Has Sebastian Vettel lost his touch, or was 2019 just a blip?
Sebastian Vettel has come under fire in the past two seasons for not being able to compete with Lewis Hamilton at the top of the sport despite having, what many people believe to be, equal or superior machinery at his disposal. Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto has said that Ferrari hope to confirm their 2021 driver lineup by the Spanish Grand Prix in May, but is it harsh on Vettel to suggest that his Ferrari career could be over?
Sebastian Vettel entered his first Formula One Grand Prix at the 2007 USA race, standing in for Robert Kubica who was recovering from a huge crash in Canada. Vettel, who was already a part of the Red Bull junior setup at the time, finished eighth in that maiden Grand Prix, scoring a point.
Red Bull wasted little time in switching the German to their junior Toro Rosso team for the final seven races of the season - Scott Speed making way for Vettel to partner Vitantonio Liuzzi.
Both Liuzzi and Vettel would only register one further points finish each in those races but, with Liuzzi scoring a point for eighth and Vettel scoring five for fourth place in China, Vettel started a streak of outscoring his teammates that would continue until the 2014 season.
The 2008 season, which included a breakthrough victory at the Italian Grand Prix, saw Vettel destroy Sébastien Bourdais and the inevitable switch to the main Red Bull team, replacing the retiring David Coulthard.
In 2009, the year of Brawn GP and the double diffuser, teammate Mark Webber pushed Vettel all the way. This was again the case in 2010 when Vettel took the first of his, to date, four world titles.
For the following three years, Vettel dominated Formula One. 2012 was a noticeably more competitive year, although Vettel managed to keep Webber a similar distance in his mirrors.
Webber retired at the end of 2013 and this marked the beginning of what can be classed as 'the fall of Vettel'.
Daniel Ricciardo replaced his fellow Australian in the Red Bull cockpit alongside Vettel and, in part due to the incredible power unit in the back of the Mercedes, results dropped.
This would have been acceptable had Vettel managed to beat Ricciardo across the year, but for the first time, Vettel failed to do so. For the first time in his career, when competing in a full season of F1, he had failed to even win a single Grand Prix.
Vettel moved to Ferrari for 2015 where he partnered Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn was arguably already past his best by this point and, as such, Vettel comfortably finished ahead of him in each of the subsequent years that they raced together.
2019 saw Charles Leclerc become Vettel's new teammate and, for the second time in Vettel's career, he had a hungry young driver alongside him. Also for the second time, Vettel was beaten by his teammate.
This brings us to the present and Vettel's seemingly precarious situation within the Ferrari team. When Ricciardo came in and began to show up the German at Red Bull, Vettel still had enough of a reputation to be able to walk into a seat at Ferrari.
Now, with mistakes having become a common feature of Vettel's races, the German has lost that. Also, at 32-years-old, Vettel is no longer the foundation that a team can build a future around.
There are also questions being raised about whether Vettel was ever as good as his record would have you believe. Mark Webber and Kimi Raikkonen are both strong drivers, but Webber was never seen as a race winner before the regulation changes catapulted Red Bull to the front and Raikkonen, as has been previously said, was well past his best when Vettel joined Ferrari.
It could quite easily be argued that, in fact, the only two times that Vettel has faced a truly competitive teammate, he has been beaten.
Referring back to the initial question, woud it be harsh to suggest that Vettel's Ferrari career could be over?
No. Not particularly. On his day, Vettel can be unbeatable but, in recent year especially, his day has not often come. Yes, Mercedes have been a class above the rest since 2014, but Ferrari have had a car capable of beating their German rivals for the past two years and a combination of operational mistakes and driver errors have prevented the Scuderia from taking advantage.
Red Bull have seemingly ruled out a return for Vettel with both Christian Horner and Helmut Marko stating that the promotion of young talent has always and will always be the focus of their outfit.
Ruling out Red Bull and Mercedes, a return to a similarly fierce relationship to one 'enjoyed' by Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg from 2014 to 2016 would not be welcome, a top drive seems unlikely.
In which case, it is possible, if not entirely probable, that Vettel could be entering into his final Formula One season.
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