Hamilton's hopes take a hit
In one sense, the Singapore Grand Prix changed nothing; in reality, it changed everything.
Mark Webber still leads the world championship and the five contenders are still covered by the points awarded for a win. But Fernando Alonso's victory in the first of the five deciding races of the season has fundamentally altered the dynamics of the title battle.
The biggest winner and biggest loser were the two men regarded by so many as the finest racing drivers in the world - Alonso and Lewis Hamilton.
Earlier this year, Alonso's fellow drivers voted him the best in F1 and he showed exactly why with a copybook victory for Ferrari in Singapore - superb in qualifying and flawless in the race under the most intense pressure from Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull.
The Spaniard's second consecutive victory not only brought him level with Webber on four wins this year but also moved him up to second in the championship, just 11 points behind the Australian. Alonso, it is clear, is now a very serious contender to win a third world title.
Hamilton, by contrast, was understandably downcast after his second non-finish in a row demoted him to third in the championship. Hamilton travelled to Singapore in second place only five points behind Webber. He is now 20 points off the lead and only one ahead of Vettel and five ahead of Jenson Button.
"I'm in a bit of a daze," Hamilton said after a collision with Webber while trying to pass the Red Bull put him out of the race.
"I'm not really sure what happened. He was in my blind spot, I didn't see him alongside me, the next thing I know is my tyre's blown and that's it. I couldn't have had a worse two races at this time of year."
So this amazing season takes another dramatic twist.
Two races ago, after Hamilton's superb victory in Belgium - where Alonso, Vettel and Jenson Button all failed to score - it looked as if he and Webber were beginning to break away from the pack and emerge as the two men who would contest the championship.
At that point, there was no doubt Hamilton was the driver of the season among the five title contenders - he was the only one not to have made a major mistake.
A month later, with only four races to go, he has been involved in collisions in two consecutive races and finished neither.
The run-in with Ferrari's Felipe Massa that put Hamilton out in Italy two weeks ago was undoubtedly the McLaren driver's fault.
The one with Webber on Sunday was more of a 50-50 - what they call in F1 "a racing incident".
Hamilton, who had a run on Webber after the Red Bull was held up behind a backmarker, was within his rights to try to pass where he did; Webber was within his rights to defend.
Hamilton was ahead, on the outside, going into Turn Seven, but he was not ahead by a big enough margin to claim the corner as definitively his, so Webber could legitimately stay on the inside and not cede the corner.
Webber had nearly half his car over the kerb on the inside trying to avoid contact, but still Hamilton's left rear tyre clipped Webber's front right.
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh was right to say that Hamilton was unlucky to be out of the race and Webber lucky to stay in it. But equally the stewards were correct not to take any further action.
It is easy to see why Hamilton was so down immediately after his retirement. He knows that, on paper, he is likely to lose more ground at the next race, the Japanese Grand Prix in two weeks' time.
Suzuka could have been made for the Red Bull. Its combination of long medium- and high-speed corners is expected to play to the car's strengths, just as Barcelona, Silverstone and Hungary did. In theory, it should be a slam-dunk one-two for Vettel and Webber, in whatever order.
Just as worrying for Hamilton, though, is that the Ferrari - at least in Alonso's hands - is clearly the second fastest car on the grid, and may also be more suited to Suzuka than the McLaren.
Hamilton knows his retirement in Singapore is a big blow to his title hopes. Photo: Getty Images
Button said after the Singapore race that McLaren have a major upgrade for Japan. That might change the competitive landscape. But if he and Hamilton lose more ground there, as they well might, then the championship will indeed be looking like a long shot with only three races to go - or perhaps just two, given the continuing doubts over South Korea.
It will be no consolation at all for Hamilton that he lost 'only' the points for third place - he could have done nothing about Alonso and Vettel, who were on another planet in Singapore, leaving everyone else for dead.
Alonso has not had his greatest season; he has made too many mistakes, particularly early in the season, but also as recently as Spa, when he crashed out of eighth place in the closing stages.
But now F1 has arrived at the business end of the season, he is looking every inch the formidable contender everyone knows him to be.
As Martin Brundle put it after the race: "Alonso has been brilliant, absolutely brilliant, all weekend."
Indeed he was. He took pole position in the second fastest car, going quick enough to pressure Vettel into mistakes on both of his qualifying laps when the German really should have taken pole himself.
The two of them were sensational on Sunday, pulling out more than 20 seconds on Hamilton in third place before the pit stops as they went at it hammer and tongs, swapping fastest laps at the front of the field.
Both drove superbly, but Alonso very rarely makes mistakes once he's in the lead and always looked in control, even though it was clear Vettel was in the fastest car. Now the Spaniard has the wind in his sails and the scent of another title in his nostrils, he can be expected to be formidable.
The Ferrari may not be the out-and-out quickest car, but as Alonso himself put it in Singapore: "We will be 90% at a lot of the tracks. We don't have any disadvantage in any track so we can benefit from this consistency."
Webber - in the championship lead, the fastest car and with a still-substantial advantage over his team-mate - remains the favourite, though.
After a difficult weekend, when he was never on terms with Vettel, Webber drove well to salvage third in the race, a result he will consider the best he could have expected.
Alonso and Ferrari, meanwhile, over-performed, winning a race in which they should have finished only second.
The Spaniard is Webber's closest friend among the drivers, but there will be no favours from either, or any of the other title contenders, as this stunning season comes to its dynamic climax.
But it does mean that Webber, of all people, knows exactly what he is up against.