame game by pointing the finger at either Verstappen or Raikkonen, something he has been unafraid to do in the past, highlighted he probably knew himself that he had played a significant part in his own demise.
Vettel can take some heart from the fact the race he needs to begin his comeback at is Malaysia. He has won there four times in the past, the most recent in 2015 for his first win as a Ferrari driver.
It is also something of a bogey track for Hamilton, who has only won once there in 10 attempts, and was where he effectively lost the 2016 title 12 months ago.
Hamilton had been 15 laps away from winning the race, a result that would have seen him retake the championship lead from teammate Nico Rosberg, having gone into the race eight points adrift.
However, his engine failed and he retired, so instead of leaving Malaysia with a five-point lead, Hamilton trailed Rosberg by 23 points, and would go on to be beaten by five points at the end of that year.
Therefore Hamilton will not be taking anything for granted, even if he is on a great run having scored 75 points to Vettel's 33 points in the last three races.
There are no low-speed tracks like Monaco, Hungary or Singapore left on the calendar, which is a blow for Vettel as that has been where Ferrari have consistently scored well against Hamilton and Mercedes.
Both Malaysia and Japan, the next round on October 8, are tracks that Ferrari should be well matched with Mercedes on. The SF70H chassis has been impressive on tracks with similar layouts like in Barcelona and Spa-Francorchamps.
Vettel can be certainly confident at the next two races, more so Suzuka in Japan, that he can fight for the win. It is vital that he wins at least one of those races as two more wins for Hamilton would see him head to North America for the United States and Mexico races with at the very least an advantage of 42 points if Vettel is second in both events.
Vettel has demonstrated on countless occasions his mental strength in his 10 years in the sport. How quickly he can recover from Singapore will tell us even more about his character, but also how realistic his chances are of leaving Abu Dhabi in November with a fifth world title to his name.
Updated: September 26, 2017 01:49 PM