Time can sometimes enhance a driver’s reputation, through the demonstration of experience married to skill. Sometimes time can dent a driver’s reputation, as errors creep in and performances are not quite what they once were. This is my personal take on the career of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, and it is purely my opinion here. This is a long-overdue rewrite of an older article.
(Vettel at the 2009 Japanese Grand Prix, which he would win)
This is not to suggest I think Vettel is a poor racer. He isn’t. Four world titles, 53 race wins, and for a time he was the dominant force in the genre. He raced hard against the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Jensen Button – all world champions – and beat them in 2010, in a nail-biting close title fight. Vettel crushed everyone on his way to the 2011 title, and then had another showdown with Alonso in 2012, before enjoying another all-conquering season in 2013. His wins were usually characterised by qualifying on pole, getting a strong start, and eking out a small but comfortable gap, enough to escape DRS range, and then controlling the pace. It naturally helped to have a superb car (all his titles came at Red Bull, in an era when they had an amazing aero setup that gave them a huge edge), but as I have frequently said, no one is champion in anything less than a good car.
I think that this has dented Vettel’s reputation though, and maybe more so than it’s affected other drivers. In the absence of truly competitive machinery, Vettel is perhaps not as accomplished as some of his contemporaries.
After long-time teammate Mark Webber (with whom Vettel had several clashes) retired, another Australian, the young and exciting Daniel Ricciardo, took his place for 2014. The first year of the V6 turbo hybrids was controlled by the all-powerful Mercedes team, and Red Bull were less competitive. Despite this, the team would ratch up three wins, and they were all taken by Ricciardo, who showed better pace throughout the year. Vettel would leave Red Bull for Ferrari at the end of the season, insisting he wasn’t running away, but it certainly carried that look, at least to some.
For many drivers, racing for the scarlet machine is a dream. Ferrari are the oldest name in F1, with a rich history in motorsport (and in general). Vettel had hoped to emulate Michael Schumacher in winning world championships with the Italian outfit, but a combination of team mistakes and driver errors would deny him the chance.
Vettel comes unglued
There were signs of Vettel being at his best. His win in Malaysia in 2015, in only his second race for Ferrari, was a masterful one. His opportunism in Hungary saw him take another good win, and he controlled the race at one of the toughest venues, Singapore. However, in 2016 he went winless once more, and the first serious cracks in his composure began to appear.
After a contentious battle with the Red Bull of Max Verstappen in Mexico, Vettel let fly with an expletive-laden rant, whilst in 2017 his first serious errors began to appear. After accusing Hamilton of brake-testing him under the safety car, Vettel would deliberately bang wheels with the Mercedes driver at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which earned him a penalty. Vettel’s aggressive defensive move at the very start of the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix triggered an accident involving Verstappen and the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, taking all three out of the race and handing the initiative in the title fight to Hamilton.
There were more to come, and some of them might be considered school-boy mistakes from a four-time champion. In 2018 Vettel crashed into the Mercedes of Bottas at the start of the French race, compromising his race, whilst leading the Germany Grand Prix he managed to crash out completely. He also made errors, albeit tiny ones, in Italy, Japan and the USA, all of which affected the dynamics of his races.
Leclerc unsettles Vettel
A new teammate in 2019 saw Vettel come under renewed internal pressure at Ferrari. Leclerc was fast, and he was hungry, and as in 2014, the new teammate would prove superior to the established driver. Leclerc would have two wins to Vettel’s one, a better qualifying ratio, and would finish above Vettel in the standings. At the time of this rewrite, Vettel and Ferrari have announced they are parting ways at the end of 2020, with no clear picture of where Vettel will go.
There have been more ill-judged moves in 2019. Vettel made mistakes in Bahrain and Canada whilst under pressure for the lead, crashed into Verstappen in Britain, and span in Italy whilst chasing Bottas (and nearly collided with Stroll when he rejoined the track).
It’s unfortunate that Vettel’s legacy would have question marks over it, but it’s unavoidable. At times Vettel has been his own worst enemy, and this stretches back to his Red Bull days (his accident with Mark Webber in Turkey in 2010, his infamous defiance of team orders at Malaysia in 2013 to pass Webber). His coming-together with Leclerc at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix could be considered a 50/50 issue, but there is form for this kind of clash from Vettel.
Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair. Vettel’s career is littered with stellar drives too. His first ever win, in Italy in 2008, was an amazing display of wet weather brilliance, in a Toro Rosso that didn’t really have the right to be at the top end of the grid. In the final two races of 2012, with the championship on the line, Vettel twice had to come through the field to collect the points he needed. As mentioned earlier, he held his nerve in a hugely competitive and tense title fight in 2010. To achieve what Vettel has achieved takes talent, there is simply no way to win four world championships and 53 races otherwise.