SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton was in the form of his life when he arrived in Singapore, looking set to match the 41 career wins of his boyhood idol Ayrton Senna in a dominant season that had seen him win seven of the first 12 grands prix.
By the end of Sunday's race, however, the Briton had retired his sluggish Mercedes for the first time this year, while Sebastian Vettel roared to victory in his Ferrari.
Hamilton had secured 11 of 12 poles prior to Singapore but the alarm bells that first sounded in practice were ringing loud and clear by qualifying as Ferrari and Red Bull were lapping roughly a second faster than the Silver Arrows.
Banished to an unaccustomed third-row start, Hamilton and team mate Nico Rosberg were in damage limitation mode from the outset and never appeared fast enough to catch the leaders as their poorly performing tyres negated the car's superior power.
Vettel, meanwhile, was back to his supreme best, driving like he had for Red Bull when he won four world titles in a row.
Dominating from the front and shrugging off two safety car periods, as well as a track intruder, Vettel roared to a fourth triumph in Singapore.
It was the German's third victory in his debut season for Ferrari and he was chased home by former Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo and current ally Kimi Raikkonen to complete an unfamiliar looking podium in a Mercedes-dominated era.
Hamilton retired with power issues after 32 laps as Rosberg claimed fourth, reducing the gap to the Briton in the championship standings to 41 points with six rounds left.
Vettel lurks a further eight adrift.
Vettel quipped "maybe we can make the impossible possible" when asked if he could overhaul Hamilton in the title race but the general consensus in the paddock suggests Mercedes will be back on top when racing reconvenes in Japan this week.
"Our reliability is really high as we had an amazing season so far," said Hamilton, who opted to save his engine and retire rather than run to the finish at the back of the field.
"It's still a long way to go and I know I lost some points today but I was fast and on form and I will make sure I bring that out to Suzuka to fight back."
Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff felt the lack of performance was track related and the tight, 23-turn Marina Bay Street Circuit and tropical conditions had played into the hands of Ferrari and Red Bull.
"We need to analyze everything precisely, understand the wrong turn that we took this weekend to learn the right lessons and then close this chapter," he said.
"One bad weekend doesn't overshadow our achievements so far this year but there is no room for complacency after a race like this and we will aim to hit back strongly next weekend."
Hamilton played down the missed opportunity to emulate Senna in exactly the same number of race starts but can feel confident that his 162nd grand prix next Sunday will be far more enjoyable than the last one.
Editing by Peter Rutherford