Will Hülkenberg hire heap more pressure on Sebastian Vettel? — MPH

Mark Hughes

Sebastian Vettel's all-too-frequent errors may be a sign of an F1 driver under pressure, writes Mark Hughes. And that's unlikely to be eased by Nico Hulkenberg joining Aston Martin

Sebastian Vettel locks up his tyres during the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

Aston Martin has struggled to reconcile its '21 car with the new regs


The confirmation of Nico Hülkenberg as Aston Martin’s official reserve driver might be read as simply the logical continuation of last year’s status quo after he did a fine stand-in job at Silverstone and the Nürburgring. Or it might be interpreted as a ramping up of the pressure upon Sebastian Vettel after his inauspicious first race for the team in Bahrain, where he collided with Esteban Ocon’s Alpine in a way unfortunately similar to several of his collisions over the previous couple of years. In close-quarter wheel-to-wheel situations his judgement seems to be a little fuzzy.

The Bahrain incident – which came in the wake of Ocon overtaking at the end of the pit straight – had similarities to Vettel’s incidents with Valtteri Bottas at Paul Ricard and Daniel Ricciardo at Austin, both 2018, in that he didn’t account for the aero loss these cars suffer when side-on to another car in close proximity. It’s a phenomenon Ricciardo himself has suffered from – at last year’s 70th Anniversary Grand Prix when battling Carlos Sainz – and he even referred to the result as ‘a Seb spin’.  The other similarity was to Vettel’s collision with Max Verstappen at the 2019 British Grand Prix when his braking point was too late for a car with much of its front downforce robbed by the car in front.

Valtteri Bottas spins after being hit by Sebastian Vettel at the 2018 French Grand Prix

Collision with Bottas at Paul Ricard, 2018


Sebastian Vettel spins after hitting Daniel Ricciardo at the 2018 United States Grand Prix

Spin after contact with Ricciardo in Austin, 2018

Grand Prix Photo

He’s far too experienced a driver not to be aware of these hazards, yet he’s still being repeatedly caught out by them. It’s as if the decisions to make the moves are being made in the split-second heat of emotion, after something has gone wrong. In every one of those incidents listed above, he’s either just been overtaken by a car and is trying to retaliate, or – with Bottas – has had a move frustrated by the other driver. The more the incidents have happened, the more frequently they seem to happen, as if he has got onto some sort of downward spiral in his state of mind. He’s an intensely competitive man who places enormous pressure upon himself and one wonders if this is creating some sort of boiling frustration within him which triggers the impulsive reaction when something negative happens – like being overtaken – and he tries to instantly react. Rather like his road rage reaction to Lewis Hamilton behind the safety car that time in Baku.

Sebastian Vettel crashes into Esteban Ocon at the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

Vettel’s latest error caused spin with Ocon in Bahrain


His insistence in the heat of the moment in Bahrain that Ocon had changed his line (which he clearly and very visibly had not) would seem to support this theory of the errors being driven by emotion. It’s gone on too long now for it just to be an unfortunate run. It might well be that he needs help in working through his trait, to better control the emotion in moments of stress so that better decisions are made. But it’s a tricky one because it’s in moments of stress that the hard-wired traits in people tend to come to the surface.

Related article

Vettel’s move from Ferrari to Aston Martin represented a clean slate and the expectation was that away from the strains of driving for a team which had never fully supported him, he’d be in a better state of mind and the old Seb would return. Hopefully that’s still what is going to happen and that Bahrain incident was just a hangover aberration. But if this pattern continues, you can bet that Lawrence Stroll is going to have limited patience with the four-time champion he’s paying good money for. He’s not a ‘let’s sit down and try to understand what’s going on and see how we can help you’ kinda guy. He’s paying for performance and his schedule is an ambitious one.

Vettel desperately needs a good clean run of races to steady the ship, needs both to not be burdened and chastened by his errors but to take lessons from them regardless. Which is very different from trying to blank from the memory that they ever happened in order not to feel tentative and still be quick and aggressive.

Motor racing can be an incredibly mentally challenging sport at this level and how much so only really becomes apparent when we see an unravelling like this. Physiologically at just 33 years old Vettel can still be the top driver he used to be. Whether he will be so is all in the mind – and that’s the most complex organ of all. Hulkenberg probably won’t be the one recommending to Seb any mental coaches.