It’s extraordinary that, heading into the 2021 season, the questions about the four-time world champion joining a midfield team hang over Sebastian Vettel rather than the renamed Aston Martin. Usually, the concern would be that the team might not be ready for such an illustrious driver, but instead it’s whether the driver can roll back the years and recapture past glories.
But Vettel might prove to be the surprise of the season. That might seem impossible, given he’s the third-most prolific race winner in Formula 1 history with 53 victories. But he’s coming off the back of what was comfortably his worst season, and none of the other big teams gave him a second glance after Ferrari decided to drop him. His stock is at an all-time low.
Given his career trajectory, it might seem wrong to expect Vettel to be revitalized. Even before his struggles last season in a Ferrari that didn’t give him the rear-end stability he craves, Vettel’s star was waning. In 2019, Charles Leclerc had the edge, albeit by a narrow margin, and it was this form rather than what happened in 2020 that led to the decision to dispense with the German. Plus, in 2018 and the closing stages of the previous season, Vettel had become desperately error-prone, which cost him a shot at the world championship.
The first positive is that Vettel is still in F1 at all in 2021. This is not about the fact he found a team willing to back him, but simply because the 33-year-old has thrown his lot in with the ex-Racing Point team. Vettel could easily have decided enough was enough and walked away from F1 after 13-and-a-half seasons, but instead chose to take on a new challenge with a midfield team.
Granted, it’s not any midfield team. Since the consortium headed by Lawrence Stroll took control during 2018, it has been on an upward curve. Finally, the investment was there for the Silverstone-based team to show its potential, and that was exactly what happened in 2020, with a strong season that should have netted third in the constructors’ championship. But even so, having the third-fastest car on average and taking a breakthrough win with Sergio Perez in the Sakhir Grand Prix proves this is a team on the up.
Vettel is just one part of the Stroll masterplan, which includes drawing in an outstanding title partner in Cognizant as well as myriad other sponsors. And while Vettel is doubtless being well-remunerated, we can be sure he’s not doing this for money. He’s not that kind of character, and has always prized his own privacy over milking his profile for every dollar. He’s even well-known for turning down celebrity freebies and paying his own way. Vettel is there because he wants to compete, not because he wants to build his bank balance.
Supporting that are the initial reports from the Aston Martin team about Vettel’s approach, which sound very familiar. Team principal Otmar Szafnauer recently said that one of his employees had described Vettel’s desire for information and understanding of the car being similar to that of a performance engineer.
The choice of performance engineer, a specific role that is effectively the number two to the race engineer, is a well-chosen one. You don’t want the driver to engineer the car, but Vettel’s determination is to understand the car, the data, everything that’s happening so he can get the best out of it and feed into the process. He’s not trying to engineer the car, like you might expect a big-time star driver coming into a smaller team, but simply wants to absorb every detail he can. That’s something that Vettel did to devastating effect in his Red Bull days.
So from this, we can take it as a given that he’s determined and willing to put in the hard work rather than simply going through the motions. But that’s just one part of the equation.
What is vitally important is that he gets a handle on the car dynamically. We’ve yet to see the new car, but it’s not going to diverge dramatically from the Mercedes-based Racing Point RP20. What we do know is that tokens have been spent on modifying the monocoque to allow the switch to the 2020-specification Mercedes rear end.
That’s significant. Last year’s car was already a well-balanced and stable one that Vettel would have got on with better with than he did the Ferrari. But as Lewis Hamilton explained, the changes to the Mercedes last year made the rear-end ultra-stable and controllable on rotation in corner entry. This is largely down to the redesign of the rear suspension, with the lower wishbone effectively flipped and the rearmost leg integrated into the crash structure, which gives cleaner airflow at the rear of the car.
This should mean Aston Martin gains in this area, provided it isn’t tripped up by the aerodynamic changes for 2021 designed to prevent the Pirelli rubber being overloaded. As the tires are being carried over for a third successive year, albeit with a minor construction change to make them more robust, measures to cut the downforce have been introduced that include a cut on both sides of the floor. This will make it more difficult to ‘seal’ the underfloor and potentially reduce downforce, in harness with other changes to the diffuser, brake duct winglets and the ban on slots in the outer edge of the floor, although teams have already clawed significant amounts back.
The prospect of Vettel in a car that gives him the confidence is a tantalizing one. While his struggles with an unstable rear made him perform badly last year, with an average qualifying deficit or around three-quarters of a second to Leclerc, when the car is right he is stunningly fast. The car will certainly be more to his liking than last year’s Ferrari, so it’s fair to expect an improved level of performance. But if it’s in the sweet spot, he could deliver something special for the team.
It’s so tantalizing a prospect because it was difficult to evaluate just how quick last year’s Racing Point was. Perez is a superb driver, but not the fastest over a single lap. Vettel can be as quick as anyone on Saturday, and if he is, it will give a fair indication of where the car stands.
He could also have a positive impact on Lance Stroll. While his place in the team is justifiably questioned given he owes it to his father’s control of the team, with senior team personnel rather transparently having to bend over backwards to praise him at every turn, Stroll does have real ability and more potential than he’s shown. But he’s never been up against a teammate with the speed of Vettel. If he can learn the lessons that will be there for the taking by working with Vettel, we could very easily see a step forward. Stroll is a decent grand prix driver, but currently no more than that. This could take him into the next tier and silence the questions.
Or course, it could go wrong. It might be that Vettel proves to be a busted flush or can’t adapt himself to the challenges of the 2021 Aston Martin. In that case, he will have been a costly misjudgement, even if his working practices and knowledge of Ferrari and Red Bull will have been of value to the team. After all, not only does the team have to pay him, it also spent to oust the well-backed Perez to accommodate him
That’s why it has been characterized as a gamble. But it always appeared to be a logical move for this upwardly mobile team. Vettel could easily be around in F1 for another five years, and will at the very least want to sign off with some success and a few extra wins to exorcise the memories of how things ended with Ferrari – a brand he loves.
But in Aston Martin, perhaps Vettel has joined the perfect brand for him. Vettel is an anglophile who certainly worked hard to fit in with Ferrari, but back with a British team and a quintessentially British sportscar brand, perhaps he’s found his ideal home? Doubtless that idea appealed to him when he signed the deal. The F1 team may just be the team formerly known as Jordan with a green paint job, but it does have close links with the car company thanks to Stroll Sr’s stake in Aston Martin Lagonda.
It would also be a great story for F1. Vettel is often portrayed as a petulant and entitled character, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that he occasionally suffers from red mist in the cockpit, and has disgraced himself with moments such as swiping into Hamilton’s Mercedes under the safety car at Baku in 2017. But out of the car, he’s a very different character.
That’s why the team is likely to take to him very well. He’s always been popular with his car crews and never been afraid to put in a shift to help, which should ensure they are behind him.
Whether the Vettel and Aston Martin alliance works, who knows? Only time will answer that question. But the ingredients are there and the potential upside the team can benefit from in signing a driver whose best days are seen as behind him is enormous, which is what makes it a laudable gamble by Lawrence Stroll to bring him in. That reflects his ambitions for the team.
If he does get back to somewhere near his best, it could be one of the stories of the season.