It was never supposed to come to this for Sebastian Vettel. Not yet, anyway. At 32 and heading into his sixth season with Ferrari, he should be in his pomp and looking forward to several more years as its main man. Instead, he’s standing at an unexpected crossroads of his career.
Vettel would perhaps like nothing more than to head back the way he came and recapture the quadruple-championship glory years with Red Bull. But he can’t bend time to his will, so instead must convince Ferrari he is worth persevering with, and that he represents the right teammate for man-of-the-future Charles Leclerc. If not, he has two other choices; the left turn is Formula 1 retirement, the right turn to some other opportunity in grand prix racing.
While questioning Vettel’s F1 future leads to scorn from his loyal fans, the reality is Vettel has far more to prove this season than a driver with 53 wins and four titles should. Past glories count for nothing given his erratic recent history, as a driver of his experience doesn’t have the luxury of pointing to the genuine high points as an excuse to cover the errors. He is no rookie.
Out of contract at the end of the season and with Leclerc in the ascendancy, can Vettel really save his F1 career in 2020? It’s not a melodramatic assessment of the situation, for Ferrari might easily opt to throw its full weight behind Leclerc and bring in a more compliant or emerging second driver. Vettel must either prove he can once more be the team’s spearhead or, fancifully, that he is willing to ease into a role as obedient support act.
While the question marks surrounding Vettel are bigger than ever, there are reasons for some positivity, as his form over the final third of the 2019 season did improve. Ferrari’s major upgrade package introduced at the Singapore GP in September not only increased downforce – particularly at the front – but also made the car characteristics more to his liking. Vettel prefers a car with a strong front end and a predictable rear so he can rotate the car as he wants and keep the minimum speed up, otherwise the precision he’s looking for isn’t achievable. Leclerc, by contrast, is able to be more of a hustler regardless of the car’s characteristics.
Vettel struggled to drive as he wanted at times before Singapore, perhaps never more obviously than in Bahrain, where Vettel qualified three-tenths slower than Leclerc and was visibly hesitant on turn-in. Fast-forward to the Japanese GP in October, and Vettel was able to beat Leclerc to only his second pole position of the season with a storming lap in a car with more front load and a more controllable rear.
That wasn’t the only encouraging sign in the final months of the campaign. Vettel’s race pace at Sochi was outstanding even though it was overshadowed by the debate about whether he should have let Leclerc back into the lead, as ordered by the pitwall. In the seven races from Singapore onwards, the qualifying battle between the pair was also nip-and-tuck, with Leclerc outqualifying Vettel 4-3. Having looked outclassed once Leclerc hit his stride after early struggles, Vettel was suddenly back in the game.
All of this tells us two things. Firstly, that when he’s happy with the car Vettel can be as quick as ever. Even before the Singapore upgrade he had his moments – winning the Canadian GP on the road from pole position prior to his time penalty for rejoining in an unsafe manner – but after, he was more dependable. It also proves that the appetite, the desire, the motivation to haul himself back to the top is still there. That’s not to be underestimated for any elite athlete who must live and breathe their sport. Vettel was fighting for his career, so we know he will have no interest in simply seeing out his contract and pocketing the cash over the coming season. He’s up for the fight.
The problem has never been Vettel’s peak performance. It’s the troughs that are a far greater concern, specifically the alarming errors of judgment. Even during that strong end to the season he hit arguably his biggest Ferrari nadir when he drove into Leclerc during the Brazilian GP. Make no mistake, this wasn’t the 50/50, ‘mistakes on both sides’ collision that Ferrari has publicly tried to dismiss it as. Instead, it was Vettel suffering from a case of red mist after having been ambushed by Leclerc at the first corner. We’ve seen his judgment be impaired by an emotional reaction before, and this was the latest case – one with some shades of his Turkey 2010 collision with Mark Webber.
Behind closed doors, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto is understood to have made very clear how he really saw the collision. Say what you want about what happened previously, about Leclerc’s antics in trying to assert himself (such as his reluctance to move back ahead of Vettel during the Q3 qualifying madness at Monza), you cannot justify driving into your teammate on a straight and wiping out both cars. This is Vettel’s big problem: he could get away with some shenanigans at his imperious best, but not when he’s slid into a de facto number two role through his performance levels.