“The driver must be the limit once again – which he is not now”

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Sebastian Vettel is a natural-born leader, whether it be within Ferrari or as a spokesman for the future of his sport. But can he ever add to his four world titles at F1’s most famous team?

It may seem ridiculous to say it of a four-time world champion, but it’s difficult to define where Sebastian Vettel’s career is at right now, into the second year of his Ferrari contract. Perhaps it’s unfair, but history will probably judge his entire F1 career upon how big a success he makes of his Ferrari years. A great F1 driver and multiple champion, but crossing that line into the immortals might require him returning to Maranello with the big trophy. This is
an interview from smack in the middle of this undetermined phase.   

You sense there are many opposing things pulling on him at this time; the transition from carefree young racing driver responsible only to himself to that of a family man with two kids waiting for him at home. From poster boy of the Red Bull organisation, responsible for his career since he was a kid, to recruitment into the biggest hot seat on the grid – lead driver for the Scuderia. From someone who turned up at every Grand Prix weekend expecting to win, to someone hoping against hope that he might be able to.  

He’s brilliantly well equipped for it all. But he wouldn’t be human if those strains didn’t show from time to time. Happy Seb can still be found on most Grand Prix weekends but punctuated by pensive Seb, under-the-cosh Seb, irritated Seb. Occasionally even angry Seb. It’s a huge load he’s pulling and Seb being who he is, he’s chosen to do it very differently from his predecessor there, Fernando Alonso. After a honeymoon start to the partnership in 2015 – the sunshine of three races victories contrasting with their separate stormy ’14 seasons – it’s got a lot tougher this year. The Scuderia is under-delivering, has been operationally shaky and with a car that’s still not quite good enough. Yet Vettel remains, above all, protective of the team. The situation and his personality have together cast him in the role of leader in a way he never needed to be – or maybe wasn’t even equipped to be – when he was winning world titles at Red Bull. 

It’s interesting interviewing him so shortly after doing the same with Alonso. Two differences characterise their answers: firstly, Vettel’s are very much present-orientated, make virtually no reference to the past. Secondly, they are invariably from the perspective of the team rather than himself. 

About Montréal, for example, where a possible victory was lost to Ferrari’s odd tactical call: “The strategy was criticised but I don’t think it was bad. It wasn’t like it was a massive mistake, not at all. There was plenty of reason to do it. But what beat us in the end was the fact the degradation of the tyre was not as high as we maybe predicted.”

Yes, but that’s a very charitable take on what happened there. Which is significant. Does he say stuff like this to deliberately deflect pressure from the team? “Not to be misunderstood, no. It’s more I consider myself part of the team and for me it’s a great honour to be part of this team and I see people working very hard day in, day out and really giving everything. Here and there, [the criticism] I hear is just not right. I don’t want to fall into a game where you start to respond, explain, justify. Because I don’t think we are here to justify ourselves. But I sort of sensed at some point that it just wasn’t fair to the people inside the team and obviously I have the chance to give something out and that’s what I did. I joked to an Italian journalist and said, ‘Write something nice,’ because sometimes the people in your own country can be your worst enemy. Look at the England football team – the biggest enemy there is probably the British press, ramping up the pressure. Same in Germany. I just think it’s good to shake them a bit and wake them up by saying, ‘Look you have something great here. Embrace it’.”

Unlike most past Scuderia drivers who only got a full understanding of the scale of Ferrari’s following once they arrived there (something that even applied to Michael Schumacher), Vettel understood the legend going in. Because he was a fan before he was a driver and talks fondly of the times his father took him to Hockenheim. He knows the sport’s history probably better than any other driver, is steeped in it all and wants always to know more. His racing focus does not come at the expense of the world external to his career and there are always lots of references to life outside racing with Seb, whether that’s football, history, travel, classic motorbikes, British sit-coms, music. His tastes are down-to-earth and family-orientated; he’s not got an array of supercars, doesn’t go in for the toys. He gives the impression he’s very much at ease with himself and who he is, doesn’t have the neurosis of many top performers – though he is savagely competitive beneath the genuine humility.

He’s currently going through a Bruce Springsteen phase. “Yeah, I see he’s on tour. He’s on at Leeds, I think. But I’ve looked at the dates and I can’t make it work.” He has that most blessed of things, a curious mind that operates on many levels simultaneously. The way he will sometimes work an earlier subject of a conversation into a joke much later is reminiscent of the mental sharpness and dexterity of a top comedian. But there’s also a keen emotional intelligence that is actually a core part of his success – especially at such a politically sensitive environment as Ferrari.  

“The way he makes points is so good,” says James Allison. “He doesn’t bang the table but he makes the points very clearly nonetheless. But always in a friendly way, a way that’s inclusive. He is just a dream to work with.” It’s an ongoing process; there is still much to address. 

A quadruple champion is by definition used to the limelight, but at Ferrari it’s surely a harsher light? “It’s the same,” he insists. “For me nothing has changed. Yes, the awareness of the team is different and how people sometimes seem to respond is very different but in the end it shouldn’t change a thing. So I think there’s always pressure. If you were my boss and said to me, ‘OK, now you need to deliver because last race you did a mistake.’ Maybe it’s not a nice thing to say. It may be the truth but the way to tackle it is I try my best for myself first. It sounds egotistical but that’s what I expect from myself and I’m the first to criticise myself. I never try to hold anything back and if I did a mistake I admit it. The pressure I put on myself is bigger than people can put on from the outside.

“We finished second in the constructors last year and so the natural step is to challenge the leader. I actually think the performance of the car and the gap to the leaders has been better than last year. The start of the season, with reliability and stuff has been a bit wobbly. But we have made a lot of progress. The wins we had last year gave us momentum and were an amazing achievement really because not too long before, everything had changed – a lot of the structure, a lot of people internally changing positions and that all takes time to settle. I wouldn’t say we’ve done everything yet – for sure, not. We are still on a long and steep learning curve – but I’d say we are making good progress. 

“The car is a step forward from last year. The first time Kimi and I tried it we felt the same – there was just more grip in every part of the corner, a big step up. But it’s fair to say that at times we’ve struggled to extract the best from it and from the tyres. We had a bad qualifying in Barcelona but good pace, same in Monaco. But at Monaco for example, the car was a lot better than the nine-tenths off pole we were. It just wasn’t fair that the car was that far off. I could feel it had the grip in it and I was just pushing too hard. I felt the lap time was there and maybe I was trying too much and should have tried for a lap that was maybe two or three tenths off rather than trying to steal pole position.
I think I’m sitting in the best seat to judge this sort of thing. Some of the stuff I might share with media afterwards, some of the stuff I don’t. But I share it all here [in the team] and we try to progress.”

It isn’t only within the team that his natural leadership qualities have been evident. Behind the scenes, he’s most frequently the spokesman for the drivers on a wide range of issues. He is the one who will visit Charlie Whiting, talk to Bernie Ecclestone, visit Pirelli, trying to get a full picture. The outside world caught a glimpse of angry Seb at Spa last year when his right-rear Pirelli failed, fortunately just after Eau Rouge rather than mid-corner there. He was similarly unimpressed, but tighter-lipped this time, when another exploding tyre spun him out of the lead in Austria this year at 200mph. But it’s not only that which makes him less than a total fan of the Italian tyres. He’s been one of the prime movers in pressing for a return to tyres on which drivers can push rather than driving to a delta to maximise stint lengths. Without his pressure behind the scenes on this, the FIA might not have issued its stipulation to Pirelli that the 2017 tyres should be robust enough not to permanently fry when drivers push them to the limit.     

“It’s about making the driver the limit once again – which he is not at the moment, not usually,” he says. “The biggest thing to tackle is race pace. Maybe that’s been a bit misunderstood in the past. A big part of the difference between qualifying and race is to do with having a full tank of fuel. The cars start the race very heavy compared to the early 2000s when they’d start with 50kg or less. But that’s not the problem. The tyre degradation is often huge – and that’s the problem. I hope that next year we really will be on the limit in the races – and the driver becomes the limit. I hope he has a physical challenge and a technical challenge and be on the limit. Right now, we are just not. We aren’t on holiday but if you look at a picture after the race from 10 years ago and compare to now you can see how different it is. We want it so you have to push and focus yourself every single corner of every single lap. Sometimes it can be like this. In the last stint in Canada, when Lewis and I were fighting, there was no deg and it was like this. Even though I wasn’t happy that I was no longer in the lead by that stage, I said to myself during that stint that actually this is a lot of fun. I was able to continually push, push, push. The limit was myself – and once or twice I ran wide, which didn’t help, but that’s what we want. At the moment usually we are just managing the car rather than driving it on the edge.”

Formula 1 would be brilliantly well served if Pirelli can come up with the goods with the ’17 tyres and the prospect of seeing Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso, Ricciardo, Verstappen et al pushing each other to the ragged edges is one to be savoured. Ask him how confident he is we’ll see this and his face says more than his words: a big ‘you’ve put me on the spot’ grin and a delay, then: “Erm, not sure. Depends. Depends on how good the tyres will be, how well they’ll last. How big the split will be from Saturday to Sunday,” then the slick subject change mid-sentence, “and overall if you want my opinion, power-wise, these engines are as good as I have ever experienced. I only did one single test in a V10, the rest was V8s. The sound of these is down but in terms of raw power output, it’s really good. But we must tackle the tyre deg; that’s the big one.”

Another factor in how close to that ragged edge Seb might be pushed could be how well his team-mate Kimi Räikkönen – who had his Ferrari deal extended for another year during the British Grand Prix weekend – can perform.

So far, Räikkönen has continued in the passive Ferrari number two role he occupied during his year alongside Alonso – and there’s a general perception that’s how Seb likes it. He and Kimi were friends, neighbours and table- tennis partners when Vettel was at Red Bull.

“With Kimi it’s great,” he says. “Outside the car there are no politics, no games. Here and there I’ve experienced that in my past, not just in F1. Times when someone is trying to hide something. It’s very transparent now, in this generation. It’s difficult to hide because if a team-mate doesn’t tell you which set-up he runs or changes he makes, you just look it up. So it’s just silly and takes away energy, especially when you are trying to catch up, as we are at the minute. Kimi is perfect in this.”

We can be sure that Vettel was closely consulted in the process. “It’s nice if I get asked, nice to be involved, to feel as part of the team. But then again I always try to stay out of these things as well. Equally I don’t think it would be right to look for an easy way out. I don’t think that really exists to be honest. And it would be silly. If you want to be the best, you might as well have the best driver – or second best if you’re convinced that you are the best – in your team. Equally I think if you’re not ready for that challenge, what does it feel like when you win?”

Conflicted on the matter? Or just politically adept?

Can he ever win at this team, post-Ross Brawn? Does it still have the stuff of titles within it? But if it were to happen, Vettel’s status would finally be Schumacher-like. And what would he do then? “Well first of all I’d be very happy,” he grins, “because I’d have achieved what I want to achieve. I don’t know yet. Yes, I’m getting older and when people say, ‘Oh happy to have you back for the ninth time in Montréal’ then you realise you aren’t just doing it for a year or two. I’m pretty sure you won’t see me here as often as some other drivers; that’s just not my style. I am fairly quiet and will probably settle for something quiet. I definitely still want something to do because otherwise I’d go mad. Does it have to be something to do with racing? I don’t know yet. I have a couple of things in mind, but they’re not ready to present.”

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