Horse Power

Horse Power

RACER Magazine Excerpts

Horse Power


Never underestimate the pull of the Prancing Horse for a multiple Formula 1 champ seeking fresh challenges. The latest to succumb to Ferrari’s lure? Sebastian Vettel.

It was somehow inevitable that Sebastian Vettel would one day end up at Scuderia Ferrari, where his friend and mentor Michael Schumacher achieved so much. However, it wouldn’t be easy for the German to walk away from the comfort zone of Red Bull Racing, so the issue of timing was always going to be an interesting one.

In the end, circumstances made the decision for him. After four successive Formula 1 World Championship titles, RBR’s momentum faltered in 2014, in large part due to Renault’s failure to meet the challenge of the new V6 turbo-hybrid power units. Simultaneously, the FIA’s clampdown on exhaust blowing cost rear downforce and, as a master of the art of driving a car so equipped, Vettel lost out more than most. The reigning champion hadn’t become average overnight, but clearly he wasn’t in the same stellar form that won him his quartet of titles.

And yet the RB10 was still good enough to allow new recruit Daniel Ricciardo to take three wins on days when things didn’t go to script for Mercedes. Against expectations, Vettel found himself utterly overshadowed by his irrepressible Aussie teammate. He seemed nonplussed by Ricciardo’s pace, to the extent that even those who’d always backed him began to express doubts.

“I’m a super supporter of Sebastian, but I’m a little bit disappointed with his attitude, which I think has changed,” F1 commercial tsar Bernie Ecclestone told this writer late last season. “He’s acting like a defeated guy, and he isn’t; that’s not his mentality. He’s a competitive guy.

“Maybe he felt a bit destabilized in the team?” he mused. “He’s been there a long time, been in the position where he knew if he fronted up, he had a bloody good chance of winning the race. This year he fronts up and has a bloody good chance of not winning the race. Maybe that didn’t help…”

It was a sign, perhaps, of how draining and intense Vettel’s seven F1 seasons had been to date, and how hard it was to maintain that level – maybe he was simply burned out.

The man himself decided the time was right to look for a fresh challenge, as if recognizing that he needed a change of scenery. It took a little maneuvering, but eventually the pieces fell into place, and he slipped into the 2015 Ferrari seat vacated by a McLaren-bound Fernando Alonso.

Vettel was meant to be the final piece in a re-model of Ferrari under new team boss Marco Mattiacci, who’d been placed there in mid April 2014, but enjoyed a lukewarm relationship with Alonso. A fresh start with a new star – one without any baggage within the camp – had obvious appeal.

In fact Mattiacci himself was soon seen as surplus to requirements and, having got Vettel on board, he was ditched at year’s end, as was engineering chief Pat Fry. As a result, Vettel finds himself at a slightly different Ferrari than the one he signed for, but new team boss Maurizio Arrivabene doesn’t see the changes as an issue.

“It doesn’t impact the philosophy of Ferrari,” says the former Marlboro marketing man. “That philosophy was dictated by the founder, Enzo Ferrari. The work we have to do is to enhance the team spirit and the passion that was a little bit lost in the past few years, and to look forward, to work together very hard, with one objective – to win as much as possible.”

So has Vettel played his timing to perfection? It’s still early days, but the initial signs at the first pre season test in Jerez were positive. The new SF15-T (the first Ferrari truly informed by the thinking and direction of the Scuderia’s recently installed technical director James Allison) was regularly fastest, and while others had different agendas in terms of chasing lap times, the red car showed potential and displayed no obvious vices. The revamped team seemed to have a spring in its step, the easygoing Vettel having quickly made friends and fitted in.

“It’s a big change for me, yet it keeps getting better,” he said in Jerez. “I used the time during the winter to go to Maranello a couple of times, and what I’ve seen is really impressive. Sure there’s a lot to do, but it’s a big time of change. The potential is huge.

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