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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