14 race wins, 12 pole positions, 54 podiums and twice a runner-up in the world championship from 101 starts so far. Sebastian Vettel’s stint at Ferrari has, at least on paper, looked strong in comparison to recent incumbents of one of those famous red seats. Only Niki Lauda and Michael Schumacher have achieved more. The glaring omission from his stretch is a coveted world title, something only one driver has achieved in the post-Michael Schumacher era (and that was done while the foundations were still there).
But with the recent news that Charles Leclerc will remain at Ferrari for what feels like an eternity in Formula 1 terms, Vettel’s remaining time started to feel very limited. We are still yet to see whether he is able to put right the wrongs of recent years due to the lack of racing, and it is easy to wonder whether this scenario has played a role in this decision from both sides.
Vettel has, at times, been utterly invincible in a Ferrari. Some of his wins have been ballsy, some have been strategic masterclasses, and others have been downright dominant – echoing his four title-winning Red Bull times.
And there also have been times where he has come, rightly, under fire for some of his actions. His deliberate contact with Lewis Hamilton at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix and his explosive curse-laden tirade at Mexico the year prior to name two incidents. That is before the run of spins and crashes that resulted in making Hamilton’s life much easier than it needed to be is considered.
But, the dream of emulating his hero seemed well and truly on just a couple of races into the move that occurred after a tricky final year at Red Bull – in which he was soundly beaten by Daniel Ricciardo. It took Vettel just two races to find the top step in red, brilliantly outfoxing both Mercedes in Malaysia’s heat.
It is easy to forget that Vettel’s 2015 season was one of his finest – capitalising on every single occasion where Mercedes tripped up. His weekend performance in Singapore – holding off the arguably quicker Red Bull of Ricciardo on the day – was stellar. He also fought hard for second in the championship against Nico Rosberg, narrowly coming short against the dominant Silver Arrow. There was certainly a strong case to be made that Vettel was the driver of the year.
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2016 provided a much-missed opportunity, as Ferrari seemed to have the tools to take occasional victory but either underwhelming performances or strategy mishaps meant both went without a win – for the second time in three years for both. The frustration began to show, and even podiums began to become a rarity as the year progressed – having had the ability to win in races such as Canada earlier on.
Opportunistic driving got Vettel into contention early on in 2017, as a healthy championship advantage was established with further wins in Bahrain and through the pitstop phase on the streets of Monaco. While Vettel is blamed for over-aggression at the start of the wet Singapore Grand Prix – a race he really needed to win – it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as some made it out to be. However, that did prove to be the turning point that year. Hamilton and Mercedes were simply far too strong from there on to be toppled.
At least on one-lap pace, Ferrari’s 2018 car was capable of taking the title. That Vettel ended up a staggering 88 points behind at the conclusion is due to a combination of factors – absolute brilliance from Hamilton and Mercedes, some strategic errors from Ferrari, a touch of bad luck and the aforementioned baffling spins and crashes.
Vettel’s victory on the wrong strategy in Bahrain goes down as one of his finest in red, as does his win at Silverstone after a brilliantly decisive pass on Valtteri Bottas. He was also crushing in Canada. These are easy things to forget when the common memory of Vettel’s campaign that year are of him facing the wrong way, or that crash in Germany. For every stellar moment Vettel had in 2018, there seemed to be at least two dreadful ones – mostly made under pressure. While being punted by Max Verstappen in China was not his fault, losing a podium in Azerbaijan, crashing into Bottas in France, spinning in Italy, hitting Verstappen in Japan and spinning while wheel-to-wheel with Ricciardo in Austin certainly were. He seemed slightly unfortunate in some of those situations, but motorsport is all about narrow margins and being on the right end of them.
In contrast, Hamilton’s idea of a bad day that year was finishing fifth on one occasion or his sole DNF due to reliability.
I’ve gone into detail about Vettel’s 2019 recently, and while it was not as bad as the numbers may say it was lumbered with more mistakes but also moments of brilliance too. He stole Singapore from the grasp of his young team-mate Charles Leclerc but should have also been there to capitalise in Bahrain. Again, he found himself facing the wrong way there. He did get more than a fair share of misfortune through reliability – retiring after disobeying team orders at Sochi – and one instance prompted a sensational recovery drive – at home from dead last to second.
Leclerc and Vettel’s relationship had appeared strained, but the easy-going nature of both means it was probably hyped up a bit more than the reality was. When both made contact with each other in Brazil – that was the low point, and a mistake from both parts. Although, such minor contact really shouldn’t have eliminated both on the spot.
Unfortunately for Vettel, many will feel that the negative will outweigh the positive – especially because of recency bias. It is easy to forget that Fernando Alonso – a driver who many feel will have had a better Ferrari career even if the numbers don’t back that up – got involved in all sorts of incidents earlier in his time at the Scuderia.
Vettel took more wins and poles than Alonso did – both took zero titles – but the impact Vettel has had on Ferrari behind the scenes must not be downplayed. He is an incredibly hard worker, and the immediate impact he had should go down as part of his legacy with the team. Vettel is a very passionate driver – even if it’s not always in show. He is a big fan of the history of F1, incredibly knowledgeable in that area, which may have increased the pressure inside him even more – making those mistakes all the more common. Does his lack of title success with Ferrari tarnish his legacy? Only if it applies in the same way that giants such as Alonso, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost also failed to take a title with the most historic team in F1.
From the outside, Vettel is certainly an interesting character. He does often keep himself to himself, is not at all present on social media, but comes across as down to earth. All while providing a level of commitment and passion that was on full display after he was denied victory in Canada.
It would be a character that would be seriously missed should he decide to retire or take a sabbatical. Other than a straight swap with Hamilton, which seems really unlikely, or facing off against Verstappen at Red Bull, Vettel’s options in top cars are very limited.
Would he take to a midfield McLaren or Alfa Romeo, risking his reputation to make up the numbers? It’s doubtful.
These times have given us all an opportunity to be at one with our thoughts, to re-assess many aspects of our lives. For Vettel and Ferrari, it’s become clear to both that the dream is over. With Leclerc the clear future of Ferrari, perhaps this move is for the best.
Hopefully, for Vettel and for his many fans, he will have one final shot at a world title – and concluding his lengthy Ferrari career in style, and not acrimoniously as some of his high-profile predecessors did.