Yesterday’s performance at the Mexican GP was one the best races of the season for Sebastian Vettel. The four time World Champion was wise in managing his position without causing any collisions during the first lap and was then a true master of overtaking, beating the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo fair and square, with the help of a finally well-structured Ferrari pit strategy.
All of this, however, was not enough to prevent Hamilton from snatching a well-deserved fifth World Title, equalling the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio. The Brit showed a consistency and a pressure management which the German lacked, resulting in game-changing errors. However, Hamilton did not, at any moment, have to endure what Vettel endured from a psychological point of view. Today we’re taking a look at how Sebastian Vettel lost the title, and why he can’t be the only one to blame.
The 2018 seasons opened with high expectations for the Prancing Horse. After years of Mercedes domination in the Hybrid Era, where Maranello couldn’t even dream of having a car competitive enough to challenge the Silver Arrows, all data and results seemed to point out that the SF71H was finally a title contender, with elaborate, state-of-the-art Energy Recovery System and solid reliability. However, having a great car to start with has never been enough to win the Championship. The German team’s better resources allowed Mercedes to catch up on development, with many new aero and power solutions that closed the gap to the Italians. On both parties, many innovative updates were tried in the strive to acquire the title (Ferrari’s well-monitored ERS and Mercedes’s controversial drilled rims), with the FIA eventually deciding (as of today, at least) not to intervene.
This is not the place or time to jump on the bandwagon and defend the legality (or illegality) of Mercedes’s solutions, but a simple look at facts can speak volumes. Drilled rims and hub were first introduced in Belgium, with Mercedes immediately finding a terrific pace in Italy, Singapore, Russia and Japan, where the Silver Arrows were suddendly unmatched in speed and performance. After the controversy started surfacing (and with the title fight coming to an end), Mercedes decided to close the rims in Austin (where Hamilton has to go for a two-stop strategy, his tyres being butchered) and in Mexico, arguably the worst race for Mercedes this year, with Valtteri Bottas being lapped by race winner Max Verstappen. This update was declared “irrelevant” in terms of performance by the FIA, although its legality has been widely contested. I personally think that it’s no place for a reporter (even less, an amateur one such as myself) to decide whether or not an update of this sort should be allowed. One thing, however, is clear as water: this solution was definitely not irrelevant.
The 2018 season was accompanied by many changes in Maranello: Kimi Raikkonen’s contract renewal had to be discussed, Maurizio Arrivabene was waiting for his contract to be renewed, too. On top of that, as we all know, on July 25 Sergio Marchionne found a sudden and unexpected death following complications from a surgery. The corporate and technical instability that ensued certainly did not contribute to the cause, as everybody was seeing their position within the team being challenged or discussed again. Maurizio Arrivabene was amidst some rumours seeing him leave the team, and Raikkonen’s departure to Sauber was anything but unanimous, seeing Arrivabene and new CEO Camilleri defending his reasons to stay with the team for another year, but John Elkann and the late Marchionne pushing for Leclerc’s arrival.
The corporate instability reverberated on track, with Ferrari being subject to some very questionable strategy mistakes (Spain, Russia). Strategy mistakes were made on Mercedes’s side (and big ones, for that) too, but they were inevitably overshadowed by a solid representation from the team, presenting an “all for one” attitude which is perfectly common in a consolidated team such as the Silver Arrows.
Hockenheim, Monza. If I had to pinpoint two of the defining moments of this title fight, that’s what I would choose. Germany broke Sebastian Vettel’s stability and Italy took the ultimate psychological toll on him. Sebastian, which is usually known for his composure and his ability to do well under pressure, has finally fallen to the Ferrari spell.
The problem with being a Ferrari driver is easy: everybody simply expects you to be a champion, to never make mistakes. Representing the most historical and important team in Formula 1, the team to which Formula 1 owes his success, can make you a god and can destroy you in a matter of days. Italian media, which I know very well being Italian myself, would be enough to completely break even the most collected of tempers alone. Add pressure from the tifosi, from corporate, from yourself to the mix and you get a recipe for disaster. Whatever mistake a Ferrari driver makes, it’s amplified and resonates through the motorsport world with a relevance that no other mistake gets.
Sebastian is at his fourth year in Ferrari and still hasn’t been able to capitalise, even with what was generally regarded (I disagree, as I’ve already pointed out) as the best car on the grid. I tend to justify his recent mistakes in Japan and in Austin, which were immediately bashed by the media and the tifosi alike. His risky attempts on Verstappen and Ricciardo were nothing but Sebastian giving it all, ready to fight by the millimetre. “If you no longer go for a gap that exist, you’re no longer a racing driver”.
Is all hope lost?
The Drivers’ Championship might be over, but the fight is still on for the Constructors’ Title. The Constructors’ Championship is especially important from a business point of view: end-of-season financial bonuses granted by FIA are distributed based on Constructors’ Standing, the Drivers’ title being irrelevant in this instance. Mercedes is currently 66 points ahead in the lead, with a best total of 86 points to be awarded in two races (25 + 18, 25 + 18). Mercedes’s current lack of performance might still help the Prancing Horse to bring home a trophy that’s been missing for 10 years. Only Interlagos and Abu Dhabi can give us answers.