Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel are clearly just seeing out the terms of their contract. Any idea of a partnership has been irretrievably lost, as was made crystal clear when Vettel let rip over the radio during Silverstone’s 70th Anniversary Grand Prix – and afterwards when asked about it. After being pitted on the 22nd lap, Vettel was dismayed to find he’d exited behind the much slower cars of Daniil Kvyat and Kimi Räikkönen. “That’s in the gap we didn’t like,” he called in. “We spoke about it this morning. I’ll hang in there but you know you’ve messed up.”
A week earlier on the slow-down lap of the British race Mattia Binotto came onto his drivers’ radios, taking the chance to send a message to the world along the lines of ‘we’re building for a better future’. Charles Leclerc responded enthusiastically, thanked the team, and generally made agreeable noises. From Vettel there was stony silence.
Since being told by Binotto there was no place for him at Ferrari next year, without even a negotiation, Vettel has been obviously angered. He was not going to play along with the story that they’d not been able to reach an agreement. At the first opportunity he told the world the reality, not sparing Ferrari’s blushes and obliging Binotto to have to make an awkward, contorted explanation.
Vettel has always been a driving force in the operation of his car at races. He doesn’t simply leave it to the team and do as instructed, but questions and, if he feels it necessary, commands. Such are the sometimes shaky operational aspects of the team, he has felt it necessary to get involved in this way, whether that be the timing of his runs in qualifying, tyre choices, pit strategies – or even (in Spa last year) the way the car was being moved across the pit apron. It wasn’t like this at Red Bull.
In Hungary, a week before the British Grand Prix, he’d rescued his race by over-ruling the team’s choice of tyre at the stops. “Softs?” he’d queried. “Mediums, don’t you think? With the graining.” They acquiesced and he drove a strong race to sixth. Leclerc just followed instructions, ran with the soft, it grained horribly and he finished outside the points.
But at the 70th Anniversary race, from the cockpit Vettel had no way of seeing the bigger picture of where the gaps in traffic were going to be. So, having pre-warned his team of avoiding that particular hazard, he was dismayed to find they’d done it regardless.
“Even by the standards of Ferrari history, this breakdown is elemental”
But there was a yet bigger picture – and one he was probably keenly aware of. Leclerc, having stopped four laps earlier, was now behind Vettel but catching. One more lap and Vettel was going to be in Leclerc’s way, delaying him in his efforts at keeping the Racing Points within reach. Vettel wasn’t Ferrari’s main hope in this race, especially after he’d spun to the back at the first corner. He needed another three laps to clear the Kvyat/ Räikkönen blockage, but that was a luxury Ferrari decided it couldn’t afford. Rather than ask him to move aside, knowing how emotionally loaded that request would be and probably inwardly wincing at Vettel’s imagined public response, Ferrari just pitted him instead, compromising his race yet-further. Which, as we saw, only made his public radio response even more confrontational. As with revealing the non-discussions, Vettel’s public transparency makes things sticky for Binotto.
It wasn’t just a spontaneous outburst from Vettel. He was still raging later when asked about it. “We spoke this morning saying there’s no point pitting knowing we’ll run into traffic. That’s exactly what we did. We went also on a hard tyre which we then had on only for 10 laps. It didn’t make sense. Why put on the hards for 10 laps and the mediums for 20 laps? I was running out of tyres towards the end. Not the best work we all could have done today.”
But he had at least included himself in that. His performances at both Silverstone events lagged far behind Leclerc’s, who was simply outstanding in conjuring a third and fourth place from a car so far off the pace. “My confidence level is quite low at the moment,” Vettel had said at the British GP, “because I’m struggling to get a feel for the car and every time I try and push, I lose the car.” Mix that with his clear distrust of the team, and it’s not a happy situation. When asked if his car was different to Leclerc’s, his long pause said it all. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “Something’s there that I’m missing. I’m not sure what it is.”
It’s tempting to believe that Vettel is just too ‘normal’, without that inner arrogance of Alonso or Hamilton and so does not default to ‘whatever the problem is, it isn’t me’. Then he tries to adopt that attitude, but as a construct, not a visceral reaction. Knowing him a little, I do think that’s what’s going on. He gets into confidence crises. Then when it goes well his confidence soars. Emotionally he is as ‘peaky’ as his driving style. When that car imbalance appears it doesn’t just hurt his physical ability, it threatens the vulnerable core that doesn’t have the protective casing of arrogance. This confidence crisis is a recognised part of all sports, but such factors tend to get smothered in the man-machine pairing of motor racing.
The dynamic of a team notoriously sensitive to public perception with a disgruntled and clearly troubled driver is not a healthy one. Even by the standards of Ferrari history, this breakdown with its former talisman is elemental. It would be no surprise if the relationship didn’t even survive the season.