When the Formula 1 season took its summer break in early August, everybody was roughly in agreement about what they hoped to see when the sport resumed with the Belgian Grand Prix on September 1st. The dominance of Mercedes, and Lewis Hamilton, in particular, had been absolute during the first half of the season. Historically, almost no team or driver has been able to maintain such a level of dominance over a full race calendar. One of the other large teams would surely rise up to give Hamilton and Bottas more of a challenge in the season’s second half, and we were all looking forward to seeing it happen.
There are only two teams capable of keeping up with the Mercedes cars and challenging them on the track; Red Bull, and Ferrari. During the final few races of the season’s first half, it looked like Red Bull were the more likely to provide the challenge. Max Verstappen had begun to pick up race wins, and the team took the bold (if brutal) decision to relegate the underperforming Pierre Gasly and replace him with the seemingly more-promising Alex Albon. Gasly is still struggling to come to terms with that decision, but it was a statement of intent.
Ferrari, by contrast, appeared to be heading backward. A series of strategy errors had hampered them throughout the season, and although their car had greater straight-line speed than the Mercedes, the greater downforce of the silver arrows meant that Hamilton and Bottas simply had too much pace and grip on corners for Vettel and Leclerc to keep up. Much to everyone’s surprise, though, it’s Ferrari who has stepped up to the plate in terms of challenging Mercedes, and attempting to prevent the championship race from turning into a foregone conclusion long before the season reaches its end. Even more surprisingly, it’s the young Frenchman who’s making all the difference.
When Charles Leclerc joined Ferrari from Sauber for the 2019 season, the relationship between himself and Vettel was talked about as one of master and student. The German is a four-time world champion, and before the season started hopes were high that he would finally do the job Ferrari hired him for – bringing the Tifosi a world championship to end their long trophy drought. Leclerc was supposed to support him in that endeavor, and learn everything he could from a legend of the sport at the same time. This relationship was confirmed when Leclerc was ordered to allow a marginally quicker Vettel to pass him and mount an assault on Lewis Hamilton at the Chinese Grand Prix in April. Things are very different now.
Last year, mistakes began to appear in Vettel’s driving in a way they’d never appeared before. The previously level-headed driver seemed to crack every time he was put under pressure by Lewis Hamilton, memorably crashing into the wall during his home Grand Prix in Germany and handing the win to his rival. At the time, Vettel was given the benefit of the doubt. His achievements spoke for themselves, and every driver is allowed a period of poor form.
Unfortunately for Vettel, the period of poor form hasn’t gone away, and there are now fears that his skills as a top-level Formula 1 driver are in decline. His list of mistakes is becoming extensive, and at the same time, more dangerous. Another bad error saw him come off the track at Monza, Ferrari’s home Grand Prix, earlier this month. He compounded the error by trying to re-enter the track without assessing the position of other cars, and immediately collided with Lance Stroll. For Vettel, the race was a disaster. For his teammate Leclerc, things couldn’t have gone any better. Leclerc recorded his second straight race victory, and passed Vettel in the championship leaderboard. Vettel, without a race win in 2019, is now behind Leclerc in the standings, and seemingly in second place in the eyes of the team, too. At the Belgian Grand Prix, the Chinese scenario was reversed, as Vettel was ordered to get out of Leclerc’s way and let him through. The Frenchman is now the man who the team believes presents the bigger threat.
The issue with Vettel’s diminished standing with Ferrari is that he isn’t paid like a second-placed driver. Vettel has a salary fitting of a championship contender, and it’s unlikely that Ferrari will spend much longer paying such a high price to gamble on Vettel rediscovering his form. Vettel’s red car spins around as much as the red car which appears on as a symbol on the reels of the racing-themed mobile slots game ‘Good To Go,’ but that’s where the gambling comparisons should end. Every good mobile slots player instinctively knows when a game has given out its maximum return for a session of play, and therefore when to stop putting money into it. It’s quite likely that someone senior at Ferrari might be thinking like they’re playing one of those mobile slots games on online casinos or their sister sites right now. It might be the case that the sport has already seen the best of Vettel. The four world championships he’s already won are as much as he’s going to ‘pay out.’ Any more money spent on him might turn out to be a wasted bet.
If Vettel is nearing the end of his top-level career, it feels too soon. At 32, Vettel is two years younger than Lewis Hamilton, who only appears to grow stronger with each passing year. If Hamilton wins the World Championship again this year, it will be his sixth. Five of those championships have been won since Vettel last brought the trophy home, at which time he was driving for Red Bull. There should be no physical reason for Vettel’s performances deteriorating. It’s far more likely that he’s suffering from a crisis of confidence – but he sadly may be running out of time to prove to Ferrari that he’s capable of getting over it.
Regardless of how Vettel or his fans feel about it, one fact remains inescapably true; every time Charles Leclerc wins a race, Vettel is pushed once step closer to the Ferrari exit door. If he finishes the season behind Leclerc, it wouldn’t even be a surprise to see him gone before the 2020 season begins.