Sebastian Vettel’s first race weekend with Aston Martin could hardly have gone any worse in Bahrain. He started at the back of the grid, picked up penalties for a yellow flag offence and a collision on a weekend when no other driver was punished, and eventually crossed the line in a lowly 15th place.
The German must be hoping that he’s used up all of his bad luck, and that 2021 will get better from here.
To be fair to the four-time World Champion, he was hampered badly by a lack of mileage at the recent Bahrain test, running only 117 laps over three troubled days, way fewer than any of his rivals, which we recently acknowledged. There’s no substitute for seat time when it comes to adapting to a new team, a new car, and a new power unit.
Over the course of the test and into the race weekend it also became apparent that Aston faces a serious challenge this year. Along with Mercedes it is one of only two teams that pursues a low-rake concept as opposed to the jacked-up rear perfected by Red Bull and since followed by many others.
It is now clear that the package of aero restrictions mandated by the FIA for 2021 favours the latter concept, and it’s harder for a low-rake car to claw back the lost downforce. Mercedes may have gone on to win the Bahrain race, but it took a ton of hard work since the test, and the advantage it used to have over Red Bull has gone.
Vettel thus finds himself with a less competitive package than anybody, not least himself, could have expected.
Just to make life even harder for all the drivers who have changed teams in 2021 there is now an hour less practice on Friday, with the action compressed into two one-hour sessions.
Vettel finished FP1 in 14th place, six spots behind team-mate Lance Stroll, and a place ahead of fellow veteran Fernando Alonso.
“Busy,” he said when asked how it went. “I mean, we tried to get the most out of the time that we had. So I think every lap still helps you to get used to the car, and get into a rhythm. I’m trying a lot of things. Still, I think there’s a lot to try, a lot to learn.
“I feel that there’s still a lot left on the table”
“It is what it is. We are obviously now looking into some of the stuff that we tried in the afternoon or the evening, and hopefully, it will be a bit more clear and calmer tomorrow, but I think that’s probably true for all the rest of the pack as well.
“I feel that there’s still a lot left on the table just to get used to the car, and being able to squeeze the limit. Right now it seems a bit up and down.
“Sometimes I’m really good, in other corners I’m far out. But that’s normal, but hopefully come tomorrow with more consistent running, I’m able to squeeze the limit everywhere.”
In FP3 on Saturday he was once again 14th, this time five places shy of his team-mate, but curiously once again just ahead of Alonso. It looked like both former champs were at risk of not making it through to Q2 if they didn’t get the first qualifying session right.
In the event Alonso did progress, but Vettel didn’t, as he was left stranded in 18th place. Right at the end he came across Nikita Mazepin’s spun Haas at the end of the straight, and then more yellow flags a few corners later after Carlos Sainz’sFerrari briefly came to a halt.
He looked at little shell-shocked after the session. There wasn’t much he could do about those yellows, I ventured.
“Not really,” he rued. “It was a mess in the last sector, warming up. I just made it across the flag less than a second, and then I had two yellow flags. So not much we could do at that stage.
“We are not where we want to be. And on top of that, I think I’m still learning, we are still learning. We are trying a lot of things to understand the car further, and I think it’s obviously a tough weekend now starting so far back. But it is what it is, and we go from there.
“It’s just a question of getting to know the car first, and then learning step-by-step or bit- by-bit. It felt a lot better, it’s difficult to say. It’s obviously also very close. So we will see.”
Unfortunately, the saga wasn’t over. He escaped punishment over the Sainz yellow flag, but some time after the session the stewards announced an investigation into speeding under the Mazepin flag – indeed it was so late in the evening that they scheduled the hearing for Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the race.
The verdict was a five-place grid penalty that demoted Vettel from 18th to 20th, and which put three points on his super licence. The ignominy of being the first driver penalised in 2021 was a little hard to take.
The team decided to roll the dice for the race, and leave Vettel out for a marathon opening stint. He gained a few places at the start, passing five cars. As others pitted he worked his way up to around seventh, but was then picked off by guys on newer rubber.
“There are a lot of things that we learned in the race that we need to address”
Following his stop he ran 11th for a while until he was overtaken into Turn One by Alpine’sEsteban Ocon. When the pair braked Vettel locked up and ran into the Frenchman, sending both cars spinning. On the radio he claimed that Ocon had made a late move on him, but later he accepted that he had just messed up.
Not long after that the stewards announced a 10-second penalty for causing a collision, and Seb also collected another two penalty points – thus becoming not just the first but also the second driver to be penalised in 2021.
He crossed the line in 15th, with the penalty not making any difference to the result. The only car behind him was the Haas of Mick Schumacher, who had spun early on.
0.7 seconds. That was the difference between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen at the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix after a thrilling battle that sets the 2021 season up…
He looked a little resigned when he came over to speak about his race. It must have been long old day from the back of the grid, I suggested.
“Yeah we had to try something,” he said. “So we decided to stay out longer and try the one-stop, which at some stage wasn’t looking too bad. But I think then the tyre wear was too big, and too many cars that were coming through costing me a lot of time.
“Obviously that didn’t help, but we had to try. Knowing now, we would probably try something different, because it didn’t work, but in the race at some stage it didn’t feel that bad.”
He was prepared to take responsibility for the collision: “I thought he would stay right, and then when he came back left, he was right ahead of me and I locked, so it was probably my mistake.
“I spoke with him straight away [just now], and I think we agree. So there’s not that much to talk about.”
So was it frustrating to receive two penalties in one day?
“No, but it’s been probably not the best weekend, or the weekend we were looking for,” he conceded. “But there are a lot of things that we learned in the race that we need to address.
“We will see how quickly we can fix them. I’m not at home in the car, there’s a lot of things that are fighting me, so that I can’t really focus on driving. We need to address them, and try and fix them.
“I obviously adapt to how the car wants to be driven, but there’s a lot of things that add certain inconsistencies that don’t help. So these things we need to get on top of.
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“There’s so many things going on still that break the rhythm and make it quite difficult in terms of feeling the car and feeling what I need to do to drive fast. So there’s still a lot to do.”
Despite his troubles, Vettel feels comfortable in his new home.
“Yeah, very good, I feel really good. Obviously, I’m a bit sorry for such a bad weekend, because I know how much prep goes in before the start of the season, and then the first race, etcetera.
“On the other hand, it can only go up from here. I think as I said, we learned a lot of things. It’s a lot of work ahead of us, but it’s what it is, and we have to tackle it step-by-step.
“We tried a lot with the car, with the set-up, and there’s a lot of things that still don’t work the way they should. Once we fix them, and we get on top of the set-up, and know where the car wants to be to be fast, then I think we can only get better.
“I hope we can fix a lot of it very quickly. I think a lot of the things can be addressed. Some of them on our side, some of them are not. We’ll see going forward.”
Of course Vettel isn’t just at Aston to turn the steering wheel, he’s there for the experience and the motivational push that he brings. When I asked what he could do to encourage everyone in the coming weeks he conceded that he has first to improve himself.
“It’s part of my job, but also part of my job is to drive the car and race well, which today I did not.
“Probably as I said not the start of the season that we wanted. But I think the next couple of races will be very good for us to calm things down.”