Five years ago, when Sebastian Vettel glided past Romain Grosjean on the 39th lap of the Japanese Grand Prix on his way to a fourth Formula One World Championship in a row, he looked as close to untouchable as any racer in the history of the sport.
Soaring to a 90-point lead in the drivers' standings, the German shouted “Ichiban, ichiban” -- No1 in Japanese -- over the team radio upon taking the chequered flag 14 laps later.
He wasn't wrong. Vettel won the next race in India too, a fifth victory in a sequence of nine that defined the back half of the 2013 season.
Such supreme racing skill, combined with an infectious confidence and a Red Bull team of world-class constructors, analysts and strategists, elevated Vettel to a place in F1 that only titans Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio had reached: four World Championships in a row.
During this triumphant run, Lewis Hamilton found himself and his emerging Mercedes team in a state of flux, and the Briton ended up marooned in fourth place, 208 points behind his German rival.
It had been five years since his first and only drivers’ title in 2008 and his new team looked a long way behind Red Bull and their world conquering driver.
Today, the Japanese Grand Prix feels equally seminal again, only with the roles of Vettel -- now at Ferrari -- and Hamilton reversed. On Sunday Hamilton opened up a 67-point lead over Vettel by winning at Suzuka in style, while an error-strewn performance from the German left him in sixth place.
Having cut the gap mid-season with victories at Silverstone and the Belgian Grand Prix, Vettel has now seen Hamilton win four races on a row. The leader could wrap it all up in Texas next week and, in doing so, overtake Vettel's tally with a fifth title, making Hamilton second only to Schumacher on the all-time list.
The last thing Vettel, 31, would have wanted after such a significant defeat was pity from his chief competitor, yet Hamilton took to social media to defend him from criticism over his recent performances. "I feel the media need to show a little more respect for Sebastian. You simply can't imagine how hard it is to do what we do at our level, for any athlete at the top of his game,” he said.
Hamilton’s defence may be sincere, but Vettel's performances in recent months justify criticism. The German ultimately saw his dreams of a fifth World Championship reduced to tatters by driver errors which Hamilton has mercilessly exploited.
In France, his collision with the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas caused his vehicle wing damage and resulted in a five-second penalty which dropped him from second to fifth – while Hamilton finished in first place. He slid off the course and crashed in Germany – while Hamilton finished in first place. He collided with Bottas again in Hungary, struggling to second – while Hamilton finished in first place. Then in Italy he made contact on the opening lap with Hamilton, damaging his front wing and falling to the back of the field. He recovered to finish fifth – but Hamilton finished in first place yet again.
Ferrari are second in the constructors’ championship, 78 points behind Mercedes, suggesting collective shortcomings in the team. Their car has had mechanical problems this year, and the team has made tactical mistakes, such as failing to convert to slick tyres during qualifying last weekend.
Nevertheless, Ferrari's car has also exhibited marginal power advantages in some races and faster straight-line speeds, while the vehicle has consistently accelerated more efficiently out of corners. It isn't clear, then, that the widening gap is solely a team issue.
This year, Vettel has won five grands prix and become just the fourth man in F1 history to reach a half-century of race wins. His talent is undeniable, but unless he cuts down costly errors in key races, then it won't matter how much Ferrari improve the strategy of their team or any shortcomings in their car. Vettel's historic successes will remain just that -- historic.