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Vettel's stars aligning as chance to match Schumacher beckons

Vettel's stars aligning as chance to match Schumacher beckons

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Vettel's stars aligning as chance to match Schumacher beckons

Vettel's stars aligning as chance to match Schumacher beckons

Whisper it in the hills of Maranello, but the facts just can't be ignored. It's been over 10 years since Ferrari last won a title in Formula 1. While the past two seasons have seen that trend come tantalisingly close to ending, the facts continue to go against the Scuderia. Mercedes have dominated since the start of the V6 Hybrid era, despite the promise Sebastian Vettel showed in both 2017 and 2018.

So what have those close calls taught both Ferrari and Vettel, and what can we expect from both as the pressure for 2019 starts to build?

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR FERRARI?

In 2018, Ferrari had their most successful season since last winning a title. With six wins and pole positions, their season can only be described as a disappointment as large leads in both championships were eaten away and overtaken.

In Italy, the press turned on Vettel by blaming him for making too many errors when under pressure, while Ferrari themselves lost out in the development race with Mercedes, with the period after the summer break particularly key.

In fact, the season can be divided into roughly two halves. Vettel and Ferrari had the upper hand for the first 10 races, only for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes to capitalise on errors and a lack of direction to eventually triumph. In fact, Vettel was outscored by four other drivers in the last 10 races, losing a massive amount of ground and not being able to recover.

Vettel simply made too many mistakes. In Germany he crashed when leading in the final stages on a damp track, handing a 1-2 to Mercedes with 16 laps to go. In Italy, on Ferrari's home ground, Vettel and Hamilton collided with the Ferrari coming off worse and limping home to fourth, and Mercedes again going on to win.

Then there was Japan, where a poor qualifying lined Vettel up in ninth, and a fast start to fourth was almost immediately undone through colliding with Max Verstappen and spinning to the back of the field.

These key moments contributed to Vettel losing the championship lead and watching as Hamilton disappeared into the distance.

Ferrari also struggled to match the development of Mercedes as the season wore on. The latter managed to improve their car quickly, while at Maranello, their updates didn't work as well as they hoped and valuable time was lost trying to understand their issues.

HOW MUCH PRESSURE IS VETTEL UNDER?

Vettel's dream of becoming a world champion with Ferrari, emulating his hero Michael Schumacher, is still achievable. This is his fifth season in red, but he faces changes around him that could add more unwanted pressure, and for the first time since joining the Scuderia he has a new teammate in the highly-rated Charles Leclerc.

It's the Italian mentality to support the winners. The country is used to winning in motorsport and won't accept the excuses if you don't, no matter the circumstances.

Last season can be the case in point - many media outlets stated that Ferrari would have secured the championship with races to spare if Fernando Alonso was still with the team, such were the mistakes made by Vettel and the way Alonso is regarded by the Tifosi. It's the same with football, rugby, cycling and athletics; win and you're celebrated, lose and you're heavily scrutinised.

The parallels with Vettel and his hero are closer now than ever before. It took five seasons for Schumacher to win a title with Ferrari, and 2019 is Vettel's fifth year in red. Schumacher also won that title with a new teammate when Rubens Barrichello joined the team.

Schumacher also had to overcome criticism in his first few years at the Scuderia. The climax of the 1997 season saw a collision with rival Jacques Villeneuve that resulted in expulsion from the championship. The Italian media wanted him gone from the team for the embarrassment caused, but within a few years the team became the most dominant force in F1 history and Schumacher was a national hero.

Vettel is now facing that moment in the spotlight. Acceptance from the Tifosi as one of their own hasn't quite happened yet, despite victories for the team, and he's been on the podium at Monza three out for the last four years but never on the top step.

There's a deep-rooted apprehension of the German being a Ferrari driver, fuelled by the fact that two of his four world titles were won in deciders against their champion in waiting, Alonso. Securing a world championship will secure that adulation that's missing.

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The change in teammate could also prove to be a deciding factor for the upcoming season. Kimi Raikkonen was a friend to Vettel and a supporter of his championship bids. With Leclerc joining the rules have changed significantly; for Vettel to win he'll need to overcome this threat from inside the team as well as those from outside.

That could be the motivation needed to keep focus, and not just the driver but for the team. Raikkonen was a fast teammate but not a challenge, but with Leclerc there's a hunger to succeed that perhaps left the Finn a long time ago.

We won't know until the season starts in earnest what this change will do to the dynamic of Ferrari. Leclerc spending the first few races ahead of Vettel may ramp up the pressure to levels where we could be talking about the end of the German's Ferrari career.

HOW MUCH HAS CHANGED IN THE OFF SEASON?

There's a slight tinge of irony to Maurizio Arrivabene's statement late last year that Ferrari needed the right people in the right places. Within weeks of saying it, Arrivabene was replaced by technical chief Mattia Binotto, whose expertise at bringing the aerodynamic and engine designers together to such effect had not gone unnoticed at Maranello.

Arrivabene's background wasn't in the sport, but in a marketing capacity with Ferrari's title sponsor Philip Morris. What he lacked in racing he more than made up for in terms of people management.

His personality and motivation drew the team together after a winless season in 2016, invigorating a company after that embarrassment. Yet his removal again smacks of irony - despite having the best car for two thirds of the season, many in the paddock felt Ferrari were the worst team in terms of organisation.

After the terrible weekend in Japan, Arrivabene turned on the team in press conferences, an area he always tried to keep his cards close to his chest.

"What happened today is unacceptable," he said. "I am very angry. It is not the first time that these mistakes have occurred. I do not feel like pointing my fingers at someone in particular, but I'm very disappointed." A very public outburst did nothing but show the pressure he was feeling.

The closed environment created at first brought the team a bubble in which Ferrari staff could feel safe. However this began to become fraught and critical as last season wore on and building intensity as the challenge fell apart.

Vettel made several costly mistakes in 2018 but that he was unhappy with some team decisions, albeit behind closed doors, was clear and just how well he was being handled must be questioned.

Turning to Binotto is a shift away from this culture and towards one closer to that employed by Mercedes.

The 49-year-old has a long background with Ferrari. His first appointment was in 1995 and has held a variety of roles throughout the team. His crucial help in rescuing the development of the power unit in 2014 ensured that mistakes made at rivals Renault didn't happen. He took over as chief technical officer, the head of car design in 2016 and for the past two years Ferrari have been back in the title hunt.

Ferrari, as with any team and in a way more, is a racing team of individuals that needs direction. They have the added pressure of history to manage, but that can be a motivational tool to pull everyone together. Where Arrivabene lost the ability to coerce more success through the power of personality, Binotto, a racer more than anything else, has the knowledge to build a Scuderia that can work as a whole, rather than parts together

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