Lewis Hamilton in need of speed as Red Bull fly into the reckoning, writes Johnny Herbert

Johnny Herbert
Winning formula | Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo: Lars Baron/Getty Images

Red Bull hold the key to this year’s world championship. Their car is quick - as we saw with Max Verstappen’s victory in Malaysia last Sunday - and may even have the jump on Ferrari this weekend at Suzuka.

Their team principal, Christian Horner, claimed Red Bull would have beaten Ferrari in a straight fight at Sepang, but I don’t quite buy that.

What does appear to be the case, though, is that Lewis Hamilton is now driving the third quickest car on the grid, which ought to make for five mouth-watering races until the chequered flag comes down on the season.

We’ve seen how strong Max can be when he has confidence - and he’ll be brimming with it this weekend.

It’s not often I can think of a time when Lewis is overtaken fair and square and, in Malaysia, Max scythed past him. I know Lewis indicated post-race that he didn’t want to risk his championship to defend his position, but I think he was beaten legitimately.

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff looked worried, too - and with good reason. He realises that Red Bull are a massive threat and, that on paper at least, Lewis might find himself scrapping for fifth place at best at the remaining races. That makes the championship battle incredibly tight.

The dynamic of this season has shifted completely. Sebastian Vettel might be 34 points behind Lewis but, on the evidence of last weekend, the fight is well and truly alive.

Lewis’ qualifying pace and his second place in the race were thanks more to his individual driving skill than the Mercedes’ pace, and it’s clear the team have been left scratching their heads.

Suzuka is not necessarily a power circuit. Okay, there’s a big straight there, but Red Bull will think they can go for the win here - and it’s perfectly conceivable that the team can keep on denying Lewis the points he needs to wrap up the title.

Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Of course, logic suggests with the current point standings that Lewis will win a fourth title, but F1 is often devoid of logic. If he just continues to finish the races in second place, then that ought to be enough.

I’d still be surprised if he didn’t pull it off, but suddenly - because of the events in Malaysia - there’s that niggling doubt. Mercedes are now looking over their shoulders or, more pertinently, at the cars in front of them.

In some ways, it seems a little bit warped to focus on Mercedes’ frailties after the two weekends that Ferrari have had. They’ve effectively lost 50 points - something they cannot afford to do - but somehow, despite that, they’re still in the fight and leading the charge to Suzuka and beyond.

I think Seb will take the pole in Japan - and for the first time with quite a gap to the rest - and go on to win the race relatively untroubled. So, for me, it’s all down to the scrap that goes on behind him, and whether the Red Bulls of Max and Daniel Ricciardo can squeeze in between Seb and Lewis.

There’s echoes of Lewis last year and that end-of-season run in which he won the last four grands prix. I expect Seb to go on a similar run and it will be fascinating to see if he can pull it off.

Mercedes have enjoyed great reliability, but they might be forced to push the engine - and, when that happens, you never quite know what might go pop! They may yet have their reliability gremlins but, for now, with their points advantage, they can be smart, play it safe and hope Red Bull don’t come into play at each and every race.

Ferrari know they should be leading the championship. They’ve panicked when the pressure is on and, at the last races, it’s almost like they’ve been engineering for things to go wrong.

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Before the season started, I’d talked about it being a three-team, six-driver battle for the championship. Red Bull might have taken 15 races to get to that point, but they’re there now and it augurs well for the rest of this season and into 2018.

Then there’s the small matter of McLaren. Their car is looking good and you’d think with a Renault engine in it - as they will have next season - it will be much better.

Next season already has the makings of a four-team, eight-driver battle but, for now, it remains, for the most part, Lewis versus Seb.

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