It’s far from the only mistake of recent times. At Monza, an unforced spin early on was compounded by a reckless piece of rejoining. The defense is he couldn’t see cars coming, but it stands to reason that if you go off while running fourth, you have to wait before you can safely rejoin when visibility is unclear. After all, the car he collected was Lance Stroll’s Racing Point – not one of the last in the queue, but one that was running seventh at the time. Again, his judgment was impaired by an emotional reaction to a pointless error.
At Silverstone, he clattered into the back of Max Verstappen, while in Montreal Vettel’s error created the conditions to earn the penalty that cost him victory. Given Leclerc’s problem in Bahrain he could have won there, too, but for spinning while battling with Lewis Hamilton.
The 18 months before that don’t make for more encouraging reading either. A multitude of clashes, a terrible misjudgment at the start of the 2017 Singapore GP, and that astonishing moment of red mist when he deliberately hit Hamilton under the safety car in Baku add up to a catalogue of catastrophe ill-fitting of a driver with four world titles.
Vettel cannot possibly win a world championship while making such regular mistakes. It’s inconceivable that a driver who is prone to emotional errors can deliver consistently over 20+ races to beat this caliber of opposition. He could in the past, but that was in a different environment with a race engineer at Red Bull in Guillaume ‘Rocky’ Rocquelin who knew exactly how to keep him in the right place mentally. Yes, that Vettel vented, but things only very rarely boiled over.
The circumstances of 2020 are hardly tailor-made for Vettel to be the master of his own emotions. The pressure will be intense and, as much as he shrugs off the questions about his future in public, there can’t fail to be an impact on him mentally. It’s only possible to guess what might be going on in his head, but it will certainly be a more tumultuous place when it comes to his profession than what, say, Hamilton is experiencing with everything going so well at Mercedes. And while Vettel publicly is quick to dismiss criticisms, there are hints that he might not have the ironclad psyche of an Ayrton Senna or a Michael Schumacher that really believes it. In some ways, as a character he might almost be too ‘normal’ – meant in the most positive way possible, given the unusual traits needed to be the best in elite sport. Certainly, the portrayal of him as an entitled whiner is entirely alien to the amiable, likeable, engaging Vettel who exists out of the car.
It’s tempting simply to write Vettel off and conclude there’s no way he can save his Ferrari career. After all, this is more than just a difficult spell given that it stretches back to 2017, and if he was going to turn it around, surely he would have done it by now? Leclerc is the man of the future and is on an irresistible trajectory, while Vettel is in what looks like terminal decline.
That might be the way things go, and at best, you’d say Vettel’s chances of being at Ferrari in 2021 are 50/50. But he has a whole season ahead of him in a car that the team hopes will be a championship contender, and he will be telling himself he can do it. Who knows how he will react to staring at career oblivion – perhaps that might be the mechanism that gets him back in the right place for sustained success? The raw materials are in there somewhere, he needs to mine them and deploy them more consistently.
What Vettel’s previous success does earn him is the respect to imagine that he at least has the potential to recover. He can be an astonishingly quick, relentless competitor and showed during his Red Bull days and, in fits and starts at Ferrari, what he can do. He remains the same man who won a race for Toro Rosso, the same one that charged through the field in a damaged car in the wet at Interlagos in 2012 to beat Fernando Alonso to the title, the same man who reeled off a record 13 victories the year after and was an insatiable winner even once the title was secure.
He’s also the same man who mastered exhaust-blown downforce, outclassing as quick a teammate as Webber in the process. People rightly talk about Senna’s blipping of the throttle to keep the turbo spooled up, but Vettel’s creativity in summoning downforce to suit him is another level beyond that. There are flashes of magic in Vettel, they just appear in narrower windows than those of a driver like Hamilton or Schumacher.
Vettel is both that remarkable driver, and the blunder-prone one. He might prove to be more one than the other in the coming season, but one thing is for sure: what happens in the coming months will define his Ferrari career. He’ll be all-in as he attempts to reassert himself over Leclerc, which will make for another combustible alliance for the Ferrari drivers. Vettel will want to bend the team, and Leclerc, to his will. That’s a high-risk strategy, and one that bit him last year. But teams will forgive a great driver many sins if they are doing the job on track.
It may be that the die is already cast, that Vettel is doomed to failure. But he’s a four-time world champion, one who has dug deep before and come out on top, so we know he is – or at least was – capable of doing it. You can’t ever count out a great driver entirely while they are still in the race. And the most significant factor in deciding whether Vettel is able to pull back from the brink of oblivion is in his head. If he can get that into peak shape, then he has a real chance.
Either way, it’s going to be one of the defining storylines of 2020 – and of Vettel’s legacy.