Since then things have changed beyond recognition. Vettel has won just one race in the last 12 months.
It all started to go wrong in Hockenheim. A hydraulic failure in qualifying left Hamilton 14th on the grid, and pole position for Vettel offered him the chance to draw further ahead in the points standings. But on race day it rained, and while Hamilton came through the field Vettel skated off at the Sachskurve and nosed into a barrier.
There had already been mumblings about the number of mistakes Ferrari’s four-times would champion had made up to this point: a braking misjudgement in Baku which cost him a podium, a penalty for impeding Carlos Sainz Jnr in Austria and another for tangling with Valtteri Bottas at Paul Ricard. But these were trivial by comparison to Vettel’s latest error – and those to follow.
A win from second on the grid at Spa, passing Hamilton, offered hope that Hockenheim was a blip. But it wasn’t; the weekend in the Ardennes was. At Monza he screwed up again, beaten to pole position by his team mate and out-muscled by Hamilton at the start.
The pair went wheel-to-wheel and Vettel, on this inside, clipped Hamilton and spun, falling to the tail of the field. Remarkably, he performed a similar gyration when scrapping with Daniel Ricciardo at the Circuit of the Americas and Max Verstappen – admittedly at somewhat higher speed – at Suzuka. What was going on?
It didn’t help matters that Ferrari’s early-season supremacy had gone by the second half of 2018. But world class drivers like Vettel are supposed to be points-gathering machines: If the car’s only good enough for third, they snick second by beating the number one team’s number two driver. There was little sign of that as his title hopes fell apart.
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The 2019 season has brought a familiar pattern of mistakes – his spin while racing Hamilton in Bahrain was an action replay of those we saw last year – and a major new challenge in the shape of Charles Leclerc, who displaced Raikkonen from the second Ferrari seat over the winter.
Leclerc’s near-successes have served partly as a benchmark for what Vettel might have achieved with the SF90 so far. He would have won in Bahrain had the engine lasted; he could have won in Azerbaijan if he hadn’t binned the car in qualifying; he should have won in Austria, but was outfoxed by Verstappen in the final laps.
Nonetheless, after 10 races together Leclerc sits just three points behind Vettel in the points standings. Think back to Australia, where he was told to follow Vettel home, or China where he had to let his team mate by, and it’s fair to argue Leclerc has been the better driver on merit so far this year.
Worse for Vettel, Leclerc has raised his game in recent races. Having qualified six-tenths of a second slower than Vettel in Canada, Leclerc gave himself a bit of a talking-to, reviewed his approach to qualifying, and has started ahead of Vettel for the last three races in a row.
For Vettel’s sake, we can only hope Silverstone was the nadir. Having gone six-tenths down to Leclerc in qualifying he was handed a crack at the podium by the Safety Car. But he was caught and passed by Verstappen, who he then rammed off the track. To his credit, Vettel apologised.
Asked on Sunday evening about what his latest error says about his difficult season so far, Vettel stressed the potential for results was there. “I think you need to be fair, you’re not judging one particular lap and obviously I didn’t have a great lap whatever did happen,” he said. “But the laps before up to that point I think were quite strong.
“We started sixth and not by chance found ourselves third at some point. The Safety Car you can argue helped but I think we managed quite well the first stint doing something different to other people and making it work.
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“That was for today and I think other races could have been different as well so I’m not too worried. But I know that I obviously can also have better results on Sunday. So I’m looking forward to Germany now.”
But since F1 last visited Germany these mistakes have become far too common. Would a rookie driver who committed as many errors as Vettel has over the past 12 months get a second chances.
Of course we should not dismiss Vettel’s potential to turn it around. Hamilton is absolutely convinced he can. You only have to look at what Verstappen went through last year to see how quickly a more experienced driver can turn things around. After an error-strewn start to last year’s campaign, Verstappen rebounded and since then has been a very convincing blend of speed and aggression.
However, it’s not just the mistakes which are a problem for Vettel. It’s the threat from the other side of the garage, from a driver with everything to prove who, as he gains confidence in his environment, is already starting to deliver better results.
This all sounds worryingly familiar for Vettel. Think back five years, to his win-less final season at Red Bull when his relatively inexperienced new team mate Ricciardo grabbed a trio of victories.
Vettel resists such comparisons. “I think first it’s a long time ago, second it’s very different,” he said on Sunday evening at Silverstone.
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“Talking about frustration, it’s maybe here and there the end result that probably is missing. But I think in terms of the racing we’ve had they could have gone the other way as well.”
But the fact is they haven’t. As hard-done by as Vettel felt about the circumstances of his defeat in Canada, the fact remains it was triggered by another of his errors, which allowed Hamilton to capitalise.
At the beginning of the season Ferrari said they would give Vettel preferential treatment when it came to 50-50 calls because he is their senior driver and therefore expected to lead their championship charge. At Silverstone last weekend I asked team principal Mattia Binotto whether, given the narrowing points gap between his two drivers and the widening one to Mercedes, that remains the case. It does, he confirmed, but added: “As the championship is going on, Charles is certainly proving that he is a very fast driver“.
Obviously, without Ferrari’s interference, Leclerc would already be ahead in the championship. Obviously, Vettel can work that out for himself. And just as obviously, if he can’t find it in him to redress the balance, then this year will look an awful lot like 2014 all over again.
2019 F1 season
- McLaren Racing reports reduced £71 million loss in 2019
- Kvyat: Hockenheim podium last year was “my biggest achievement” so far
- How the FIA’s new encrypted fuel flow meter targets Ferrari’s suspected ‘aliasing’ trick
- “He smashed my office door”: 23 must-see moments from ‘Drive to Survive’ season two
- ‘I should have done a better job. There’s things that I know I can do better’