Fantasy: How Sebastian Vettel could (and should) be cruising towards a fifth title
Motorsport Week indulges in some fantasy re-writing of the 2018 season to take a look at how Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari could, and probably should, be in the clear in the Formula 1 title fight
“Dai Forza Ferrari! Grazie ragazzi, we did it guys! Monza! Yes!”
That could quite easily have been the radio message transmitted to the watching Formula 1 fans at the conclusion of the Italian Grand Prix, a race that should have strengthened Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel’s grip on the 2018 Formula 1 title fight. Instead he trailed home fourth after a first-lap spin, with primary opponent Lewis Hamilton going on to win. Hamilton and Mercedes have flourished to find a new level in recent months – but have done so while their main rival, both driver and team, have let chances slip through their fingers. But what would a (relatively) error-free season from Vettel and Ferrari look like? And how would it alter the current dynamic of the title fight?
The season begins perfectly with successive wins in Australia and Bahrain, albeit the former somewhat fortunate courtesy of a well-timed Virtual Safety Car and Mercedes’ misjudgement. Another win in China looks likely but Valtteri Bottas’ superb in-lap derails Vettel’s bid for victory, which is further thwarted when he is spun by Max Verstappen later in the race. Fortunately for Vettel, Hamilton is off the pace in Shanghai and takes only fourth.
Fantasy standings: Vettel 54, Hamilton 45
True Standings: Vettel 54, Hamilton 45
It is again Vettel versus Bottas and the Mercedes driver once more grabs the lead mid-race, this time courtesy of a Safety Car period. Vettel challenges Bottas at a frantic restart but backs out of his move, a decision that earns him criticism for his conservatism by commentators. But just moments later the Mercedes driver suffers a puncture, elevating Vettel back into the lead, and he reels off the remaining laps to triumph, with Hamilton picking up second after his team-mate’s demise.
Fantasy standings: Vettel 79, Hamilton 63
Real standings: Vettel 66, Hamilton 70
Pirelli’s decision to alter the depth of its tyre tread hurts a frustrated Vettel in Spain as he’s forced into a two-stop strategy that consigns him to fourth, while in Monaco he finishes runner-up to a dominant Daniel Ricciardo. But at the next event in Canada he opens a sizeable title advantage by storming to victory, with an out-of-sorts Hamilton fifth. “We’ll keep fighting,” asserts Hamilton.
Fantasy standings: Vettel 134, Hamilton 113
Real standings: Vettel 121, Hamilton 120
Formula 1’s return to Paul Ricard results in a front-row lockout for Mercedes but Vettel manages to qualify third. Vettel gets boxed in at the start but narrowly avoids contact with Valtteri Bottas as they get close at Turn 1, and the trio emerge with their positions unchanged. In a processional encounter Hamilton and Bottas cruise to a 1-2, with Vettel a downbeat third. “Today was about damage limitation,” muses Vettel. “They were just too quick.”
Fantasy standings: Vettel 149, Hamilton 138
Real standings: Vettel 131, Hamilton 145
Vettel qualifies third, behind the Mercedes drivers, and praises Ferrari’s communication as he quickly gets out of the way of Carlos Sainz Jr. in Q2 – thus avoiding a grid penalty. Vettel jumps slow-starting Bottas off the line and ducks into the pits when the VSC is called for the Finn’s stricken Mercedes. Hamilton stays out and cedes the lead to Vettel when he makes his stop as James Vowles issues a public apology over the radio waves. Vettel goes on to beat an inspired Max Verstappen to victory, while Hamilton retires with a fuel pressure issue.
Fantasy standings: Vettel 174, Hamilton 138
Real standings: Vettel 146, Hamilton 145
Having benefitted from Hamilton’s slow start to win in Britain Vettel heads to home territory with a 44-point advantage, and storms to pole as his rival is left down in 14th. Divergent strategies in the race leave Raikkonen in front of Vettel but Ferrari issues swift instructions and the duo swap, bolstering his lead further. A rain shower threatens to derail his victory push but Vettel keeps calm and avoids drama, despite a perilous moment through Sachs Kurve. “Mamma mia, that was a close one!” he jokes post-race. Hamilton uses an alternative strategy to carve his way forward and is inspired in the wet phase, overhauling Raikkonen and Bottas, but can’t stop Vettel from triumphing.
Fantasy standings: Vettel 224, Hamilton 174
Real standings: Vettel 171, Hamilton 188
Ferrari holds the advantage but wet weather during qualifying hands the initiative to Mercedes, as Hamilton takes pole position, with Vettel only fourth. Vettel gets by Raikkonen early on and inherits the lead when Hamilton and Bottas stop. Ferrari service Vettel soon after and his pace is sufficient to clear Bottas to emerge from the pits in second. Vettel eats into Hamilton’s lead but cannot sufficiently hunt down his rival and settles for the runner-up spot to head into the summer with a comfortable title advantage.
Fantasy standings: Vettel 242, Hamilton 199
Real standings: Vettel 189, Hamilton 213
Vettel beats Hamilton in Belgium to get his lead back up to 50 points and asserts that he is given priority for the Q3 runs at Monza, an approach Ferrari backs. Vettel thus edges an unimpressed Raikkonen for pole and scarpers at the start, while Raikkonen and Hamilton embark on a thrilling race-long duel for second. Raikkonen heeds Ferrari’s warnings not to blister his tyres after his pit stop and manages to narrowly keep Hamilton at bay to the delight of the Tifosi, as Vettel leads a 1-2 finish.
Fantasy standings: Vettel 292, Hamilton 232
Real standings: Vettel 226, Hamilton 256
Vettel and Ferrari play it safe throughout qualifying but even a well-executed out-lap can’t deny an inspired Hamilton, who romps to pole position, with Vettel second. Vettel shadows Hamilton early on but, with a comfortable title advantage, adopt a conservative approach and mirror Mercedes’ strategy in a race that boils down to tyre management. Vettel cruises to second place as Hamilton wins.
Fantasy standings: Vettel 310, Hamilton 257
Real standings: Vettel 241, Hamilton 281
It is of course overly simplistic to remove errors and setbacks in isolation, for different outcomes at each phase would have an influence on the next segment, perhaps alter the mindset or approach, and there is also the law of unintended consequences to consider. Perhaps, facing a 50-point deficit, Hamilton and/or Mercedes would not have put in such a commandingly dominant performance in Singapore – just as an example. Or perhaps, somewhere, they would have erred. Who knows. And, for nearly every year, you could look at the 'what ifs' and 'maybes' that ultimately would have resulted in a far less entertaining season! But, taken in isolation, it is not a stretch to envisage how far in front Vettel and Ferrari could be if they were as effective as the Hamilton/Mercedes package, especially given the relative parity in their respective machinery.