Ferrari's true pace has been masked at the last two rounds after Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen both crashed out of the Singapore Grand Prix and then had their race weekends ruined by engine problems in Malaysia.
He is now looking at a 34 point deficit to Lewis Hamilton out front, and with five races left, and seven more points available for first place compared to second, he must win every race to be certain of winning the title regardless of what Hamilton does.
"It's definitely dependent on track by track", said Hamilton, who has seven race victories to his name in 2017. They come here 34 points apart after Hamilton's recent run of three consecutive victories which was interrupted, finally, in Malaysia last weekend.
"If we were going into the race beyond this and we knew what was going to happen it would be kind of tiresome". But for sure it's not ideal if you retire one vehicle yesterday and another one today. As many times as they'll change personnel or overhaul the team, the fundamentals stay the same.
But it still wasn't as bad as it might have been.
Scuderia team diver, Kimi Raikkonen said after Singapore that it was wrong to assume Ferrari would struggle against MercedesAMG in the upcoming races, and his team proved that in Malaysia. But you've got to look at the season: we've got more pole positions than anyone, we're leading both championships and still are the best team.
Verstappen, who turned 20 on Saturday, started the race behind Lewis Hamilton. Vettel was lapping almost one second faster than Hamilton and overtook Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, even though Bottas started fifth.
Expected to be in their element around the sweeps of the Sepang circuit, Mercedes for the second weekend in a row were the third quickest team. But the vehicle just didn't work in the high ambient temperatures.
"We can not get distracted by the fact we got lucky again".
"There are some real big problems that I can't really explain to you", he said. And that is worrisome.
"So, just before we headed for Suzuka we brought Max and Daniel to the Konnou Dojo in Shibuya for a training session in the 300-year-old martial art of Kendo".
I'm not sure if that's an easy thing to fix either because if they had a clear answer, an understanding of how to address that, they would have done it by now, as there are some extremely clever people on that Mercedes pit-wall. And it was all drama for Vettel, who finished fourth only to collide with Lance Stroll's Williams on the slow-down lap.