2018 has not been the strongest of years for four-time champion Sebastian Vettel. He has had to look on as rival Lewis Hamilton reached five Formula 1 world championships before him. The scripted for the season – which put the two four-time champions at their absolute peaks in cars near-equal to fiercely battle it out across the season – did not quite pan out as expected. With this, Vettel’s stock has hit a low point – such that he is already being touted by some as out of the 2019 title fight before this one has properly closed out. But writing one of F1’s greats out at such a time is a perilous thing to do.
There is no easy way to gloss over that Vettel made too many mistakes this year – mistakes that cost him far too many points in the heat of battle – daft spins, clouting cars in the early phases of grands prix, critical restart mistakes and that crash in Germany to name a few. It became clearer and clearer through the year that the pressure was a major factor, and Vettel crumbled in the heat of battle.
Similar can be said of Ferrari. Vettel alone is not to blame for Vettel’s title challenge collapsing. Ferrari also made several major mistakes – upgrades that simply failed, strategy calls, not utilising the ‘wingman’ in the same manner as Mercedes – all were contributing factors. It can be said that losing president Sergio Marchionne also had a significant negative impact. With Ferrari, there comes extra pressure. That applies to both team and drivers.
Form is all part sport. Vettel’s form in the first third of the season was generally strong, but Hamilton came on form after that. With Hamilton, it seems like once momentum starts to swing his way, it is not easy to force the pendulum the other way. It is one of the many weapons in Hamilton’s increasing armoury, and the run of six wins from seven races over the summer months really morphed the destiny of the championship in the favour of Britain’s most successful driver.
It is difficult to believe that any driver would have been able to beat Hamilton and Mercedes this year when equipped with the Ferrari. Not even Fernando Alonso (remember, Alonso himself made numerous mistakes in 2010 while driving a Ferrari in a championship fight), perhaps not even a clone of Hamilton. Mercedes may not have had the fastest or most reliable car, but the overall package supplied by the team has been superior to Ferrari, and without the immense pressure that comes for driving for F1’s grandest team. There is also nothing to say that other drivers would not have made the same mistakes or different mistakes altogether.
Many drivers have gone to Ferrari between Jody Scheckter’s championship success in 1979 and now and not walked away with the crown. Some of the greatest names in F1 have done so, such as the pressure of driving for Ferrari. Names such as Villeneuve, Pironi, Alboreto, Prost, Mansell, Alesi, Alonso, Massa and Berger were all very good or absolute legends. Just two have tasted the ultimate success with the Scuderia – Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen. And those were two drivers who, at their best, were very tough to force a mistake out of under pressure.
The Hamilton/Mercedes partnership now comes across as virtually unbeatable. Hamilton’s idea of a poor result this season has been fifth, so beating that is never going to be easy regardless of how good the car is. Hamilton is cementing his status as one of F1’s absolute greatest – at the very least the benchmark of his generation. He has stepped up his game immensely since he was beaten by Nico Rosberg in the same equipment in 2016, and as a result, Vettel, who has not consistently performed at his very best, has been humbled for the second successive year.
But that is not to say that Vettel won’t be a factor in 2019. Vettel can be completely unbeatable at times – as was displayed in his Red Bull days and as he has displayed at times with Ferrari too. But he must reflect on 2018, analyse exactly how and why things went so wrong, and come back much stronger next year. Ferrari also has to look at itself in the mirror, although its attitude towards the media must change before it will fully be able to completely comprehend why 2018 has not brought the success it should have.
There will be change at Ferrari too next year – with the team’s most recent champion Raikkonen leaving and being replaced with one of the hottest talents of the new generation in Charles Leclerc. There will be benefits and drawbacks to this, for both Vettel and Ferrari. For Ferrari, it gets a young spark of life and the opportunity to help develop one of the most exciting talents to fight against the already-established Max Verstappen and potential Mercedes driver Esteban Ocon. These are names who are expected to be winning races and championships with Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes in an era post-Hamilton and Vettel. The downside is the loss of experience and known ‘safe pair of hands’ in Raikkonen. But the time was right for Raikkonen to be moved on, despite his strongest season with Ferrari since re-joining the team back in 2014.
For Vettel, having such a talent as exciting as he once was will provide a new challenge. 2014, where he was soundly beaten by Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull, will play in his mind. He simply cannot afford a repeat of that, or his stock as a driver will plummet. Assert himself as the stronger of the two drivers – as Ricciardo did when Verstappen came in at Red Bull back in 2016, then the inverse situation will occur. Leclerc may just bring the very best out of Vettel and may even force him to perform at a level even beyond his title-winning years with Red Bull. In such a scenario, what’s to say (assuming the car will again be right up there with the Mercedes) that Vettel will not be able to beat a Hamilton and Mercedes combination? What’s to say that Vettel will not be able to beat a Honda-powered Red Bull spearheaded by Verstappen if that package delivers a drastic step forward? It absolutely can be achieved.
Vettel will forever go down as one of the most successful of his generation, and one of the greats of the immediate post-Schumacher era. Some of his victories (of which he has over half a century himself) have been among the finest displays of driving in F1 history. The ingredients are all there for championship success in red – something he so desperately desires – to come to fruition. To stunningly take the crown from Hamilton and Mercedes and truly halt the dominant era of the Silver Arrow would perhaps elevate Vettel to the ‘legend’ status that is being graced upon five-time champion Hamilton now.