It’s fair to say 2020 has not been Sebastian Vettel’s finest year. In fact, I’d put pretty good money on him rating it as the worst of his Formula 1 career.
Some might highlight his final year at Red Bull as a big disappointment, or any of the last three years at Ferrari, when mistakes cost him serious title shots on two occasions and left him beaten by teammate Charles Leclerc last season. But this year is another level.
Vettel has scored 33 points from 14 races so far, and 15 of those came last time out in Turkey. For context, he scored 35 points in his first full season in F1 for Toro Rosso, and while that was across 18 races, it was also when the point-scoring system was 10 for a win and only the top eight scored. If that were the system this year, he’d have 11 points, of which six would have been scored in Istanbul.
Vettel joined Ferrari looking to fulfill a dream of following in Michael Schumacher’s footsteps and winning a world championship in red. That obviously won’t happen, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a happier ending to his Ferrari career than has looked likely for much of 2020.
I always try and avoid using hindsight to my advantage, to such an extent that I made a prediction for the final constructors’ championship finishing order after the two pre-season tests. It was based partly on the lap times we’d seen, but partly on driver line-ups and what each team was saying about themselves and each other.
The order I went for was:
- Red Bull
- Racing Point
- Alfa Romeo
I pinned that to the top of my Twitter feed so it didn’t just disappear without a trace. It’s only a bit of fun, but I genuinely believe that too often among the F1 media there’s no acknowledgement to being wrong about something, and if I was going to predict it then I was also going to admit if it didn’t work out. (And, obviously, milk it if I was right!).
As you can imagine, it has had plenty of replies through the year from people calling me an absolute idiot. They obviously had the benefit of hindsight, because nobody was saying that when I originally posted it, but Ferrari’s worst spell – around Monza – was being taken into account by some who were judging my prediction armed with that additional knowledge.
I’ll admit, I didn’t see Ferrari being this far off the pace. I anticipated that it would fail to regularly challenge Mercedes and Red Bull, but also expected it to have an advantage over the rest of the midfield. And if it didn’t, then it would find it as the season went on. COVID has obviously had an impact, completely changing the make-up of the year, but if anything that should have benefited a bigger team, especially with a delay in new regulations meaning this car was worth developing.
But there’s something else I didn’t see coming at all, and that was Vettel’s spectacular struggles. When weighing up all of the above, the Racing Point seemed to be the fourth-quickest car, but I felt the driver line-up would cost it against McLaren’s ever-improving pair, while Renault just wouldn’t be able to match McLaren’s consistency to do the same.
It has largely played out that way between those three, but Ferrari’s driver line-up was never a concern. Vettel is a four-time world champion; Leclerc a superstar in the making. The pair’s clashes in 2019 would have been addressed, and while they’d never work smoothly enough together to threaten Red Bull, I also thought they’d be more likely to play nice when wins weren’t on the cards.
And yet Ferrari has ended up as the most lopsided line-up in the fight. Leclerc has scored 74.6% of the team’s points this season, while at Renault 70.6% have been picked up by Daniel Ricciardo, and Sergio Perez has 64.9% of the Racing Point total. At McLaren the split has remarkably been 50.3% – 49.7%, marginally in favor of Carlos Sainz.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if Vettel had been that bit closer to Leclerc’s performances this season, Ferrari would be sitting third right now. The current gap is 24 points, and Vettel scoring more would by default have led to the team’s rivals scoring fewer.
But that’s all ifs, buts and maybes, and Racing Point has also had a point deduction. What is fact is Vettel did score big in Turkey, and might just be able to do it again before the year is out.
Power unit performance is important in Bahrain even before we hit the outer circuit, but team principal Mattia Binotto is confident progress has been made with the car that sets Ferrari up nicely for this final triple-header.
“The car has become more consistent, and the car has become a bit faster,” Binotto said after Istanbul. His regular use of the word “encouraging” was a clear change in tone from the warnings that have come out of Maranello throughout the season so far, when the team has been looking to lower expectations.
And that should help Vettel, who puts a big part of his struggles this year down to being at the back of such a closely-matched midfield pack on Saturdays, therefore making it tough to make progress on Sundays.
“I think qualifying has been the Achilles’ heel this year and the races obviously have been largely defined by being stuck in the pack,” Vettel explained after his Istanbul podium. “It’s been a while that I’ve been racing in the midfield, it’s very, very close and even though you have a better pace, sometimes you can’t really show it. So it’s tough, but I think we look forward to the last couple of races, and hopefully for improvements.”
That result in Turkey moved Ferrari third in podiums scored this season, with three compared to two each for Racing Point, McLaren and Renault. As much as it comes in for criticism, Ferrari has improved its car and taken the majority of its opportunities this year.
Where those car improvements need to manifest themselves is in Vettel’s qualifying results, but he then needs to take the opportunities, too. Starting from inside the top 10 will boost his chances and put Ferrari firmly in the frame for P3, even with a 24-point deficit to overturn. It’s not just about the extra points Vettel might score, but what that would do for the teams the Scuderia’s fighting against.
We all have short memories, so Vettel can go some way to erasing the negative ones from 2020 with a strong run of form at the end of the year. It might not be enough to beat his future team, but it would ensure he signs off from Maranello on a more positive note and raises expectations for his next chapter with Aston Martin.