Sebastian Vettel creamed off all the records in the ‘youngest to’ category; youngest to score a point, to sit on pole, to win a race, to win the championship. During his four year run from 2010 he smashed the grand prix scene with Red Bull. He won title races from behind, he led them from the front. He reset Nigel Mansell’s record for most pole positions in a season (15), equalled Michael Schumacher’s total of 13 race wins.
No one was talking mistakes then. So good was Vettel, he raced Mark Webber clean out of the sport, and this a rugged Aussie from Queanbeyan who showed little sympathy for lesser team-mates under the Jaguar Racing banner, reminding a succession of young pups that Formula One was not an apprenticeship.
Vettel was barely shaving when Red Bull fast tracked him to race alongside Webber in 2009 aged 21. He finished that season second in the championship to Jenson Button, who was unbeatable early on courtesy of that Brawn blown diffuser wizardry. Vettel won his first title a year later at the last race having never led the championship until he took the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi. As you might recall, the narrative was all good then.
The qualities that separated Vettel in karts, that persuaded Red Bull to sign him to their junior programme, that saw him chase down Button, that put it on Webber for four years on the spin have not diminished. What has changed is the setting. He is up against a driver in Lewis Hamilton who some would have the best of all time in a car that has dominated the hybrid era.
Ferrari have made a substantial leap but at the same point in consecutive seasons, when the search for fractional gains is at its most intense, have begun to unravel. Vettel is part of that but not the only player in a team on the edge contesting a dogfight with arguably one of the great racing units in history.
These cars might as well be coming out of the Hadron Collider in Cern so speculative is the science that underpins progress. Designers and engineers are experimenting in real time to nab the nanoseconds that can make a difference on the track. Sometimes, what works in theory fails in practice.
Ferrari admitted to a wrong development turn in Singapore which at first needed to be understood and then corrected. At the fourth race of 2004, a season in which Schumacher would win 12 of the first 13 races, I asked Ross Brawn how he accounted for Ferrari’s blistering start to the season. In a moment of typical candour in the Imola paddock, Ferrari’s technical director said he couldn’t. You always hope to be fast, but it was, he said, too early to identify the elements that contributed most to that success.
In other words Formula One cars are always the product of an educated punt, but a punt nonetheless. Lob that equation into a competitive environment and you have fertile territory for fractional errors. The wonder is not that Vettel’s car has been pointing the wrong way round in recent weeks but that Hamilton’s has not. Again Hamilton is an exceptional racing driver at a team that knows the drill. Ferrari’s last world title came 11 seasons ago. Apart from 2012 when Fernando Alonso gave them real hope and these past two seasons Ferrari have had little experience of a title fight.
It was not too long ago this term that Vettel looked the more likely winner this term. The punchy victory at Silverstone on Hamilton’s home turf was impressive. Ferrari’s difficulty and Vettel’s has been responding to the hike in competitive ferocity after the summer recess. Vettel’s mistakes look like individual errors when in truth he is at the wheel of a volatile prototype the performance of which is responding to innovative engineering shifts as much as the sensitivity in his fingers.
The late season’s thread does not give house room to Vettel’s qualities, only his cock-ups. As Hamilton himself has said, Vettel deserves more respect from the F1 commentariat than that. Reflecting in the Mexico paddock this week, Fernando Alonso said Vettel’s spins look more like co-incidence to him. Last week’s winner Kimi Raikkonen remarked, if winning titles were easy anyone could do it.
‘I don’t know if he made a lot of mistakes. Germany he went off, but then it was pretty tricky conditions (wet). I don’t know if that really dictates what happened in the end result. It’s hard to say,’ Raikkonen said. ‘There is always people trying to point finger here and there or [say] ‘This is why he didn’t win’. If you want to point [a] finger at someone, there is millions of things that you can [say]. ‘Ah, he should have done this like that and the end result would be different’. Afterwards it is very easy to always say that.’
Should Vettel turn it around next season and convert Ferrari’s improvement into a world championship you can bet your last Rolo there will be talk of lessons learned, of coping better under pressure, when in truth providence and chance are arguably more significant agents in duels as close as this.
Yes 2018 belongs to Hamilton, who needs only finish in the top seven at the Mexico Grand Prix to win his fifth championship, yet Vettel could still be first to six world titles before the sweep of regulatory changes schemed for 2021 tears up the present design template. Ferrari and Vettel must improve, but not by much. Hamilton knows that if the Einsteins among us don’t.