SEB VETTEL: A TRUE GREAT?
Four titles and a run of outstanding records. And yet doubts still linger about Sebastian Vettel’s F1 ‘greatness’. Surely a fifth crown in a Ferrari would confirm him as a true legend – wouldn’t it? Andrew Benson makes the case
In terms of championships and race wins, Seb’s up there with the best. So why is he so often described as simply ‘lucky’? And can he finally prove his talent this year at Ferrari?
WHAT MAKES A GREAT F1 DRIVER?
For some, it’s numbers. Michael Schumacher, with 91 wins and seven titles, is the greatest of all time, and that’s the end of it. Except it’s not, is it? According to the numbers, Schumacher was more than twice as good as Ayrton Senna, who was not as good as Alain Prost, and Damon Hill was better than Gilles Villeneuve and Stirling Moss. How many people would agree with that?
The relative greatness of F1 drivers is a fascination of a sport where the inuence of the machinery queries the statistical simplicity of, say, cricket or baseball. The numbers matter up to a point, but only as a frame on which to hang the rest of the evidence. Which brings us neatly on to Sebastian Vettel. Forty-four wins puts him behind only Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton and Prost in the all-time list. Four world titles is level with Prost and behind only Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio. The win tally looks set to go up this year – as does his title tally, judging by Ferrari’s start to the season. It would take a special churlishness to try to sustain an argument that statistics such as these do not qualify Vettel for greatness. And yet nagging questions remain; weaknesses are all too evident.
Until the end of 2013, Vettel’s career trajectory was vertical. But then came the turbo hybrid era and Daniel Ricciardo joined Red Bull. Vettel slumped in 2014, and Dan beat him in qualifying and races. As a result, Ricciardo was asked if he had ever thought what might have happened had he been promoted to the senior team sooner. “Sometimes,” Ricciardo replied. Asked to elaborate, he chuckled. “Seb was lucky,” he said.
And then came the second half of 2016, when, after 18 months of annihilating team-mate Kimi Räikkönen, suddenly Kimi was outqualifying Vettel and generally matching him overall.
So, was Ricciardo right? Was Vettel lucky? Will it take a title at Ferrari to solidify his greatness? Or is it an insult even to ask?
THE NAGGING DOUBT
THE PATTERNS OF VETTEL’S CAREER
can be traced by two simple truths: he needs a car to behave in a specic way to be able to perform at his best; if he does not get it, things can quickly head downhill.
As former F1 driver Alex Wurz puts it: “He is a sensational driver – outstanding when things are going his way – with the only drawback being that when they are not, his analytical mindset takes priority over his natural talent, which somehow seems to limit his performance.”
Even in Vettel’s dominant Red Bull era there were times when this happened. The rst few races of 2012 were a case in point: Vettel had romped to his second title the previous year, exploiting the combination of balance and downforce provided by Red Bull and Renault’s mastery of harnessing the exhaust gases for increased rear downforce. This led to a counterintuitive driving style, which dictated that rather than lift off if the rear started to slide, a driver should get on the throttle because the exhaust would provide the downforce to make it stick.
Partly because Red Bull led the way with the technology, Vettel was the rst to realise this characteristic could be exploited. The car could be deliberately provoked to rotate faster on entry, and the driver could then use the exhaust-generated downforce not only to make the rear stick when it would otherwise slide but also to come off the corner like a rocket.
The rules changed for 2012, and exploiting the exhausts in this way grew harder. In the rst few races Red Bull couldn’t make it work consistently. Airow into the diffuser was detaching in an inconsistent way – sometimes downforce was there and sometimes it was not. Without that consistency, Vettel could not rotate the rear on corner entry in the way he wanted. Team-mate Mark Webber worked out a way to drive around this characteristic and was generally more impressive in the rst part of the season. Vettel was unable to adapt, and made compromises on the setup, trying to make the car behave the way he wanted generally by stiffening the front. That made him more comfortable on turn-in, but cost too much general grip.
As the year went on, Red Bull worked on the problem. It improved over the summer, and they nailed it with an upgrade ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix. Vettel won four races in a row, overtook long-time leader Fernando Alonso in the championship and hung on to win the title despite a shaky nal race in Brazil. Webber was comparatively lost, and remained so until the end of his F1 career a year later.
All the times when Vettel has struggled in his career, the same fundamental issues have been at play. For 2014, exhaust-blown downforce was banned, and Vettel could never get that year’s Red Bull to behave in the way he wanted. The result? Generally, Ricciardo was quicker. The same happened in the second half of 2016. Development took the Ferrari in a direction Vettel did not like and he grew frustrated with it, trying to force it to do things it could not do. The result? His pace fell back towards Räikkönen’s.
In these situations, Vettel’s sunny side clouds over, and he heads into a downward spiral. His frustration and anger come to the surface. He tries too hard on track. He rants over the radio. And his desire to be involved in many aspects of the team, usually a strength, can backre.
For the engineers, these are confusing times. Because Vettel can be so exceptional, the tendency is often to assume the problem must be with the car. Consequently both driver and team can get lost, having failed to realise it is the driver who has gone a little haywire and that everyone needs to take a step back. For the team management, too, it can be tough. Vettel is not averse to throwing his weight around even when things are going well – and the same is even more true when they are not.
Tensions boiled over within Ferrari last year. The evidence was there to be heard in many radio conversations – be it Vettel correctly overruling questionable strategy calls from the team, or fuming at Max Verstappen in Mexico. It was also evident in some targeted statements from Ferrari’s management, which read very much like warnings to their driver.
Team principal Maurizio Arrivabene, talking about the fact that Vettel’s contract was up for renewal in 2017, said in October: “Each of us has goals. So it is only right that anyone, no matter who it is, earns their place and their salary. Sebastian just needs to focus on the car. He is a person who gives so much, and sometimes this means he is interested in a bit of everything – so sometimes you have to refocus him; remind him to be focused on the main job.”
Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne has said: “We know Vettel wants to win with us. Can we guarantee it? In return, he must drive with composure, be more calm, less agitated.”
TV commentator David Coulthard, whose place at Red Bull was taken by Vettel in 2009 and who remains close to the team, says: “With Seb, as with all these ‘lifers’ from the modern generation of racing drivers, there is a child-like, spoilt nature. These are people who have been racing their whole lives, so they have extended childhoods; they have gone from boys to men, from poor to extreme wealth, without doing
KEEPING THE FAITH
the university of life. If you are used to having a team of people around you telling you you’re great, and facilitating success, the moment when that success is not there, the natural reaction of a hungry competitor is to assume that the problem must be something else other than yourself. But I think once Seb calms down, he is a team player and someone who maybe acknowledges behavioural patterns that he is not proud of and things like that.”
By the end of last year, what Vettel needed was a winter away from F1 to refocus his mind, forget the frustrations of 2016 and come back at something approaching his best. So far, that looks to be exactly what has happened.
IF A CAR LACKS PREDICTABILITY
at the rear, it’s as if Vettel cannot process it effectively. He also lacks the adaptability to drive around it in the way Hamilton or Alonso would. The ip side comes if he gets the car he wants.
Wurz says: “If in the entry phase his rear reacts suddenly or inconsistently, he doesn’t seem to like that. But when the car does not have any surprises, like sudden snaps on entry, or has a very neutral balance and a stable and consistent rear end during the entry phase, he will use all four wheels to extract the most grip, all around the corner.
“Many drivers aim for this style, but only super-good drivers can do it. Seb does it to perfection. The vast majority drive to just one side of the car for grip on corner entry – mainly to the front grip, not using the rears – and, as such, limit the grip potential of the car.
“Seb uses the entry phase to evaluate the grip potential, but at the same time starts to rotate the car well before the apex. He likes to rotate the car a bit more on entry than others, when he still has enough front to end up with a perfect four-wheel slide at the apex, optimising the grip of all four wheels throughout the corner.
“You can inuence it as a driver but you need to be really on it. He can do that better than anyone else; in a well-balanced car, he gets way more than anyone else.”
That last sentence is worth reading again. Wurz is saying that, with the right car, Vettel is quicker even than Hamilton. It marries with an observation that Red Bull motorsport adviser Helmut Marko has made – that Vettel needs a particular kind of car to perform what Marko calls “his tricks”. And, if true, it forces a rethink on some of the preconceptions around Vettel.
For some, his struggles with cars he does not like prove he is not at the level of Hamilton or Alonso. Or, after 2014, Ricciardo. But the extension of Wurz’s argument is to understand that as an oversimplistic analysis of Vettel’s gift.