After five seasons with Ferrari, four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel has failed to mount a serious challenge against Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.
The German, who made his Formula 1 debut in 2007, spent last season often outmatched and sometimes absolutely overshadowed by his much-less experienced team-mate, Charles Leclerc.
It’s a stark contrast to his days at Red Bull, where Vettel, as the clear team leader, made a name for himself by becoming the youngest ever World Champion, a record which still stands.
Between 2010 and 2013, when Vettel claimed four consecutive World Championships, he often controlled races from start-to-finish with ease and grace.
In 2013, he won nine on the trot at the end of the season.
But, the days of being an unbeatable champion seem well-and-truly long ago. Vettel’s current reputation has been marred. He’s now more synonymous with spins, collisions, and brain-explosions.
The most notable include a 2017 sideswipe of Lewis Hamilton behind the safety car in Azerbaijan and an uncharacteristically unsafe re-entry to last year’s Italian Grand Prix.
Some weekends stories circled the paddock about the number of penalty points on Vettel’s license – as he edged closer toward a race ban. (He got 75 per cent of the way there and he enters 2020 with the most penalty points of any driver).
Looking back, it’s clear Vettel’s seemingly-perfect move to the Scuderia in 2015 has now produced nothing of substance – and now new reports suggest the dream of bringing glory back to Ferrari is falling apart.
The coronavirus pandemic may have halted the Formula 1 season for the foreseeable future, but it hasn’t completely destroyed a speculative and rumour-filled Formula 1 news cycle.
Recent reports out of respected outlets have, in their own way, pointed toward Vettel’s intention to possibly leave Ferrari at the end of the 2020 season.
Vettel’s out of contract at the end of 2020, with his current three-year deal that he signed in 2017 set to expire.
At the end of 2019, a rumour began that Vettel was looking at switching teams when Spanish publication Marca alleged Vettel contacted McLaren’s new Team Principal Andreas Seidl, who’d started at the British team in May.
However, the report was likely untrue or exaggerated as a quick Google search shows Marca as an unreliable publication. One Reddit user described it as the Daily Mail of Spain while one football website listed it as “not to be trusted at all”.
But, it was not hard rumour to believe.
Vettel, a four-time World Champion, had finished the season runner-up to his fresh-faced team-mate Charles Leclerc, who, alongside having more points, also had more poles and victories.
Bernie Ecclestone, however, added fuel to this fire in March, when he suggested Vettel’s future options were retirement or McLaren, according to F1-Insider.com.
Interestingly, Ecclestone’s comments came just days after Sky Sports Italia broke the news about Vettel’s apparent future options with Ferrari.
They reported in late March he was only offered a one-year contract for 2021 with a substantial pay cut compared to previous seasons. The German also wasn’t in a position to negotiate, the report said, a change from his first contract renewal in 2017.
“At the time Vettel was unquestionably the leader of the team … Today the situation is different,” Sky Sports Italia reported.
However, Vettel disagrees with this sentiment. At the team’s car launch in February, a correspondent for Reuters questioned Vettel about his status in the team, saying he had lost ground while Leclerc had gained stature.
“I disagree with you,” Vettel responded. “I don’t see it that way, down and up. It doesn’t change anything. We were on equal terms all throughout last year. We are this year as well.”
Being on equal footing is somewhat unknown territory for Vettel – who was the undeniable Red Bull team leader throughout his tenure with the former World Champions.
Plus Leclerc’s most recent contract – which lasts with Ferrari until 2024 – shows Ferrari has more faith in the young gun, the Scuderia has the same confidence in a two-time race winner as a four-time World Champion.
So it seems rather ominous that after both the team launch and the story on Sky Sports Italia, Vettel told Motorsport.com in an exclusive interview that happiness would be more important than money in his next deal.
“I think the really important thing is that you are happy, that’s the key.”
Sebastian Vettel’s happiness has clearly been tested during his time at Ferrari.
Vettel’s unhappy reactions – such as Azerbaijan 2017 or Canada 2019 – have lived on longer than any of the happy memories – Malaysia 2015 or… (it’s actually hard to come up with something else).
Since his first season in 2015, his reputation has slowly deteriorated from a clinical world champion to a driver consumed by clumsy desperation. Things have generally spiralled downward since the winless 2016 season.
That spiral has brought us to this moment; where stories are about where he might go in 2021, instead of why he might be on the cusp of a fifth World Championship.
The incidents aren’t hard to remember, either. Azerbaijan 2017 is clearly the first one that comes to mind. Vettel’s lovetap of Lewis Hamilton cost the Ferrari driver a victory.
Incidents like these that have come to define the modern-day Vettel. Azerbaijan is certainly not an outlier.
In 2018, he crashed out of the lead of his home Grand Prix in Germany, handing Lewis Hamilton a win and the championship lead. Later in the year, he spectacularly spun in Japan after botching an overtake on Max Verstappen.
2019 was easily the most damaging year to Vettel’s reputation, and here are the examples that prove it.
In Bahrain, Vettel, after racing Hamilton, spun by himself out of turn four, causing massive flat-spots on his tyres. Later in the lap, the subsequent vibrations from his spin caused his front wing to shatter spectacularly, dropping him from third to fifth.
Later in the year, on track for his first victory of the season in Canada, Vettel misjudged turn 3 and was forced to take to the grass. He rejoined the track into the path of Lewis Hamilton and was deemed by the stewards to have rejoined dangerously. Vettel’s subsequent penalty handed Hamilton the win.
Vettel clumsily collided with Max Verstappen in Britain just moments after the Red Bull driver overtook him. While Verstappen limped home, Vettel could only muster a lowly 16th place.
Just six laps into Ferrari’s home race in Italy, Vettel spun at the Ascari chicane. When he tried to rejoin, he drove right into the path of Lance Stroll and left the Force India with nowhere to go. The pair made contact and Vettel, who finished 13th, was punished with a 10-second stop/go penalty.
As the season neared its end, Vettel and Leclerc were both relegated out of the points in Brazil when they briefly rubbed wheels and gave each other punctures, just six laps from the race’s finish.
Across just these five incidents, Vettel sacrificed a total of 46 points – that’s nearly the equivalent of throwing away two race victories.
After the incident in Italy, which has to be counted as one of Vettel’s worst moments during his Ferrari career, he was 75 per cent of the way toward a race ban.
Over the year he accumulated 9 penalty points, more than any other driver on the grid – and receiving 12 or more points within the space of 12 months results in an instant one-race ban.
Despite these indiscretions, there’s no denying that Sebastian Vettel would be considered hot property by various Formula 1 teams, given the enormous experience he brings to the table.
But, equally so, there’s absolutely nothing to suggest he cannot stay with Ferrari and the odds of this happening (in SBD’s estimation) are about 1/3, which converts to 75%. Plus, it may only be a one-year contract offer, but the report from Sky Sports Italia still shows that Vettel has the option to keep his seat.
In a recent interview with Sky Sports, Ferrari Team Principal Mattia Binotto stated his affection for Vettel – who has still managed to secure 14 victories for the Scuderia across his five seasons in red.
“Seb is a genuine and straightforward person,” Binotto said in the video interview. “He loves his job, loves really his job, and that’s one of the reasons why as well at Ferrari, we appreciate him so much.”
Vettel also recently spoke to Formula1.com about his contract for 2020 and suggested his intention was to stay. He talked about reaching a deal that both he and the team were comfortable with and he also refused to rule out the possibility of another multi-year deal.
But contrary to that, Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport reported the one year contract offer was declined by Vettel, according to F1-Insider.com.
Green Flag F1 was unable to independently verify the original source of the La Gazzetta dello Sport story. F1-Insider.com reported that Vettel described a single-year contract as “a joke”.
If Vettel stays at Ferrari, he’ll be in a position he’s unaccustomed to; not being the preferred favourite driver. Ferrari put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Charles Leclerc, who’s signed with the team until the end of 2024.
Unfortunately for Vettel, the chance of him leaving a top team such as Ferrari to lead another top team is virtually impossible – given Lewis Hamilton looks set to keep winning championships with Mercedes and Red Bull have staked their chances on Max Verstappen.
Despite Red Bull’s deal with Verstappen, which keeps him at the Austrian team until the end of 2022, Helmut Marko confirmed to respected German motoring magazine Auto Bild that Vettel had met with Red Bull management at the start of this year about a potential return to the team where he won his four World Championships.
A rough translation of the report, published in German, does not give any further insights into the meeting – but Marko, who officially works as an advisor to Red Bull, reportedly told Vettel they simply could not afford a second heavyweight driver.
A more lucrative option for Vettel could be Mercedes, given Valtteri Bottas is out of contract at the end of 2020. The Finn signed a one-year extension during 2019’s mid-season break, amid mounting speculation that he would be replaced by Esteban Ocon.
With Ocon now at Renault on a multi-year deal which Mercedes cannot buy him out of until 2022, according to reporting by Autosport – there could be a window for Vettel to approach the Silver Arrows.
But, Mercedes signing Vettel simply does not make sense. Firstly, he would, at the very least, be on equal footing as Hamilton – and Mercedes has enjoyed success in recent years because there’s been a clear distinction between Hamilton and Bottas.
Plus, Mercedes only has to peer back to 2016 to see the consequences of signing two competitive drivers – Hamilton’s pairing with Nico Rosberg was synonymous with driver squabbles and on-track collisions.
It’s hard-to-say whether Vettel would seriously consider the midfield, though.
Given regulation changes in 2022 threaten to bridge the gap to the frontrunners, signing with teams such as McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Racing Point (set to become Aston-Martin) seem more lucrative.
Other Ferrari drivers, namely Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso, and Kimi Raikkonen, all joined outfits who had not recently won Grands Prix after stints with the Scuderia.
And hey, Bernie still thinks he’s got an option at McLaren – and Vettel did concede to Formula1.com that he’s approaching the twilight of his career.
Truthfully, some of Vettel’s most revealing comments about his future and 2021 came from his exclusive interview with Motorsport.com – where he spoke about the importance of happiness.
And if that is guiding him in 2020, then his experience may be put to better to use with a team that’s not enduring a dogged season-long championship fight, but a race-by-race scrounge in hopes of a single standout result.
Vettel’s decision is likely still a few months away, however. In 2017, when he signed his last contract with the Scuderia, it was publicly announced in late August.
But, given the unpredictability of F1 so far this year, a surprise announcement wouldn’t shock anyone.
Photos in this story were provided by Scuderia Ferrari Media, Red Bull Content Pool, and Daimler Global Media Site.