Sebastian Vettel 'showing F1 title-winning talent' at Aston Martin


Sebastian Vettel and Aston Martin could well be a winning combination in Formula 1, writes Adam Cooper. But both face a steep learning process first

Sebastian Vettel in Aston Martin race suit

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

A year ago the idea of Sebastian Vettel starting an F1 race in a green Aston Martin would have sounded far-fetched, and yet that combination will be one of the main focal points come the Bahrain GP.

Much like the equally unexpected pairing of Fernando Alonso and Alpine, the fascination will be in watching a former World Champion demonstrating that he can still get the job done behind the wheel, while also serving as a key player off the track at the heart of an ambitious, title-chasing project.

For both men there’s a learning process to be undertaken, and much to absorb, before they can truly perform at their best.

Vettel is clearly relishing his new role. Away from the Maranello pressure cooker he’s in an environment where everyone wants him to be there and appreciates his input. His decision to join the project, at the personal behest of Aston owner Lawrence Stroll, is vindication for all the folk who worked through the difficult times at Force India and the transition into Racing Point.

“The car wants to be driven differently. It takes a bit of getting used to”

“He’s settling in well with the team,” team principal Otmar Szafnauer noted in Bahrain last weekend. “His feedback is very detailed, and very precise.

“He’s got a great work ethic, and he pursues every single little bit of performance that we can go after. It’s evident why he’s won all those races and championships.”

A couple of frustrating seasons at Ferrari alongside Charles Leclerc, and a few too many mistakes, have somewhat tarnished Vettel’s reputation. However he remains one of the greats of the modern era, a four-times World Champion with 53 Grand Prix wins to his name.

He also knows how to create a winning package, having been a key ingredient when Red Bull first hit its stride in 2009.

Nevertheless it’s easy to underestimate the challenge of changing teams, even for an experienced driver who has done it a couple of times already. Current F1 cars are so complex, and team structures so big, that there is much to adapt to.

Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin testing

Vettel gets to grips with his new car in testing


“It’s just getting to know the people,” Vettel said after his running in Bahrain concluded.

“That’s one thing, just to understand what they mean. There are lots of different things to talk about the car. The steering feels different, because it’s a different unit. Every power steering [system] is set up slightly differently, and gives you a different impression.

“Ultimately when you drive you have the wheel in your hands, and that’s the feedback you get.

“The car has a different philosophy. It’s a different team, it’s a different car, so it drives a bit differently, wants to be driven differently. It’s a different power unit, same thing here.

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“So without going into detail, because I don’t think it’s fair to compare in public, naturally these things are different, and take a bit of getting used to.

“It’s a different environment inside the car as well, just in terms of comfort. Pedals are feeling a bit different, the seat is a little bit different. It’s just small stuff, but it’s the amount of all those small things put together.”

For all the drivers who have landed in new homes in 2021 the process of adapting has been particularly difficult. Testing has been restricted to just three days per team, split between two drivers. One and a half days each, plus a bit of filming day running on unrepresentative demo tyres, is not a lot.

Various technical glitches at Aston in Bahrain didn’t help, and ultimately Vettel ran only 117 laps – fewer than any race driver, and less than half the total of Pierre Gasly, who topped the list on 237.

As a comparison when he first went to Ferrari in 2015 Vettel completed 602 laps over six days at Jerez and Barcelona. That running was spread over a month, and thus he had plenty of time to debrief and gather his thoughts along the way.

“I would have liked to just get more mileage, that’s the main thing,” he admitted last weekend. “I tried to make use of the track time, which I felt I did. It was very good for me, and I learned a lot of things.

“So now it’s obviously [important] to remember all these things and give feedback and remember going forward. This is really the key.

“Overall, it’s probably 100 laps that I’m short, and probably something similar for Lance [Stroll]. We both didn’t get what we wanted. But it’s not a big deal, it’s what it is, and we’ve got to move on.”

Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll testing for Aston Martin in 2021

The master and the faster one? Stroll’s experience could make him quicker in qualifying

Grand Prix Photo

Vettel insists that he’s not overly concerned about the relative lack of preparation heading into the first race.

“I’m not too preoccupied, maybe it’s the age, maybe it’s the experience. Probably 10 years ago I would finally panic now. But then again, if I were to panic now, would it help?

“Probably not. So we’re just trying to do our things and use the time we have. We still got some running.

“It could be better, but it could be worse. So I think it’s about remaining calm, doing one thing at a time, and moving forward when it’s time to.

“Our sport is quite difficult to practice, we need to be in the car, we need to run. You can do the simulator all winter long, but it’s not the same.

“So if anybody steps out of the car and says that after one and a half days he is up to the speed that he was after 17 races in 20 weeks last year, I think that’s not possible. It will naturally take a little bit of time to get up to speed.”

Of course, quality is as important as quantity, and drivers can learn more trying different set-ups, fuel loads and tyres in shorter stints rather than just droning round.

However, one thing Vettel didn’t manage in Bahrain was a proper qualifying simulation, so that’s something he’ll have to work on come the race weekend.

“To be honest, more important than one lap is to really understand the car. And for that I think just doing more and more laps helps. Doing a push lap is just putting the things together, all the lessons that you learn or acquire.

“A car can feel fantastic, but if it’s too slow, it’s painful!”

“So I’m not worried about that. It’s obviously a box that we haven’t ticked, but I’m sure that come the race weekend, and at the latest qualifying, we’ll see.

“The first race is the first race, and if it happens the way it’s planned, then there’s another 22 to come after that. So there’s plenty of time, and it will be a busy year.

“And it’s not just us, and it’s not just the lack of laps here, everybody in the first couple of races will have to learn about the cars and tyres more and more. Naturally, you are at a different stage when you approach the end or the middle of the season rather than the beginning.”

So what are Vettel’s prospects for this season? One intriguing aspect will be how he fares against his new team-mate. Still fighting the rich kid image, Lance Stroll is heading into his fifth season in F1, and third with his father’s team.

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He’s much better than many observers give him credit for, as his pole in Turkey last year indicated. Part of Vettel’s role is to not only provide a benchmark for Stroll, but also to help further his education. Don’t be surprised if the younger man has an edge in qualifying in the early races.

Aston’s true potential was hidden in Bahrain by the lack of mileage that prevented either driver from recording a representative headline time – indeed the green car’s best lap was ninth overall, ahead of only Haas.

The team has further honed the overall aero concept that it borrowed from Mercedes last year, and upgraded to the works team’s 2020 gearbox and rear suspension elements. On paper the package should be up there, challenging for podiums on a more regular basis than last year.

“It will be difficult to filter all the impressions,” said Vettel. “Because the cars are different, the tyres have changed, and I’m sure lots of the experiences I’ve made, other people have made as well. That’s where it’s all relative.

“For performance, as far as what I’ve seen, it looks to be very close. That would be good if it’s like that. Red Bull looks very strong, Mercedes, everything [but] them being at the top would be a surprise to everyone, but it looks like all the midfield has caught up.

“Then again, it depends then on how the car feels. The car feels fine, but like I said, it’s relative. A car can feel fantastic, but if it’s too slow, it’s painful! And if it feels horrible and it’s faster than everyone else, we accept it. We’ll find out more when we get more races.”