MEDLAND: Vettel at a crossroads

Image by Mauger/LAT

MEDLAND: Vettel at a crossroads

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: Vettel at a crossroads

The Russian Grand Prix is a must-win race for Sebastian Vettel. Sitting 40 points adrift of Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship, that might seem like an obvious statement, but I mean it in the context of his Ferrari career in general.

When Vettel left Milton Keynes for Maranello – with four drivers’ championships already to his credit – it seemed like the perfect move. At that stage, the man who looked most likely to break Michael Schumacher’s records was heading to the very team with which Schumacher dominated Formula 1 for five consecutive years.

You only have to look at the way Schumacher moved over for Vettel in Brazil in 2012, when the Red Bull driver was recovering from a first-lap incident that looked like it would cost him his third title, to see that the then-25-year-old had his fellow German’s seal of approval. Vettel was fighting for the championship against the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso, after all…

After one race to get comfortable, Vettel was victorious on just his second outing for Ferrari, and three wins in 2015 represented an encouraging start in the wake of Mercedes’ dominance since the introduction of the V6 turbo power units. It also matched Schumacher’s tally from his first season with the Scuderia.

But if Vettel believed he was destined to emulate the seven-time world champion’s achievements with Ferrari, perhaps he overlooked the time it would take to finally win a championship in Italy. It was in Schumacher’s fifth season with the team that things finally came good, and in that time there were mistakes and missed opportunities.

1997’s collision with Jacques Villeneuve springs to mind as a sign of frustration – or desperation – from Schumacher that his second year at Maranello wasn’t going to yield a title. For Vettel, check the expletives aimed toward race director Charlie Whiting in Mexico, or irrational anger at Daniil Kvyat pulling off a great start much earlier that season in China.

Last year could have been the year, but Ferrari made a massive leap from where it had been 12 months previously and was still met by a well-oiled Mercedes machine that featured a Lewis Hamilton angered by defeat to Nico Rosberg. In fact, you could argue that Vettel was the perfect adversary for the Briton as he pulled the team around him against an outside threat following Rosberg’s shock retirement.

But you can’t help but feel this year should have been the year. There have been too many races where Ferrari appeared to have had the fastest car, and then Hamilton found something extra. Or Vettel made an error. It really can’t be overstated just what a massive moment Hockenheim in particular was. If Vettel hadn’t thrown away the lead there and Hamilton was forced to settle for second place, then all things being equal the gap right now would be eight points. Eight.

Hockenheim dealt a blow to Vettel’s title hopes. Image by Etherington/LAT

Even if you play the German Grand Prix out as a race that Hamilton was going to sensationally win given his pace at the time – pace that you can certainly argue forced Vettel out of his comfort zone and into the wall – then second for Vettel still leaves the current gap at a much more competitive 22 points.

It’s exactly the sort of error that will have Ferrari wondering: Is Vettel really the future champion for this team?

The change of teammate is telling. Charles Leclerc’s promotion is as much about Vettel as it is about Leclerc’s potential. Ferrari could easily have left Leclerc to continue learning his trade in another team, especially given that this year is his rookie season. He’s under contract at Ferrari, so why promote him early if you don’t have to?

For all the criticism Kimi Raikkonen comes in for, this year has been his best alongside Vettel. He’s third in the drivers’ championship, and although the gap to his teammate is 67 points, Raikkonen has had three retirements to Vettel’s one. Those three retirements were all the result of mistakes by others: a pit stop error ending his race in Bahrain, reliability to blame in Spain, and Daniel Ricciardo the guilty party in Belgium. On the other hand, there’s only one person who can take responsibility for Vettel’s retirement in Hockenheim.

On that evidence, you’d think the obvious move would have been to keep Raikkonen for another year, because he’s delivering solid results and pushing Vettel. But being pushed both by Hamilton and his own teammate (admittedly, only on occasion), Vettel has made errors. Ferrari has been far from faultless as a team, but then so has Mercedes, and the defending champion has delivered regardless.

Now, the focus is on Leclerc and what he will bring to the table in 2019. Will he give Vettel a run for his money? Will he beat him? Will he play the number two role? You get the feeling those questions are in order of probability…

What does Leclerc’s imminent arrival mean for Vettel’s status within Ferrari? Image by Tee/LAT

So Vettel needs to stamp his authority on Ferrari in much the same way Hamilton did when Valtteri Bottas replaced Rosberg, and rebuild the confidence the team has in to a similar level that Schumacher enjoyed even through the non-championship years. It’s got to be clear that Ferrari is his team, and that he will deliver that first drivers’ title in over a decade. In order to do that, he needs to hit back against Hamilton.

The title isn’t over, but it’s an extremely long shot. Hamilton’s form has been nothing short of stunning, winning races he had no right to and limiting the damage in Belgium when Vettel did deliver. It’s the sort of form that suggests there’s at least another victory in Hamilton this season, which means Vettel will need some outside help to turn things around.

But Vettel can use Hamilton’s form to cement his own status within Ferrari, even without winning the championship. Right now, despite boasting four drivers’ titles apiece, you’d have to question whether the two are on the same level given their respective performances.

Vettel needs to raise his game and deliver under pressure. Not only will that prolong the championship battle and potentially put doubt in the minds of those in the Mercedes garage, but it will also reduce similar reservations at Ferrari.

If Vettel manages that, then Leclerc is likely to join in the role of understudy, ready to learn from his teammate and assume the role of leader when the time is right a number of years down the line. But if the 31-year-old continues to falter, the promotion of Leclerc may prove to be more of a move to replace the German himself than Raikkonen, and the dream of emulating Schumacher will go unrealized.

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