The two main protagonists of the 2018 season -- and of Formula One's modern era -- are locked in a compelling drama.
This back-and-forth campaign served up another memorable, dramatic spectacle on Sunday at Hockenheim as a result that seemed highly unlikely when the cars formed up on the grid unfolded in front of our eyes. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton were right in the middle of it and by the end of the race they had traded places at the top of the championship.
In the space of 24 hours, they also swapped narratives. Vettel had been riding high on Saturday afternoon, celebrating a brilliant pole position by declaring the day one of the best of his storied career, at the circuit down the road from his hometown and one he had never won at before. It was a German piloting a red car in front of a packed Hockenheim, a throwback to the era of Michael Schumacher doing the same for Ferrari in the mid-2000s.
It seemed like everything was lining up perfectly for Vettel. With the German Grand Prix's future beyond 2018 uncertain, Vettel emerging victorious would have been a fitting way to finish the current Hockenheim contract.
Contrast that to Hamilton's own plight at that stage of the weekend. Consigned to starting 14th after a car failure in qualifying, which occurred after running wide at Turn 1 and clobbering the kerbs, the four-time world champion knelt despairingly beside his car. Following Ferrari's victory at Hamilton's home race two weeks earlier the Italian team had published its customary post-race press release with the provocative title 'A Hammer Blow'; on Saturday afternoon it seemed like he had been dealt another one.
Twenty-four hours later everything was in reverse. Hamilton was celebrating what he described as the greatest drive of his life while an emotional Vettel was wondering how victory had slipped through his fingers, having crashed out at the Sachs Kurve as the late rain storm intensified.
It was a weekend which perfectly encapsulated Hamilton the competitor. The Englishman wears his emotions on his sleeve and is capable of the most extreme swings between the lowest low and the highest high; he experienced both at Hockenheim. He had come into the weekend critical of Ferrari's pronounced celebrations at Silverstone -- which included Vettel's declaration that the team could plant an English flag at Maranello -- and by Saturday afternoon was quoting Nelson Mandela in response to observers he felt were enjoying seeing his latest setback. After the race, he made reference to being booed by German fans and, in an Instagram post that has subsequently been deleted, had a dig at pundits on UK broadcaster Sky Sports.
Hamilton has always used these types of setbacks and slights -- whether real or imagined -- to strengthen his motivation over the course of a season. He did it to good effect in the years he was fighting Nico Rosberg and it's not surprising to see him do it now in a season he has already described as the most intense of his career so far.
By contrast, Vettel's home race was another squandered opportunity. At times this season the German has been performing at a higher level than we've ever seen from him: his form in qualifying, especially, has been sublime. But he's been blowing big opportunities. In Baku he locked up while trying to pass Valtteri Bottas and ended up finishing down the order as Hamilton claimed another win from nowhere, in France he clumsily hit the Finn at Turn 1, while in Austria he earned himself a needless grid penalty for blocking Carlos Sainz in qualifying. Add all those together and there's a significant chunk of points the German has dropped to Hamilton in their quest to beat the other man to a fifth world championship.
Vettel's latest mistake was a case of cracking under pressure. In the laps leading up to his crash, as the rain gently increased and the track got wetter, Vettel had opened up around six seconds to teammate Raikkonen. Further back, however, Hamilton was finding scintillating pace on his ultra-soft tyres and had cut 11.5 seconds out of his gap to the championship leader. Hamilton was creeping up on Vettel and excelling in conditions he loves racing in, but the win still seemed to be the Ferrari driver's to lose -- lose it is exactly what Vettel did. In a season all about maximising points wherever possible, Vettel cannot afford to keep making the sort of error he did in front of his home crowd.
It's turning into a special championship contest between two of F1's all-time greats. In the space of two weeks, both have turned in brilliant drives to rob the other of a win at their home race. Vettel beat Hamilton off the line at Silverstone but, after a late Safety Car, still had to catch and pass Valtteri Bottas for the victory, which was celebrated as if it was the sweetest of the year. Hamilton returned the favour last Sunday, overcoming incredible odds to triumph and open up a 17-point lead over his closest rival.
The fact Hamilton then escaped a controversial stewards enquiry with the victory intact just adds another level to a title fight, which had some added spice injected into it in recent weeks both due to the comments Mercedes clumsily made after Silverstone -- suggesting Kimi Raikkonen had intentionally driven into Hamilton -- and another fact that became abundantly clear again over the course of the Hockenheim weekend: Ferrari now possesses the most powerful engine in F1.
Mercedes was unable to explain the step forward the Italian team made in recent races; Ferrari appeared to have gained around 0.3s per lap from its latest upgrade. While Mercedes has traditionally owned the most efficient overall package, the latest development in this season means the balance of power is likely to keep shifting between the top two teams.
This is a championship being fought on a knife edge and, with Red Bull still likely to be able to compete for the occasional victory -- including this weekend at the Hungarian Grand Prix -- we can expect this pendulum to keep swinging back and forth between the red and silver garages all year long. With the pressure levels increasing, it's clear Hamilton and Vettel are both feeling the strain and dealing with it in different ways: whichever of them can manage it best between now and the end of November has a great chance of being the champion when this epic season finally reaches its conclusion.