Sebastian Vettel, with his four world championships and 52 race wins, is one of the most successful drivers in Formula 1 history. But the pressure is on for F1 2019.
Two faltered title campaigns, littered with errors, have damaged the legacy of a driver who is still chasing his first championship with Ferrari.
The highs for the German this season could be euphoric. Vettel can be the man to end the Scuderia’s decade-long trophy drought, and cement his status as an F1 legend by matching Lewis Hamilton’s haul of five crowns.
But the lows are potentially devastating. Can Vettel afford to come up short in a competitive car again, make more costly wheel-to-wheel mistakes, or even lose out to his hotshot new team-mate?
Handling the new kid on the block
For the first time since joining from Red Bull five years ago, Vettel has a new team-mate at Ferrari with the hugely-promising Charles Leclerc replacing Kimi Raikkonen.
So does Leclerc represent a threat to Vettel’s established superiority or will the second-youngest driver in the Italian team’s history spur him on to new heights?
Vettel may be wary of a case of deja vu. The last time he was a team’s senior driver, expected to spearhead a title challenge next to a youngster who has been promoted from the junior team, it did not exactly turn out favourably.
You may have heard this one before: Daniel Ricciardo joined Red Bull and Vettel as an unproven driver from Toro Rosso in 2014, and promptly outscored his more experienced team-mate by 238 points to 167.
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Vettel did not secure a race victory all year, and only beat Ricciardo three times.
That certainly is not pretty reading for Vettel – but you must also consider the circumstances.
Red Bull came into that season as the dominant force in F1, but it was already clear from the very first race of the new hybrid era they were never going to challenge Mercedes for the title and would instead be fighting for third.
Ricciardo came into that situation as a driver who was desperate to establish himself in F1 after years of fighting at the back and midfield, who would have been celebrating podiums with immense pride. Vettel, meanwhile, was a four-time world champion who knew he would not be adding to that tally, and quite possibly he would be leaving the team, early on in the year.
Different levels of motivation? Surely. But that will not be there for Vettel and Leclerc this year, and there will be no hiding place.
The early signs from Ferrari are they are willing to back Vettel, claiming he will be their “priority” and “guide” at the start of the season, but that could all change if Leclerc takes an early advantage in the championship.
That’s something Vettel is preparing himself for, calling the driver 10 years his junior “a full rival.”
“He’s in the seat for a reason so I’ve got to take it very seriously,” he said. “I’m very certain he will be quick enough and put me under pressure.”
This promotion is a risk from Ferrari and it could well be too much, too soon for Leclerc. But if it’s not, and he does manage to beat Vettel – how would the man who has played a key role in the Scuderia’s resurgence react and recover?
How will Vettel bounce back?
Mistakes happen, and are part and parcel of the pressure cauldron that is F1. For Vettel’s missed title opportunities in 2017 and 2018, see Hamilton’s in 2007 and 2016.
However, what is alarming about Vettel’s consecutive failures is just how similar they were – and how they illuminated key, and familiar, flaws.
“Vettel’s forgotten how to do wheel-to-wheel combat,” was Martin Brundle’s summation following his third crash in little over a month last season, a year on from critical mistakes in Baku and Singapore. Vettel failed to match Hamilton’s unwavering consistency in 2018, winning only once after another error, a crash into the barriers at his home German GP in July.
What is also worrying for Vettel is these weaknesses are being highlighted with more frequency at the age of 31. Hamilton, on the other hand, has ironed out his faults over time. It’s hard to remember the Englishman making a mistake on-track over the past two seasons.
Hamilton, armed with an often-dominant Mercedes car since 2014, has changed his style slightly from what we saw as a gung-ho youngster. He still has that devilish speed, but is more cautious at the start of races, and when pushing for overtakes.
Could Vettel do the same this year? Quite possibly, if, as the early indications suggest, Ferrari really are the team to beat this year.
“We have all the ingredients, for sure,” Vettel said after Ferrari’s timesheet-topping two weeks at pre-season testing.
“At some stages in previous years, maybe we didn’t put things 100 per cent together. There’s always room for improvement but I think we have something to build on.”
Can new-look Ferrari unlock Vettel’s best?
Vettel, a jovial and bubbly individual off the track, seemed to be carrying the weight of Ferrari’s immense expectations on it last season. The pressure, and strain behind the scenes at Maranello, got to him.
There were repeated mis-steps from Ferrari, too. The team unsuccessfully tinkered with their greatest car since their last title in 2008, giving Mercedes the upper hand at a crunch point in the season.
Team boss Maurizio Arrivabene has paid the price, losing his job to the Swiss-born Italian Mattia Binotto.
Binotto is not just a highly-respected technical mind who has worked his way through the Ferrari ranks for 25 years, he also appears to be much more of a calming figure, oozing positivity in his media-friendly commitments so far.
Ferrari are clearly making improvements on-track and trying to do so behind the scenes. They will will hope these changes in personnel, and atmosphere, could bring the best out of a driver who flourished under the loving Red Bull wings.
Michael Schumacher won his first championship for Ferrari in his fifth season. He won with a new team-mate, Rubens Barrichello.
Now it’s Vettel’s turn.
We will learn a lot about the German this season.
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