Vettel’s fight for five became Seb’s soggy squib

Sebastian Vettel in the gravel trap at Monza (original photo by Eustace Bagge, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vettel_-_2018_Italian_Grand_Prix_FP2.jpg)

This was meant to be the year. After four years of Mercedes domination — which has seen Lewis Hamilton rack up three drivers’ championships, and Nico Rosberg one — 2018 was supposed to be the year Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari took the fight to them.

It was billed by some in the media as the “fight for five”. Whoever emerged victorious between Hamilton or Vettel, they would become just the third driver in history to win five world championships.

And for a large part of this year, it looked like Sebastian Vettel could do it. He won the first two races. He led the championship at the halfway point after the British Grand Prix.

Vettel’s title collapse

Then came his unforced error at the German Grand Prix, where he crashed out of the lead by himself in wet conditions. Since then, he has taken just one victory to Hamilton’s six. Along the way, Vettel has made a litany of embarassing driver errors while in wheel-to-wheel combat.

What’s most disturbing is how similar this situation is to last year. If anything, the start of 2017 was stronger for Ferrari and Vettel than this year. Then, his season collapsed. A disastrous start to the Singapore Grand Prix prefaced a run of races so weak that Lewis Hamilton was able to seal the championship in Mexico, with two races in hand.

2018 has been a near mirror-image.

Lewis Hamilton: a deserved champion

FIA F1 Austria 2018 Nr. 44 Hamilton

But we can’t just focus on Vettel’s mistakes. Lewis Hamilton fully deserves to win this championship on his own merit. In stark contrast to Vettel, it is difficult to think of any mistakes Hamilton has made this year. He has driven majestically. On the occasions where he has found himself in wheel-to-wheel combat with Vettel, Hamilton has frankly made mincemeat out of the Ferrari driver.

If anyone on the grid today deserves to have five titles to his name, it is Hamilton. Now, there is talk that he might be able to reach many of Michael Schumacher’s towering records. And that’s not just bluster now. It feels like a real possibility.

Reappraising the record of Vettel

Once upon a time, I asked if Sebastian Vettel could be considered the greatest driver ever. It is impossible to contemplate that idea today. His error-prone time at Ferrari is making it seem like his critics had a point all along.

Of course, a great driver doesn’t just become bad. So analysts wonder what is going wrong with Vettel at Ferrari.

What’s gone wrong at Ferrari

I wrote last year about the poisonous atmosphere that appears to have developed at Ferrari. Under Maurizio Arrivabene, the team has adopted an overtly nasty personality.

We also must not forget that this has been a tragic year for Ferrari. They lost their well-respected leader Sergio Marchionne halfway through this season after he unexpectedly died following complications from surgery.

This is a team that faces enormous pressure from its fans and the Italian media. That is probably part of the lure for a driver. If you can win for Ferrari, you reserve a special place for yourself in the history books.

So in moving to Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel set himself the challenge he needed to help answer the aforementioned criticss. Unfortunately, it is a challenge he is failing.

When at Red Bull, Vettel was praised for being able to soak up pressure at a young age. But the pressure that comes at Ferrari is another level.

It is disturbing — and telling — that two highly promising championship campaigns have unravelled at the same time and in a similar way.

Ferrari are habitual underperformers

Not that you can always blame the drivers for Ferrari’s relative lack of success in recent years. Ferrari is a team that habitually underperforms.

The nature of many of Sebastian Vettel’s spins has caused some observers to wonder if there are issues with his car.

It is said that the Ferrari performs poorly in the wet. This may explain his crash in Germany.

Vettel himself has suggested that an aerodynamic “hole” caused by running on the inside of another car. This would explain some of his weird spins in wheel-to-wheel combat.

What Alonso got right about Ferrari

When Fernando Alonso was in the final stages of his Ferrari career, he remarked:

I would rather be tenth ten times and once champion, than to always finish second.

For once, this wasn’t Alonsospeak. This was an astute observation about Ferrari.

It’s true that other teams blow hot and cold, while Ferrari are always near the front. But they are rarely at the front.

Ferrari’s title drought now extends beyond a decade. This despite having some of the era’s best drivers, and a variety of different managers each taking different approaches.

If Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel can’t win championships for Ferrari, you have to wonder who can.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for posting. It’s weird but, when it comes to 2018 I find myself with more sympathy for Seb than 2017. It just hasn’t worked out on so many levels.

    I do think the roots of what has transpired are not all his fault. I do think the team environment could have been more supportive. I don’t think he has the support that Lewis has at Mercedes, where they are very clear: “this is our number one asset, and we are going to do whatever it takes to harness it.” It’s ironic, given Ferrari’s history of team orders, that they were reluctant to support Seb in Hockenheim or Monza when he came up against Raikkonen. Yet Mercedes had no qualms supporting Lewis at Hockenheim, Monza or Sochi when he came up against Bottas.

    All the same, however, I think it has become clear since he moved to the Scuderia that Vettel is not as good as he once looked at Red Bull (the way 2018 mirrors 2017 is a good example, as you say). More than anything, it seems the stars aligned for him during 2010-13 in a way that will be hard to replicate. And he mastered that era of cars (V8s, blown diffusers) in a way he hasn’t looked like doing since. He can be brilliant but seemingly has a narrower operating window for this level than Hamilton. Over at Mercedes, meanwhile, Lewis has truly hit a new level, and Toto Wolff and the team have done a great job creating the conditions to get the best out of him, recognising his potential as one of the sport’s true greats.

    The thing is, this doesn’t necessarily have to matter, and Nico Rosberg (whose reputation arguably grows with every season he is retired!) proved it. You simply have to maximise the potential of the car from a given weekend, and if that means 2nd to Lewis, so be it. Ferrari did have a quick (if imperfect, as you identify) car in 2018, therefore if Vettel had stuck in there a bit more he could have kept the fight on longer. Lewis may look impervious these days but Rosberg proved that he can be beaten, and that – with a little luck – you don’t need to be as good as him to do so. Win when you can, fight your corner when you need to, and rack up podiums when you can’t win (though that’s easier said than done!). Seb, by contrast, started overcompensating for dropped points after Hockenheim, taking ever-greater risks and looking somewhat desperate in the process. I think Lewis is undoubtedly better than Vettel on current evidence, and has a better team environment around him. But it wasn’t long ago when Vettel was the one overtaking Lewis and Mercedes were having to get on the radio to their main man with public mea culpas (the Austrian GP, to be precise). So, that’s what Vettel and Ferrari need to remind themselves. But whether the cohesion is there to do so is doubtful at present, and probably the biggest question mark at the front of the grid as we head into the off-season.

  2. Thanks for the great comment as always, Rishi.

    It is definitely disturbing that Ferrari failed to throw all their weight behind Sebastian Vettel, which in turn probably doesn’t help his confidence. There are parallels with the last couple of years of Alonso’s time at Ferrari, when management appeared to grow tired of him. I’ll have another post about this shortly! Thanks for the prompt.

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