McLaren claim to still be right in the title race

Despite the gap growing to Alonso after Lewis's latest failure, Whitmarsh believes the fight is on

The brilliant American entrepreneur and race team owner Roger Penske has always had one maxim above all others: "In order to finish first, first you have to finish."

Lewis Hamilton may have fallen back on tweeting a comment from Martin Luther King after his McLaren retired from the lead of the Singapore Grand Prix with a broken gearbox: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." But Penske's dictum is also apposite, another significant reminder of what the 2012 Formula One World Championship fight is all about. First, scoring points; then winning races.

If Hamilton's transmission had not let him down, he would have narrowed the gap with the long-time series leader Fernando Alonso to just 24 points instead of 37; now he's a whopping 52 adrift of the Spaniard, and 23 behind the race winner, Sebastian Vettel, the primary beneficiary of Hamilton's mechanical misfortune. Astonishingly, it was Vettel's first victory since Bahrain in April.

"It looks better than before," the reigning world champion admitted. "Fernando finished third. I am not a genius but I think it's looking 10 points better than it was before.

"There's a lot of races left and it's a bit difficult to predict what's going to happen. We have to make sure that we finish them, first of all. I think the pace is there, even if we are not quick enough to win then it is good enough to collect a lot of points. And we have to make sure we do that. It's a tough championship so far but we're still in it. We're still looking forward to the next couple of races and, obviously, the target at the moment is to beat Fernando."

Alonso went to Singapore expecting the tight and bumpy Marina Bay track to favour his Ferrari and give him the chance of augmenting his points tally by fighting for the victory. Instead, he was an also-ran, looking at a best finishing position of fourth until Hamilton's retirement. But the point is that he finished and did so ahead of most of his significant title rivals – Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber – and behind only Vettel.

Yesterday McLaren confirmed they had not been aware of the gearbox problem that stopped Hamilton until just a few laps before it occurred, following suggestions that a brush with a wall on his final lap in qualifying the previous day had prompted concerns.

"I have to say when I was talking to our guys, Lewis's wheel had two to three centimetres of scuff mark on it but it wasn't damaged," the team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, said. "The rims are quite thin and brittle, and in fact the engineers performed non-destructive testing all over the rear suspension. They were absolutely content that it was a very light brush and was not one that was going to create any damage. I don't think today had anything to do with yesterday."

Though Hamilton's failure to finish was a massive blow to his title aspirations, the past three races have demonstrated how quickly fortunes can change. With 150 points still up for grabs for the winners in the remaining six grands prix, McLaren are redoubling their efforts.

"We have a fast car and we have kept a good pace of development," Whitmarsh added. "The fight with Ferrari and Red Bull is very hard, so the first thing we have to do is keep up the pressure. I think we can be strong all the way to the end now. Our view is certainly that this is a winnable championship."