Perhaps Michael Schumacher made it look too easy. After the great German bent Ferrari to his will and returned six consecutive world championships for the Scuderia, the shadow of that success has loomed over Maranello. In the past decade two of the best drivers of their generation have tried to return those glory days, both have failed. Once more great expectations have fallen by the wayside. Sebastian Vettel leaves with hopes of emulating Schumacher, his childhood hero, thwarted as both team and driver failed to deliver.
Vettel joined Ferrari in 2015, taking over after double world champion Fernando Alonso had spent five years trying to return Ferrari’s first title since 2007. He left disappointed and disillusioned. Vettel’s arrival, as a four-times champion, was supposed to herald a new dawn. Initially they looked to be heading in the right direction.
Vettel won in Malaysia in only his second race for the team, and took two further victories that season. By 2017 under new regulations they were finally in a position to challenge the dominant Mercedes and started well. After winning three of the opening six races, Vettel led the championship at the summer break but there were already signs that the wheels might come off.
Perhaps most telling had been the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. In a close title fight with Lewis Hamilton, Vettel drove into his rival behind the safety car, a moment of anger because he believed Hamilton had brake-tested him. It was a crack in the facade of the cool, good-humoured driver of public perception. Nor was it the last time such frailties would be exhibited.
Vettel made an error off the line in Singapore forcing him out of the race and Ferrari compounded it with technical problems in Malaysia and Japan. Hamilton romped home with the title.
In 2018 Ferrari had the quickest car on the grid but could not convert. Eight points ahead of Hamilton after 10 races, Vettel’s home GP in Germany was a calamity. Comfortably leading, an unforced error sent him into the barriers and out of the race. Worse was to follow. He hit Hamilton and spun at Monza, crashed into Max Verstappen at Suzuka after a team error cost him in qualifying and hit Daniel Ricciardo and spun in Austin. Ferrari’s best shot in years was in tatters. Hamilton romped home with the title.
Last season the team dynamic became more complex. Up until this point Vettel had enjoyed No 1 status and a superiority over teammate Kimi Raikkonen. With the arrival of the charging talent of Charles Leclerc, Vettel maintained his No 1 status but Leclerc was clearly too good to take back seat.
A familiar pattern emerged. Vettel span out while battling Hamilton in Bahrain. The British driver then pressured him into a mistake in Canada that cost Vettel the win. He hit Verstappen at Silverstone and as Leclerc took Ferrari’s first home win at Monza since 2010, Vettel had succumbed to another unforced error and spun.
Leclerc was duly still playing the good teammate but there was obvious tension over team orders in Singapore and in Russia. They then clashed in Brazil forcing both out of the race. Hamilton, of course, had already romped home with the title.
Leclerc’s success however was impossible to ignore. He beat Vettel across the board in 2019, Ferrari promptly extended his contract and their team principal, Mattia Binotto, announced that there would be no No 1 driver in 2020, a pointed statement impossible for Vettel to ignore.
Vettel has insisted that money did not motivate his decision which is entirely believable. He now has three children and has made no secret of how much he enjoys his private, family life, consideration of which will surely have been sharpened during F1’s enforced absence.
Last year the former driver Johnny Herbert, who raced alongside Schumacher at Benetton in 1995, felt the errors were indicative of a driver struggling with his team. “Sebastian still has to carry Ferrari on his shoulders,” he said. “The pressure of Italy, of the team, of the media. That massive weight hasn’t allowed him to breathe. Ferrari haven’t got that balance right.”
With Leclerc the heir apparent at Ferrari perhaps that weight was beginning to feel like the Sisyphean boulder. “In order to get the best possible results in this sport, it’s vital for all parties to work in perfect harmony,” Vettel said on ending his contract.
A somewhat damning verdict on where he and Ferrari have ended up, the curtain falling on a performance where both have failed to hit the high notes.