That Vettel dug deep in the closing stages of 2020 proved he wasn’t ready to give up, helped by a car that gave him a stronger front end and a little more of the rear-end stability that are so important to allow him the precision required to commit to the entry and be precise enough to carry the speed. While there was still a future to fight for that has now vanished, Vettel could carry that determination into what remains of his Ferrari career.
After all, Leclerc’s role has changed. Last year, he was the junior partner and could focus on settling in, being faster and usurping Vettel. His reward comes at a price, because now he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders as Ferrari’s main man. That’s the same baggage that appears to have weighed down Vettel over the years, which has now been taken away.
While Leclerc has to worry about delivering week-in, week-out, as well as having half an eye on Ferrari’s longer-term plans, Vettel’s task has been dramatically simplified. While this means he won’t be the spearhead in terms of helping to steer the development, it means he and his side of the garage can concentrate on getting the best out of what they have got.
At the Red Bull Ring on July 5, we’ll get the first indication of how the ‘Vettel at Ferrari’ story might end. Perversely, the most embarrassing scenario for Ferrari would be one where he wins the championship then rides off into the sunset having already been axed. But that seems unlikely given the unimpressive testing form of the Ferrari SF1000.
While those predicting Ferrari would be buried in the midfield thanks to low-profile headline lap times were overstating the case, with long-run pace suggesting it is still in the ‘big three’, there was little to suggest this will be a title-winning car. While Ferrari has had a little more time to make progress, albeit with 63 days of mandatory shutdown during F1’s hiatus, it’s difficult to see it taking a dramatic step forward.
The 2020 Ferrari was supposed to be an end-of-line car for Ferrari, an evolutionary dead end ahead of next year’s new regulations, which would have been the main focus. Then, those regulations got put back to 2022 and condemned Ferrari to another 12 months of a potentially underperforming concept. It was the only one of the big three to run the loaded inboard front wing concept, which is easier to master but has a lower peak of downforce, and has carried that over this year.
That is connected to the lack of front load, a problem last year that was only partly ameliorated by the Singapore Grand Prix upgrade that triggered Vettel’s upturn in form. On top of this, the Ferrari engine controversy means it no longer appears to benefit from a big power advantage in qualifying.
Amid his late-season upturn in form, there were those who suggested Vettel was about to retire at the back end of the year, but his performances and resolve to lay it on the line to attempt to consolidate his wavering position as the senior driver indicated otherwise.
Vettel will have done a lot of thinking about his future in recent months. He has said little in public, besides accepting the fact he has to consider what his priorities are, but at 32 there’s still plenty of life in him. He now has a choice of continuing in F1 – which would have to be with a midfield team given Mercedes would only consider him if some seismic shift impacted its plans – retiring or taking a sabbatical.
It might be that Vettel is satisfied with what he is achieved, and that would be a justifiable position. He’s been heavily criticized at recent times at Ferrari for his excessive number of mistakes, and that’s perfectly fair. But that does not mean that he has not also been a good servant to the team and performed at his brilliant best at times.
He’s won 14 times while driving for a team that has been second-strongest at best since he came in in 2015. He is often criticized for throwing away the title during 2017, with the start shunt he triggered at the Singapore Grand Prix blamed for costing him the title. It was a huge blow, but subsequent Ferrari problems suggest that would have been a title he could only have won with a perfect campaign and some luck on his side.
The following season was a little different. While Hamilton ran away with it in the final third of the season, Vettel could and should have run him closer but for the frequent mistakes. Did he throw away the title? Perhaps, but it’s fairer to say that he squandered a potential title challenge. A subtle difference perhaps, and still not good enough for Ferrari either way.
But Vettel’s Ferrari ‘failure’, which we have yet to read the final chapter of, isn’t proof for those looking for it that he was never that good. His performances during the years of Red Bull domination were astonishing, showing a ruthless dedication to winning and capacity for making the exhaust-blown downforce cars do things others could not. He drove, at times, in a counter-intuitive way that literally gave him more downforce than others could produce with more conventional styles. It’s a shame that this adaptability could only be narrowly applied, for his failure to adapt to the more recent limitations of the Ferrari has held him back. The very best are infinitely adaptable, and Vettel falls behind the likes of Hamilton in that area.
His four world championships did not come by chance, and you do not become the third-most-successful F1 driver by wins and fourth-best by pole positions simply by being a good driver in the right place at the right time. He might have a narrower-than-ideal performance window, but he has done things in grand prix racing on a sustained basis most others could only dream of doing.
That’s why, even if 2020 is the last we see of Vettel in F1, it would be great to see him going out with a bang. Leclerc is the future of Ferrari and the team has made the right call, but Vettel is still capable of great things and will hopefully be determined to remind the doubters that there’s a reason he’s a four-time world champion and sign off his Ferrari career on a high.
If not, it could be a long, hard season for him.