BUDAPEST, Hungary -- As hard as the past two races have been for Sebastian Vettel, he still enters the summer break with his best shot at a world championship since 2013. He has lost 32 points to Lewis Hamilton in the space of a fortnight, but in that same time Ferrari has made a big step forward with its car, and specifically its engine development. The 24-point gap that now stretches between him and Hamilton in the standings shouldn't be as big as it is, but don't be fooled, Vettel is still very much in the fight.
At the launch of the Ferrari SF71-H in February, technical director Mattia Binotto talked about how the new design would keep the strengths of last year's car but close the gap to Mercedes in other areas. In testing there was widespread scepticism Ferrari's new longer wheelbase design had made the necessary gains to fight Mercedes for the title, but the evidence from the first 12 races suggests it is now the best car in Formula One.
The SF71-H has kept to Binotto's promise of retaining an advantage at tracks where its predecessor was strong, while closing in or eliminating the gap to Mercedes at others. The first clear indicator came in Canada when Vettel took a solid win on a power-sensitive circuit and in Silverstone the progress was confirmed at a track that has historically rewarded Mercedes' trademark punches of engine power and efficient aero. Both circuits had been Mercedes stomping grounds in recent years, but in 2018 the tables turned in Ferrari's favour.
One of the clear areas where Ferrari has gained an advantage this year is with its power unit. Not only has the latest V6 hybrid from Maranello closed the gap to Mercedes, it has taken a significant lead in terms of power output. The most recent step forward was unusually sudden given the maturity of the current engine regulations and was first obvious in Silverstone before growing again in Germany. The advantage is clear to see in speed traces of the cars on straights and it has left Mercedes unable to respond in the short-term.
The engine arms race between Mercedes and Ferrari has also wiped Red Bull out of serious title contention. Max Verstappen claimed he was losing 0.8s per lap to Ferrari at the Hungaroring due to Renault's power deficit -- and that coming on one of the least power-sensitive circuits on the calendar. Last year the Red Bull and Ferrari cars were well suited to the same kind of circuits, but this year Ferrari's power advantage is too much for the RB14 chassis to compensate for. Mercedes is just about clinging on, but even at the Hungaroring Ferrari had a sizable edge in the first sector of the lap where power is more important than cornering speed. Had it remained dry for qualifying, Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen had the kind of performance to comfortably secure the front-row of the grid and ease to a one-two victory on Sunday.
Instead the weather levelled the playing field in qualifying and presented Hamilton a stage on which to shine. In the wet Ferrari's power advantage was cancelled out and Vettel looked distinctly average as he was forced to settle for fourth place behind Raikkonen. Vettel's race pace on Sunday was far more impressive, however, and had his left front tyre gone on cleanly at his pit stop he would have emerged back on track ahead of Valtteri Bottas and in a strong position to challenge Hamilton towards the end of the race.
The good news for Vettel is that when racing resumes after the summer break, F1 will head to two of the most power-sensitive circuits on the calendar. The races at Spa and Monza are also likely to see engine manufacturers introduce their third and final power unit update of the year, giving Ferrari another opportunity to hammer home its advantage. Clearly confident in its development direction, Maranello teased its spec three upgrade in the Haas and Sauber cars over the weekend in Hungary and it was reported that the new spec came with a whopping 40bhp power boost over spec two -- a figure that, if at all accurate, will be cause for concern in the corridors of Mercedes' engine base in Brixworth. Yet team boss Toto Wolff is not willing to accept that, after four years of building the best engines in F1, Mercedes has lost its power struggle with Ferrari.
"We are not living with anything," he said when asked if his team would have to accept that its engine is second best now. "I believe that it's nice again to be in a situation that you're the challenger. Since 2013 we haven't been the challenger anymore. It's so difficult to set the benchmark, you're basically running around with a cross on your back. Now we know what the level of performance is with the Ferrari, you see it every day on track, and that is something which we are very eager and we are very motivated to achieve. We are not going on a rest until we have done that.
"Andy Cowell [Mercedes' engine boss] and his troops, including the chassis integration team around it, will leave no stone unturned in order to match that. We would rather go up in flame than not match the performance of the Ferrari."
There's even talk of Mercedes holding back its spec three upgrade if more power can be extracted from the engine with extra development time. Mercedes' spec two engine upgrade was delayed one race from Canada to France due to quality issues, but when it arrived it came with added performance as well as improved reliability and gave the team the upper hand at both Paul Ricard and the Red Bull Ring. Given that Ferrari will be hard to beat at both Spa and Monza, it might make sense to attempt to limit the damage at those races using the spec two engine before going on the attack with an even more powerful update for the final seven races.
Last year in Spa, Ferrari was much closer to Mercedes than anyone expected, so the added performance advantage it has this year should make Vettel the favourite going into the weekend. Mercedes has been dominant at Monza in recent years -- partly thanks to the power of its engine but also because of the aero efficiency of its car -- so Vettel will face a tougher challenge there. But if Maranello has made the rumoured 40bhp step and Mercedes chooses to hold fire on its own update, Vettel will stand a very good chance of becoming the first Ferrari driver to win on the team's home soil since Fernando Alonso in 2010.
Can Vettel handle the pressure?
Those two wins would allow Vettel to close the gap to Hamilton to at least 10 points ahead of Mercedes' bogey track in Singapore. If Vettel could then make it a hat-trick of wins -- exorcising the ghost of last year's first-lap crash in Singapore in the process -- the championship would look very different entering the final six rounds.
"As we've seen this year the pendulum seems to swing once this side, once that side, and obviously if it's like this, consistency is the key -- scoring points," Vettel said after finishing second to Hamilton on Sunday. "I didn't do myself a favour last week [in Germany] but I think it's part of racing. Stuff happens.
"Compared to last year, we lost the championship I think because our car wasn't quick enough to be a match in the final part of the season, despite what happened with the DNFs. So I hope that this year, and I think this year has shown so far that our car is more efficient, our car is stronger and still has a lot of potential to unleash -- so I'm quite confident with what's sitting in the pipeline that we can improve . We'll see. It should be an exciting second part of the year."
Much will depend on the quality of the upgrades on both cars over the coming races, but if the current trend continues Vettel has the talent, the car and the engine to deliver the title. As he says, it should be a very exciting second half of the year.