Feature: Why we shouldn’t write off Sebastian Vettel yet
It is hard to imagine how the Italian Grand Prix could have gone worse for Sebastian Vettel. His conspicuous on-track error (or errors) was one thing. As was that it was hardly his first time in the last year and a bit that he’d goofed.
Even that was just the start of it. The context in addition was galling. On the very same afternoon, his young whipper-snapper Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc took his second Formula 1 race win. Both within a week; both mightily impressive. And this latter one was at Ferrari’s resident cathedral of Monza. With that, elevation to hero status in tifosi eyes is almost inevitable.
And so, the widely-expressed wisdom goes, there is the yin with the yang. It all has also cemented Vettel’s status as now the ‘other’ Ferrari driver. With everything that entails. His downward spiral from here on in is about as inevitable.
But are we getting ahead of ourselves? As you know the aphorism, said in golf club bars roughly every 37 seconds, that nothing is certain in this world bar death and taxes (and perhaps also contrarian F1 opinion columns).
On some levels we are indeed getting overexcited. Yes, Leclerc is magnificent and has been in magnificent form. And winning for Ferrari at Monza does bring everything that has been purported. But there are things we should keep in mind amid the comment flying around right now.
Vettel’s only 32 years old – theoretically he could stay in F1 for another decade. He also still has a contract until the end of 2020, so therefore has 18 months to correct things, assuming Ferrari doesn’t go to the length of sacking him. And few in F1 ever have been as analytical and comprehensive as Vettel has been in refining how they go about things.
While, as if to prove the adage that you’re only as good as your last race, it was only with this very Monza round just passed that Leclerc overtook Vettel in the drivers’ table – that’s even with Vettel’s plenty points-costing errors this year.
Vettel’s only 32 years old – he could stay in F1 for another decade. He also still has a contract until the end of 2020. And few in F1 ever have been as analytical and comprehensive as Vettel has been in refining how they go about things
It was a mere two rounds ago that Vettel cruised past Leclerc in Hungary having given his young team-mate a masterclass in how to look after your tyres. The qualifying match-up is but 7-6 to Leclerc. Whatever else has gone on, Vettel emphatically has not been outclassed by his team-mate.
And for Leclerc, for all his talents, in some ways it gets more difficult from here. He’s still at the stage of being the bright-eyed kid for whom success is a bonus. But that won’t continue. Soon the team, and everyone else for that matter, will expect success, especially if he is indeed Ferrari’s ‘number one’. And it’s not always the easiest transition. Remember how for Lewis Hamilton for one, 2007 was much more straightforward than 2008.
There are other things to bear in mind too. Media focus almost inevitably gravitates towards things that are new (the clue is in the name: ‘news’). Leclerc the rising star is new. Four-time world champion Vettel who won his first grand prix 11 years ago, and his first championship nine years past, even is nearing five years at Ferrari, is not. This impacts what is being said.
And as we’ve noted with the previous occupants of Ferrari’s ‘number one’ slot, in sport and particularly with Ferrari it seems necessary to discredit the previous ‘messiah’ in the process of anointing a new one, with echoes of many religious and mythological rituals. This is happening now. It’ll probably happen to Leclerc one day.
Can Vettel bounce back? Of course he can. We’ve seen it with his contemporaries. Lest we forget the extent that Max Verstappen was a pariah only in Monaco last year, and he learned from it and followed it up with an astonishing run of form and results. Rewind to 2011 and Hamilton was similarly ostracised. He can be said to have since recovered.
As if to prove the adage that you’re only as good as your last race, it was only at Monza that Leclerc overtook Vettel in the drivers’ table. The qualifying match-up is but 7-6 to Leclerc. Vettel has not been outclassed
We’ve also seen it from the man himself. And emphatically. We can go back to the Belgian Grand Prix of 2010, when Vettel was in at least as much of a reputational hole as he is now. And also where the imperious Vettel who won four world titles took root. His race and that of McLaren’s Jenson Button were ruined by a collision which was entirely the young Vettel’s fault. It was the latest in a succession of incidents that squandered much of the technical advantage conferred by his Red Bull.
After the race it was open season on him, with many – especially those from the McLaren camp – lining up to trash him.
A number of McLaren mechanics went out into the pitlane to perform a ‘passive aggressive’ stance as Vettel completed his resultant drivethrough penalty. McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh afterwards twisted the knife, describing Vettel’s move as “more reminiscent of junior formulae” and his punishment as “pretty light”.
Referring to the notorious incident with stable mate Mark Webber earlier that year in Turkey, Whitmarsh added “I would rather he did it [collided] with his team-mates rather than do it with us”.
Even the usually-gentlemanly Button got in on the act, calling his clash with Vettel “a very strange incident – I don’t know what he was doing” and alleging that Vettel was “rattled” and “confused”. McLaren acolytes and others derided Vettel routinely as the ‘crash kid’.
But if this was all intended to destroy Vettel then it can be said to have backfired spectacularly, as he went through his long dark night of the soul and came out far stronger. In that year’s remaining races he went on a stellar run to win the title. Then he won the three titles after that. As for McLaren? Well we know what happened.
We can go back to the Belgian Grand Prix of 2010, when Vettel was in at least as much of a reputational hole as he is now. And also where the imperious Vettel who won four world titles took root
But of course there’s a difference now, almost a decade on. Then Vettel was the young up-and-comer with all to prove and desperate to succeed. Now he has several world titles and on the clock 11 years of fighting at F1’s sharp end. Does it matter as much now? Can he summon the motivation to fight back again?
So Vettel can bounce back, but tides are to some extent against him.
It’s one that could go either way. And aptly the man himself insisted in Monza he still has the hunger – but also hinted at his conflict. “I still love what I do,” he said, “but surely when you are not doing well you can’t be happy.”
Vettel is one with more consciousness of F1 history than most grand prix drivers, and he’ll surely be aware that if he slides out of F1 in current circumstances his reputation and legacy will be diminished. He’ll be at least minded to rectify matters first.
Yet Vettel’s never given the outward impression of one who’ll carry on racing open-endedly, almost for racing’s sake, a la Fernando Alonso or Kimi Raikkonen. Rather – as a fiercely private man and one more conscious than most of the world beyond F1 – you would not be surprised one day to see him going to Switzerland to live the family life with barely a backwards glance at the paddock.
A few have noted also that his demeanour for much of this season has been of one who’d rather be anywhere else.
On this ‘anywhere else’ point though, might a sabbatical or a team switch be Vettel’s salvation? “Maybe he just feels Ferrari has fallen out of love with him and that he needs a change of scenery to rediscover his mojo,” mused Mark Hughes for one recently.
Now he has several world titles and on the clock 11 years of fighting at F1’s sharp end. Does it matter as much now? Can he summon the motivation to fight back again?
Vettel needs to be careful though. F1’s ‘Class A’ seats are extremely limited, and not to be tossed away lightly (the predecessor in his Ferrari seat can attest). In 2014, in similar situation at Red Bull being whipped by new boy Daniel Ricciardo, Vettel was indeed able to switch seats pronto, and to his benefit, before his reputation sustained serious damage. But he got lucky that Alonso falling out with the fleeting Ferrari boss Marco Mattiacci cleared the way for him.
He’d have to get lucky again. Then again, Vettel has in stages of the past given the impression that, to adapt a Jack Charlton quote said of Kevin Keegan, even if he was to fall into a river he’d probably return to the surface with a salmon in his mouth. So never write Vettel off in the ‘charmed life’ stakes…
There’s no room at the Mercedes inn, but – as Hughes recently suggested – what about Red Bull? There remains a lot of affection for him there and the move from Red Bull’s side would make perfect sense, as it’s very obviously looking for a driver who can run at least close to Verstappen.
Vettel, at the base minimum, would provide this and there remain doubts about all the next products from the Bulls’ usual conveyor belt.
Some will shout at this point that going from alongside Leclerc to alongside Verstappen is a classic from-the-frying-pan-to-the-fire jump. Yet he’d be landing in certainly a more sympathetic environment; likely also a more receptive one. Possibly he’d have a more competitive car than that provided by the Scuderia too.
And, as it took Merc boss Toto Wolff to point out at Monza, given everything only a fool will be writing Vettel off just yet.
Is Sebastian Vettel done? It’s way too soon to conclude as much.