The Dismissal of Sebastian Vettel: Justice or Injustice?

On May 12th, 2020, Scuderia Ferrari announced that it would not renew German driver Sebastian Vettel’s contract. The decision shocked the press and supporters, as two main characteristics have spotlighted Vettel’s performance in recent years: his disputes for the title in 2017 and 2018 and his constant accidents. In 2019, the German ended behind his teammate, Monegasque Charles Leclerc, on final results, with Leclerc being on the second year of his career and first with the Maranello-based team.

During the 2018 season, some fans considered that retiring would be more indicated to the German driver. Others used Vettel’s glorious past as a four-time champion to justify his permanence in Formula One. So, after all, was Ferrari’s decision fair or unfair? To answer this question, let’s make a retrospect of Sebastian Vettel’s career and rate if his performance was worthy of Ferrari’s investments.

 

1- The beginning: a young talent enters Formula One

 

Sebastian Vettel debuted in Formula One at the 2007 United States Grand Prix for Sauber, replacing Polish driver Robert Kubica, who had suffered a severe accident on the previous round in Canada. Vettel finished eighth, the last place of the scoring zone at the time, scoring one point. In the same year, he was hired by Toro Rosso to continue the season from Hungarian Grand Prix. His second and last scoring was a fourth-place at the Chinese Grand Prix. He finished the championship at 14th place, with six points.

As of 2008, Vettel’s star started to shine more. Scoring in nine races, the German had a triumphant victory at the Italian Grand Prix, being the first time a Toro Rosso driver won a race. At this same round, he broke two records: “youngest Grand Prix pole position winner” and “youngest driver to score a double” (pole position and race win). He finished 2008 in eighth place, with 35 points.

 

Sebastian Vettel’s first victory, at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix. (Photo: MAXF1.net) [1]

 

2- Joining Red Bull: the apex and the fall

 

In 2009, Vettel was hired by Red Bull Racing team. He broke two more records: “youngest driver to score a hat-trick” (pole position, race win, and fastest lap) and “youngest World Drivers’ Championship runner-up.” With four wins, eight podiums, and four more scores, he got 84 points, 11 lesser than champion Jenson Button (from Brawn). His results were so impressive that he turned into Red Bull’s bet to dispute the title.

Racing alongside Australian driver Mark Webber, his teammate since his first year with the Austrian team, Sebastian Vettel became champion for four consecutive years. In 2010, with five wins, ten podiums, and five more scores, he got 256 points and guaranteed the first title of a Red Bull driver. In 2011, Vettel conquered 392 points, 11 wins, 17 podiums, and one more score. The following year, he had 281 points, five wins, ten podiums, and scored on seven more occasions. His last title was conquered in 2013, with 13 wins, 16 podiums, and he scored in two more races. Vettel’s four titles meant two things for Red Bull: the engineering department has succeeded in their turbo engine development, and the team had one of the most talented drivers in the sport’s history.

 

Sebastian Vettel’s win at the 2013 German Grand Prix. (Photo: Motor Authority) [2]

 

In his four titles’ years, Vettel broke nine records he keeps until nowadays. In 2010 he became the “youngest Formula One World Drivers’ champion,” at the age of 23. In 2011, he broke the ones of “most podium finishes in a season” (17 at all), “most pole positions in a season” (15 at all), “most laps led in a season” (739 at all), “most wins from pole position in a season” (totalizing nine) and “youngest driver to score a grand slam” (pole position, win, fastest lap and led every lap). In 2013, he broke the records of “most consecutive wins” (nine at all), “most consecutive grand slams” (two at all), and “most wins in a season” (totalizing 13). Vettel also got three more records, “youngest driver to led at least one lap,” “youngest driver to score a podium,” and “youngest Grand Prix winner,” but these were surpassed some years later by Max Verstappen. With these achievements, Vettel was considered the biggest winner of the Turbo Era in Formula One.

 

With Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel won four championships and got nine records he keeps until nowadays. (Photo: Sports Mole) [3]

 

But in 2014, the situation changed drastically. ith Mark Webber’s exit, the team chose his fellow countryman Daniel Ricciardo to replace him as Vettel’s teammate. If before it, Vettel’s mastery was evident, he passed to be left behind by the team in favor of the new teammate. His car in 2014 had little power to reach previous years’ results. By contrast, Ricciardo’s car enjoyed perfect conditions, allowing him to get his first win at Canadian Grand Prix. Getting only four podiums and 12 more scores, Vettel finished the year in fifth place of the championship, with 167 points. Ricciardo finished third, with 238 points. In the same year that Red Bull decided to prefer a new driver, the team lost leadership in Formula One. Lewis Hamilton’s title (the second of his career) started Mercedes mastery, which persists nowadays.

 

Red Bull’s preference for Daniel Ricciardo not only harmed Sebastian Vettel’s 2014 season, as it allowed Mercedes to be the new dominant team. (Photo: Marca) [4]

 

3- Going to Ferrari: a good deal?

 

Seeing Vettel’s deception with Red Bull, Ferrari made him a proposal to join the Italian team replacing Spanish driver Fernando Alonso. The Maranello-based team could not win the drivers championship since 2007 and the constructors’ one since 2008. Unhappy with Alonso’s failure, Ferrari’s officers bet on the young four-time champion to bring back the team’s times of glory.

Vettel’s contract with Red Bull would end at the end of 2015, but Ferrari paid his severance to have him in its team. Racing alongside Finnish driver Kimi Räikkönen, the last champion with the Italian team, the German returned to the drivers’ top-3. Conquering three wins, 13 podiums, and scoring in four more races, he finished the year at third place in the ranking, with 278 points, 44 lesser than runner-up Nico Rosberg and 103 lesser than champion Lewis Hamilton (both of Mercedes). Though without getting another title, his position in 2015 relieved Vettel. He was in a more competitive car, being the team’s priority, and was closer to compete for the champion trophy.

 

With Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel retrieved chances to fight for the title. (Photo: O Globo) [5]

 

But in 2016, destiny brought another big rival: Max Verstappen. The Dutch driver had debuted by Toro Rosso in 2015. The following year was promoted to Red Bull replacing Russian driver Daniil Kvyat (fired because of his weak performance and his constant accidents, even harming Vettel at the Russian Grand Prix). Verstappen has the same characteristics as the German driver: he was young, fearless, audacious, brave, and had no fear of taking risks. Responsible for breaking three records that belonged to Vettel, the Dutch driver held intense disputes with Ferrari’s driver. The most emblematic ones were for the Mexican Grand Prix podium and the Brazilian Grand Prix fifth place (Verstappen ended third). The young driver nearly surpassed Vettel in the championship, ending only eight points behind the German, who finished the year at fourth place in the ranking, with 212 points.

In 2017, Vettel was highlighted again, starting the championship with a win at Australian Grand Prix. The dispute for the title with Hamilton kept balanced for 13 races, with the German having some advantage. However, at Singapore Grand Prix, Ferrari’s craving for victory ended harming its primary driver. Starting from pole position, alongside Max Verstappen, Vettel and Räikkönen squeezed the Dutch driver, which caused a triple crash. The three drivers had to retire from the race, and the victory ended with Hamilton. With the British driver leadership, Vettel needed to win Mexican Grand Prix and cross his fingers to Hamilton to finish at least ninth to become champion. However, one more dispute with Verstappen frustrated the German’s plans. The Dutch driver took him the leadership, and both had a touch. While Verstappen kept it normally, Vettel ended shocking against Hamilton, and both went to the last places. Ferrari’s driver finished the round in fourth place, while the English driver crossed the finish line in ninth place, guaranteeing that year’s title. Winning for the last time at Brazilian Grand Prix, Vettel ended 2017 as runner-up, with 317 points an outcome of five wins, 12 podiums, and five more scores.

 

Accident at the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix involving Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Räikkönen, and Max Verstappen. (Photo: Busy.org) [6]

 

The year 2018 was similar to the previous one. Vettel started the championship with two consecutive wins (in Australia and Bahrein). However, as of the Chinese Grand Prix, in which he had a touch with Verstappen that dragged him to the eighth place, his luck started to change. In that year, Vettel involved himself in a series of accidents that cost him precious points to dispute the title. At the French Grand Prix, he collided with Finnish Valtteri Bottas. Later, the team broke it down at the German Grand Prix, ordering teammate Räikkönen to give him the lead), but Vettel crashed into the wall and retired. At the Japanese Grand Prix, he risked his luck in a fight against Verstappen that made him leave the track momentarily, ending the race in sixth place. At the end of 2018, Vettel had five wins, 12 podiums, and eight more scores, consolidating himself as runner-up once more, with 320 points.

In 2019, Kimi Räikkönen was replaced by Charles Leclerc. Although many journalists and supporters speculated that the new driver would bring a hazard to Vettel, old experts in Ferrari knew that the team would prioritize the German and would make the Monegasque his squire (as they did to Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa in the past). It was what happened at the year’s first race, in Australia. Though Leclerc’s car had a better output, Ferrari did not allow him to overtake Vettel (the same happened two rounds later, in China). For this reason, Leclerc was nicknamed “Cinderella.” However, Vettel did not justify his team’s preference for him in 2019: he got only one win, Singapore, that even lent him the controversial accusation of being helped by Ferrari (that changes his tires before Leclerc’s), besides eight podiums and seven more scores. The primary mark of Vettel in 2019 was his accidents, notably the crash with Hamilton at Canadian Grand Prix, the purposeful collision with Verstappen at British Grand Prix, with Lance Stroll at Italian Grand Prix, and with Leclerc at Brazilian Grand Prix. In the second and third cases, Vettel only stayed in the last positions, including receiving penalties, while in the other, he caused a ferrarist double-retirement that alarmed the team. Finishing the year in fifth place, with 240 points, Vettel ended one position and 24 points behind his teammate.

 

4- From hero to zero: what was Sebastian Vettel’s mistake?

 

Conquering a title in Formula One is not an easy job. The specialists are practically unanimous in saying that the key to success in motorsport is the sum of the driver’s talent with the car’s good performance. There is no point in having a potent car if the driver has no stamina to bring it to the title (Valtteri Bottas is an example). Also, there is no point in the driver being talented if the car’s performance does not match (Max Verstappen is an example). Vettel’s achievements (records, wins, and titles) prove his talent. Ferrari and Red Bull are considered top teams (though recently, the Austrian team is quite different from when the German was its main driver). So how to explain such a fall in such a short time?

The answer is simple: self-control. That is an essential ingredient in the recipe for a champion. A significant example of how it works is the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton disputed the title with Vettel and had started from pole position. However, a full-of-range Max Verstappen fought for the win. Hamilton preferred not showing too much resistance. He chose to guarantee a second-place, keep an ongoing series of scoring, and steady the title than disputing the win and risk an accident, giving chances to his rival to surpass him. Vettel does not think the same way. The German is very impulsive and hazards until the last second, causing unnecessary accidents and losing significant points. When this dispute happens with another impulsive driver, like Verstappen, the damage is even more powerful. Who knows, the 2017 championship would have ended differently if Vettel and Räikkönen had not framed that squeeze for Verstappen to try to scare him?

 

Sebastian Vettel’s crash at the 2018 German Grand Prix. Silly mistakes cost him the chance of winning three more titles. (Photo: Goodwood) [7]

 

A strategy is also vital to win a game. Formula One is a collective sport that depends on the interaction between the driver and his team (this one is divided into its many departments and staff, as engineers, mechanics, strategists, among others). Audacity and courage are indeed relevant factors to a successful career, but even in extreme situations, as a dispute for positions, it is necessary to think very well before acting. Reuniting the team before the races to discuss how to proceed in hypothetical situations and practice what was discussed before would be a good strategy.

The main mistake of Sebastian Vettel was letting his emotions take control of his reason. Accidents like those of the 2019 British Grand Prix and the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix resulted from the driver’s rage for being overtaken by his rivals (Verstappen and Leclerc). Vettel should follow the suit of Hamilton’s prudence if he wants to win titles again.

 

5- Conclusion

 

Ferrari realized that it is not worth spending its investments in a driver who, though talented, always gets into trouble. Charles Leclerc likely became the team’s new bet, which will hire another driver to be his squire (sources speculate about the name of Carlos Sainz Jr.). Sebastian Vettel, in turn, has two possible ways: retirement or a weaker team. Though Toto Wolff had already shown some interest in putting him in Mercedes, it is unknown if Vettel would accept race alongside Lewis Hamilton. The four-time champion waiver was an outcome of his impulsivity that harmed him more than helped him. However, it would be unfair to ignore Vettel’s achievements, as he left his legacy in Formula One as a bold and fearless driver who translated his courage into four titles. The most important lesson that he gives for the new talents in the sport is that it worths thinking before acting more than risking everything, as you can lose the last chance to shine.

 

Sources

 

 

Photos

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