Why Sebastian Vettel at last has Red Bull at Ferrari

Cognitive polyphasia, psychologists call it. That is, happily holding contradictory thoughts in your head simultaneously. For all the term sounds spooky, fear not. It’s something that afflicts just about all of us to some extent.

Formula 1 fans especially so. And especially around now at pre-season testing time. The annual tropes are of course familiar. ‘Don’t read anything into the lap times’; ‘we know nothing about the programmes being run’; ‘only in round one’s qualifying session will we get our confirmation of who’s quick and who isn’t, so there’s no point pre-empting’.

Yeah, right. It’s advice given seemingly on the strict understanding that it will be immediately and roundly ignored.

As pretty much from the moment a wheel is turned on the morning of the opening test we’re trying to decipher what it all means. And it’s not only us simple folk watching on who can’t resist, the sober professional correspondents are as guilty as anyone, churning out their analyses of who’s weak and strong; even where each car is weak and strong. Some go so far as to number crunch to give us a pecking order.

And so it was again this time with the first four-day round of Barcelona advance running. This time though we got a clear picture.

Good luck finding anyone – be they sober professional correspondents or indeed simple folk – who on this basis don’t think Ferrari is ahead. Not ‘put your feet up’ ahead, but clearly ahead all the same.

That’s what the number crunching told us. So did the paddock grapevine. So did the evidence of the eyes from those watching the SF90 performing beautifully on track, its drivers apparently willing and able to push it further and further. Even without all that, the sight of the two Ferrari drivers’ positive and persistent beaming out of the car throughout the opening week would have given the game away on its own. Sebastian Vettel called it the best pre-season test he’s ever had.

The bookies, those most reliable judges of winners and losers, have noticed too, slashing Vettel’s odds to win this year’s title from 4/1 before the test to 2/1 afterwards.

Good luck finding anyone who don’t think Ferrari is ahead. Not ‘put your feet up’ ahead, but clearly ahead all the same.

Vettel this year enters season five at the Scuderia – actually a long stint by Ferrari lead driver standards (ignoring the massive outlier that was Michael Schumacher). And the relationship in that time, such is the way of things down Maranello way, hasn’t been entirely plain sailing. Waters got particularly choppy last season.

But the evidence right now is that maybe, just maybe, everything is coming right for Vettel and Ferrari at last. And for more reasons than this year’s car clearly is a quick one.

Before we go on, no doubt a few will be shouting at their screens at this point. That Ferrari’s not all about Vettel; that he has a team-mate. True, the intra-Ferrari team-mate battle in 2019 has featured prominently in season previews as something to anticipate.

This is another thing that by now will sound familiar: will the combination of new boy Charles Leclerc’s prodigious performance shown in his debut year at Sauber in 2018 plus Vettel’s mistake-ridden campaign at the same time reach its logical conclusion in their direct Ferrari face off this year? In that classic pretender-usurps-the-king story arc we’ve seen repeatedly in history; indeed as Vettel loosely had done to himself by Daniel Ricciardo in 2014?

Perhaps, but not so fast. Even over and above the usual consideration that Vettel is the incumbent with his feet firmly under the Ferrari table, plus that Leclerc is entering that most demanding, and often knotted, of environments, and with but a single season of F1 on his CV – and that you have to go back decades to find the previous example of a driver entering Ferrari with such inexperience. Even over and above too, that Vettel’s a four-time world champion who’s very good at driving cars quickly.

We can point to a specific as well. For all that Leclerc’s Sauber bow impressed, there was an area for him to work on. Nailing his best lap at the last of qualifying, as only three times in 2018 did Leclerc string together his theoretical best quali effort based on best sector times. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t get noticed so much in the midfield, but will be exposed pitilessly at the sharp end. Especially given who his direct yardstick is. As who out of the entire F1 grid in 2018 at the last strung together his ultimate lap most often? Yes, that’s who.

And starting ahead, in an F1 in which passing isn’t easy particularly with the same equipment, adding also that with this he’ll get strategic priority, and Vettel has a solid basis on which to be the first Ferrari home.

Even better his new boss Mattia Binotto has confirmed that Vettel will get Ferrari’s first dibs, initially at least. “I think it’s normal, especially early in the season, that if there are particular situations our priority will be Sebastian,” Binotto said at the 2019 car’s launch. “He is the guide with which we aim for the championship.” And how often do we see that team-mates’ early-season comparative results set the tone for the rest of the year?

Only three times in 2018 did Leclerc string together his theoretical best quali effort. And who out of the entire F1 grid in 2018 strung together his ultimate lap most often? Yes, that’s who.

Something else noticeable from Vettel’s previous is that he tends not to have two bad seasons in a row. His difficult 2014 campaign, his final one at Red Bull, was followed by a magnificent Ferrari debut in ‘15. His iffy ’16 season was followed by a much more polished ‘17. We may therefore do the maths from his tricky 2018 campaign just passed. It suggests too a man who doesn’t take adversity lying down, and who learns from his errors. But then again we knew that already.

And it’s easy to lose sight of quite how magnificent Vettel is at his best. Granted the evidence until now is that he needs everything around him to be in place – both in terms of the car and the team – to extract this immaculate pitch. At Red Bull where he won his four titles he indeed had everything around him; a car nailed to the floor and a positive, proactive team which adored him.

Yet Vettel returned the favour with something that often resembled a film on a loop: nailed, maximised, stunning qualifying laps at the last of Q3, followed up with masterful race victory performances, establishing in a blink a gap in the lead then managing it. Driving errors were as rare as hen’s teeth. It wasn’t at all exaggeration to say that time after time first place was as good as done within a few laps.

At Ferrari, again such is the way of things down Maranello, things haven’t been nearly so simple. But now Vettel may be about to go back to the future, and get the sort of situation at Ferrari that he had in his Red Bull title-winning pomp.

We can start with the car. As intimated there is close to unanimity that the Ferrari is, at this stage, a gem. An admiring Mark Hughes described it as “beautifully poised, consistent and reliable”.

Last year Vettel also had a strong car, yet he didn’t have the other part of the Red Bull equation – a team that is strong operationally and provides a positive environment.  By contrast, at Ferrari last year the car’s potency was dashed frequently by operational errors – which by the latter part of the season bordered the risible – and doubts around the management style of boss Maurizio Arrivabene. He presided apparently over a culture of fear.

Possibly it had a spiral effect as well. Vettel right or wrongly felt he had to intervene to resolve the operational shortfall personally. Frequently he questioned the team and strategy over the radio, and it reached the point that during the last of qualifying at Spa after a rain shower he had to snap at his colleagues for not lifting the car properly and thus risking damaging its floor while pushing it.

The philosophy for next season certainly is try to enjoy [it]. That’s something that we were maybe missing in the past - Mattia Binotto

And it was in stark contrast to what Vettel had at Red Bull where he was free to concentrate on the driving; loosely what the guy who’s beaten him to the last two titles, Lewis Hamilton, has also benefited from at Mercedes. As noted Vettel hardly made a driving error while at Red Bull. It may all be instructive.

Arrivabene has now gone, replaced by Ferrari’s highly-rated technical chief Binotto. And the culture is changing apparently with it, to the sort of open, warm and creative one which Binotto presided over in creating those strong cars in the first place. Another thing likely instructive.

“The philosophy for next season certainly is try to enjoy [it],” Binotto said at the latest car’s launch. “That’s something that we were maybe missing in the past.”

“Serenity will prevail,” added Ferrari CEO Louis Camilleri. “We will work with creativity, talent and transparency.”

Vettel has noticed too. “If we can maintain the level of joy and fun I found on the track here and saw on people’s faces the last couple of months, then I’m positive and hopeful for the future,” he declared during Barcelona’s first test.

“It was unbelievable,” he added after the first day’s running. “I think the car was working really well. We had no issues slowing us down; we completed the programme just the way we wanted. We were able to squeeze a little bit more out even.

“Obviously it’s very early. But for now I think huge compliments to everyone back at the factory. How they tackled the new rules and regulations and what they put on track today is very close to perfection.”

It is indeed very early. But it also all sounds an awful lot like what he had at Red Bull. And we know how that one ended.