Lap six of the Italian Grand Prix, at Monza, with the ultra-passionate Tifosi watching and expecting glory for their scarlet red Ferraris. Sebastian Vettel, running fourth, performed what can only be described as one of his most ridiculous mistakes in his 200+ Formula 1 starts – spinning off on his own and returning to the track at such an angle that he collides with Lance Stroll’s Racing Point and ruins both their races.
At this point, many believed – me included – that Vettel was finished as a grand prix driver.
Team-mate Charles Leclerc – with whom Vettel’s relationship with had taken a hit after the former had appeared to ignore team orders in qualifying – went on to win the race and become Italy’s new hero. It seemed like a totally grim scenario for the four-time world champion with seemingly no chance to recover from it.
Singapore – the next race, and Vettel performed three laps of absolute mastery to snatch victory from Leclerc’s grasp with an unexpectedly powerful ‘undercut’. While three laps do not justify one driver’s career for the future, it did prove something:
I was wrong.
Vettel was in no way finished. He totally emphasised this in Russia by defying a team order of his own and was running stunningly quick before his car came to a halt. He had overcome an SF90 that he was previously not so fond of (via the Singapore upgrade) and was starting to show performances not too dissimilar to the Vettel of old – the one that obliterated the opposition to wins and titles seemingly with ease.
Despite this slight recovery, the narrative posted by many was that Leclerc emphatically beat Vettel across the season. More wins, more poles, more points and so forth would appear to give substance to that claim.
I remain unconvinced.
The pendulum between the pair swung drastically over the year – arguably more than at any other outfit – and both were very prone to crashing or other stupid mistakes. And while the numbers do largely go in Leclerc’s favour, it does not consider that the qualifying battle was, in fact, fairly close at the end. The gap was around two tenths on average at the end of the season, with the pendulum swinging emphatically in Leclerc’s favour in France after he addressed this weakness that hampered him through his rookie campaign.
It also does not consider that Vettel had two retirements from races to Leclerc’s zero (although, yes, Leclerc’s Bahrain near-win happened) and both had a couple of qualifying sessions ruined due to reliability.
At the end of the season, Leclerc outscored Vettel by 264-240. That’s not a thrashing or anything close to that. That is a narrow victory, but a victory nonetheless.
Leclerc was just in his second season at F1 level and that does make his achievement against a driver as decorated as Vettel immensely impressive – especially as Vettel entered as the out-and-out team leader within Ferrari in 2019. But it was not as comprehensive a beating as, say, Daniel Ricciardo against Vettel at Red Bull in 2014 – which resulted in a considerably bigger margin of defeat (238-167).
While in that season too Vettel struggled with a car difficult to control and suffered worse reliability than his team-mate resulting in a scoreline that read far worse than it actually was, it was a poorer season overall than was expected. He went win-less and was comfortably beaten in qualifying and regularly struggled to get on top of Ricciardo in the races.
Off the back of that dismal season, Vettel seemed back to his best in ’15. Three wins against the totally dominant Mercedes were among his finest to date at Ferrari. He was also the only non-Mercedes driver to secure a pole position that year as well as the only one to take victory.
Numerous podiums also allowed him to fight for second in the championship against the following year’s champion Nico Rosberg – exceptional given the dominance of the Silver Arrow. After arguably his worst season in F1 to that point, Vettel put in one of his greatest.
The circumstances coming in 2020 are somewhat different – he has not changed teams, and he remains partnered with Leclerc and not his good friend Kimi Raikkonen as was the case in his first season with Ferrari.
But it isn’t impossible for Vettel to have a stellar 2020 – even if he is fighting simply to save his grand prix career.
Vettel has, rightly, taken a lot of flak for some pretty abysmal misdemeanours over the past handful of years. The situation has not been quite as bad as some have portrayed it to be – as he has shown on numerous occasions that the speed is there and that there is some seriously good racecraft he can display.
But the following weaknesses must be addressed – the baffling errors in combat, the clumsy spins, the qualifying and those moments of red mist. Vettel is capable of getting on top of all of those and he must do so not to be able to challenge Lewis Hamilton for a world title, but merely to get on top of his rapidly-improving, utterly ruthless young team-mate.
2020 will be Vettel’s most important yet – his contract with Ferrari is up for renewal and a couple of drivers – including Ricciardo – will be eyeing up his seat. The assumption is that Leclerc – who clearly still has a lot of progress to make before he becomes the title-challenging complete driver he should become – will only be even more of a threat in 2020 and make life even more problematic for Vettel, especially off the back of his new five-year deal with the Scuderia.
But, it’s unwise to count out a four-time world champion.