MPH: Is a Vettel fightback on at Ferrari?


An upturn in form for Sebastian Vettel has coincided with a boost in Ferrari performance. Can he sustain it?

Sebastian Vettel in the paddock during the 2019 Russian Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel’s raging against the dying of the light has added a fascinating new twist to the season’s narrative, one of which Dylan Thomas would surely have approved.

Vettel’s behaviour and performance on race day in Sochi was a variation on that of Turkey 2010 or Multi 21 Malaysia.

The world he inhabits once the helmet is on and the gantry lights have gone out is an intense place even by the standards of an F1 driver. Emotion fuels his ferocious competitive will and completely overrides the ‘normal’, easy-going nice guy Seb.

In his Red Bull pomp, as he took the competition apart, the stubborn, unreasonable competitive animal was usually hidden beneath a sheen of success. Only occasionally would the stress of an Istanbul ‘10 or Sepang ‘13 situation peel that away to reveal the fury that drives the performance.

He is a character of extreme intensity and doesn’t always have that fully under control, as his ‘road rage’ under the Baku ‘17 safety car or his special message to Charlie Whiting Mexico ’16 confirmed.

That same vehemence was at play in Sochi but this time it wasn’t about loss of control; it was about taking control.

It looked bad for him in Spa when he was 0.7sec adrift of Leclerc’s pole time and even worse in Monza with his spin

Ferrari’s recruitment of Charles Leclerc was a gentle pulling of the rug from beneath Vettel’s feet. He’d had his window of opportunity there as the Scuderia’s contracted number one for three years and by the harsh standards of Sergio Marchionne had not fully convinced.

His next contract, signed at the end of ’17, was not as a stipulated number one, his power base not as strong as when he was first recruited.

His performance edge over Kimi Räikkönen ensured he effectively retained that number one status last year, but it was no longer a given and the replacement of Räikkönen by the young, super-fast, ambitious Leclerc was always going to mean some awkward moments.

Into the second contract, there has been an underlying sense for Vettel of feeling alone within the team.

Since taking over as team principal, Mattia Binotto has gone to great lengths to try to dissolve that feeling, demonstrating his support, including him as much as possible, while also welcoming Leclerc. But still, the momentum of the team’s affection is almost inevitably with Leclerc.

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Compounding the underlying awkwardness of the situation for Vettel has been this year’s car, the SF90. For a driver operating within such a narrow bandwidth of car traits, until recently the car has been a disaster for Vettel in that it has brought its own shortfall but also prevented him from maximising what performance was there.

He needs a car with a super-responsive front end that allows him an aggressive turn in, with a rear-end strong enough not to be upset by that.

When he gets that, he’s devastatingly fast. When he doesn’t, he can be unimpressive.

Watching the traits of the various cars on track, he’d probably love the Red Bull RB15. But the SF90, for most of the season, has had an aerodynamically weak front end and in order to balance it has run with compromised rear end grip too. The worst of both worlds for Vettel.

So what we’ve often seen, as that intense competitive will refuses to surrender, is Vettel trying to drive the car with his preferred style in qualifying but making a series of little errors as it refuses to accept the demands he’s making of it.

So it looked bad for him in Spa when he was 0.7sec adrift of Leclerc’s pole time and even worse in Monza with his early-race, unpressured spin.

Sebastian Vettel during the 2019 Russian Grand Prix

For Singapore, Ferrari improved the car significantly with a series of updates that moved the centre of aero pressure forward.

Together with its prodigious horsepower, it made for F1’s fastest car at both Singapore and Sochi. It now had a front end, and the rear needed less compromise in settings to balance the car.

Suddenly, Vettel had something he could work with. It wasn’t yet the car he’d ideally want but was a step closer. He was separated from Leclerc in qualifying at each of those tracks only by those continuing small errors of over-commitment, his more aggressive initial steering input making him vulnerable to them.

But on race days, away from the ragged edge, and just able to drive to the car, he looked absolutely fine. Good enough that he got himself into a position where he could take control of the race when circumstances put him where they did. And that’s when intense, unreasonable Seb showed himself again.

If Ferrari can continue to develop the car with a stronger front end, Vettel will finally have beneath him what he needs to do his best stuff.

Just how that might compare to the audacious gift and confidence of Leclerc would be fascinating to see. Either way, Binotto has a job on his hands.

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