SUZUKA, Japan -- Once the engine cover had been removed from Sebastian Vettel's car, it didn't take long for a small crowd to gather around his grid slot. The starting grid of a grand prix is the one place where a Formula One team can't hide from its rivals and the sight of an exposed engine bay always attracts attention.
A group of six Ferrari mechanics attempted to gain some privacy for their colleagues by forming a human shield around the car, but between the gaps in red overalls it was still possible to see the power unit laid bare. At the feet of the wall of a mechanics, a seventh Ferrari team member set about removing a small black panel from the engine itself. It was clear that something had gone very wrong.
Just one week earlier, a similar scenario had played out on the grid in Malaysia resulting in Kimi Raikkonen retiring from the grand prix before it had even started. A post-race investigation determined that that failure was caused by a problem with the inlet manifold between the turbo and the cylinder head, essentially a quality control issue at Maranello, but this time it was a supplier's component -- ironically a spark plug made by Japanese company NGK, based just 60km up the road from Suzuka in Nagoya.
Team principal Maurizio Arrivabene stood alone on the other side of the car, his arms folded and a blank look on his face. How had it come to this?
A faltering fightback
Suzuka was the round where Vettel desperately needed to close the gap to Lewis Hamilton but instead he was going down without a fight. As he left the grid on the formation lap, he could feel the engine was still down on power and, without any emotion in his voice, opened his car-to-pit radio: "I know you're not allowed to talk to me, but if there's anything for safety or reliability let me know".
"Driver default delta two off, driver default delta two off," came the response from race engineer Riccardo Adami in an equally flat tone. At that moment it seemed both driver and engineer knew the problem would prove terminal.
Considering he was down to five cylinders, Vettel made a remarkably good start and held off Max Verstappen into the first corner. But in the second half of the opening lap the problem was laid bare and Vettel slipped to sixth before the race was neutralised by a Safety Car to clear the wreckage of Carlos Sainz's Toro Rosso.
Adami continued to coach Vettel through different engine settings, in the hope that one would force the sixth cylinder back into life, but when the race restarted he continued to lose positions.
"Box, Sebastian, box," came the inevitable message from Adami. "We retire the car I'm afraid".
Those words not only signalled the end of Vettel's race but also the realistic end to his title campaign. Although mathematically speaking he is still in the running, on average Vettel has to outscore Hamilton by 15 points at each of the remaining four rounds to be crowned champion. By contrast, Hamilton can wrap the title up before the end of the month if he makes sure Vettel doesn't outscore him by more than nine points in the U.S.A. and Mexico.
"I don't need to be a genius or a mathematician [to know what it means]," Vettel said in a brief media opportunity before leaving the circuit. "What we have to do now is, like I said to the guys, is get back and get some rest.
"It has been a tough two weeks with a lot of changes and the mechanics are tired, the team is tired I think so it is good to get some rest. We know we have the package to go well in the last four races so that is what we will focus to do and the rest we will see."
Perhaps that is the most galling thing about the collapse of Vettel's championship campaign. Over the last three races, the Ferrari has been as good or better than the Mercedes in race trim, and if everything had gone to plan Vettel could have easily been the one holding a commanding lead in the championship.
Unfortunately we will never know if he could have put Hamilton's Suzuka victory under threat on Sunday, but at the previous two rounds in Malaysia and Singapore there is enough evidence to suggest Ferrari had the fastest car. When it comes to the game of what if, even if you allow for Hamilton to finish second in Singapore and Malaysia (which seemed unlikely if both Ferraris and Max Verstappen had healthy cars) and win in Japan with Vettel finishing second, Vettel would still have a four-point lead in the standings. Instead he carries a 59-point deficit.
Is anyone to blame?
After such a tight battle in the opening half of the season, it's hugely disappointing that the 2017 title battle doesn't look set to go down to the wire. Of course there could be one more twist in the tale if Hamilton encounters reliability problems of his own at the next four races, but that seems unlikely now that Mercedes no longer has to push to the limit in order to secure both titles.
It's easy to point to the reliability issues at the last two races as the reasons for Vettel's current situation, but points were dropped earlier in the season too. In Baku, a moment of madness behind the Safety Car saw Vettel receive a stop-go penalty, and with the way the race turned out -- Hamilton's chances of victory were snatched away by a loose head rest -- it ultimately cost him 13 points and a victory.
Vettel may also reflect on his tactics at the start of the race in Singapore when he assesses where he could have improved. At that point of the season he had a three-point gap to Hamilton, and while he may have lost the lead to Max Verstappen at the start of the race if he'd been more cautious, he still would have been locked on for at least 18 points in second place. Add the lost points in those two incidents together and they total more than half the current deficit of 59 -- even allowing for the reliability problems at the last two races.
But just as it would be wrong to heap all the blame on the desk of the quality control department in Maranello, it would also be wrong to point the finger at Vettel. What's more, when you consider where Ferrari ended last season and where they look set to finish this year it is still a remarkable achievement. That won't help ease the pain of what happened in Japan, but it should be factored into the overall judgement of the season.