This was meant to be the year. After four years of Mercedes domination — which has seen Lewis Hamilton rack up three drivers’ championships, and Nico Rosberg one — 2018 was supposed to be the year Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari took the fight to them.
It was billed by some in the media as the “fight for five”. Whoever emerged victorious between Hamilton or Vettel, they would become just the third driver in history to win five world championships.
And for a large part of this year, it looked like Sebastian Vettel could do it. He won the first two races. He led the championship at the halfway point after the British Grand Prix.
Vettel’s title collapse
Then came his unforced error at the German Grand Prix, where he crashed out of the lead by himself in wet conditions. Since then, he has taken just one victory to Hamilton’s six. Along the way, Vettel has made a litany of embarassing driver errors while in wheel-to-wheel combat.
What’s most disturbing is how similar this situation is to last year. If anything, the start of 2017 was stronger for Ferrari and Vettel than this year. Then, his season collapsed. A disastrous start to the Singapore Grand Prix prefaced a run of races so weak that Lewis Hamilton was able to seal the championship in Mexico, with two races in hand.
2018 has been a near mirror-image.
Lewis Hamilton: a deserved champion
But we can’t just focus on Vettel’s mistakes. Lewis Hamilton fully deserves to win this championship on his own merit. In stark contrast to Vettel, it is difficult to think of any mistakes Hamilton has made this year. He has driven majestically. On the occasions where he has found himself in wheel-to-wheel combat with Vettel, Hamilton has frankly made mincemeat out of the Ferrari driver.
If anyone on the grid today deserves to have five titles to his name, it is Hamilton. Now, there is talk that he might be able to reach many of Michael Schumacher’s towering records. And that’s not just bluster now. It feels like a real possibility.
Reappraising the record of Vettel
Once upon a time, I asked if Sebastian Vettel could be considered the greatest driver ever. It is impossible to contemplate that idea today. His error-prone time at Ferrari is making it seem like his critics had a point all along.
Of course, a great driver doesn’t just become bad. So analysts wonder what is going wrong with Vettel at Ferrari.
What’s gone wrong at Ferrari
I wrote last year about the poisonous atmosphere that appears to have developed at Ferrari. Under Maurizio Arrivabene, the team has adopted an overtly nasty personality.
We also must not forget that this has been a tragic year for Ferrari. They lost their well-respected leader Sergio Marchionne halfway through this season after he unexpectedly died following complications from surgery.
This is a team that faces enormous pressure from its fans and the Italian media. That is probably part of the lure for a driver. If you can win for Ferrari, you reserve a special place for yourself in the history books.
So in moving to Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel set himself the challenge he needed to help answer the aforementioned criticss. Unfortunately, it is a challenge he is failing.
When at Red Bull, Vettel was praised for being able to soak up pressure at a young age. But the pressure that comes at Ferrari is another level.
It is disturbing — and telling — that two highly promising championship campaigns have unravelled at the same time and in a similar way.
Ferrari are habitual underperformers
Not that you can always blame the drivers for Ferrari’s relative lack of success in recent years. Ferrari is a team that habitually underperforms.
The nature of many of Sebastian Vettel’s spins has caused some observers to wonder if there are issues with his car.
It is said that the Ferrari performs poorly in the wet. This may explain his crash in Germany.
Vettel himself has suggested that an aerodynamic “hole” caused by running on the inside of another car. This would explain some of his weird spins in wheel-to-wheel combat.
What Alonso got right about Ferrari
When Fernando Alonso was in the final stages of his Ferrari career, he remarked:
I would rather be tenth ten times and once champion, than to always finish second.
For once, this wasn’t Alonsospeak. This was an astute observation about Ferrari.
It’s true that other teams blow hot and cold, while Ferrari are always near the front. But they are rarely at the front.
Ferrari’s title drought now extends beyond a decade. This despite having some of the era’s best drivers, and a variety of different managers each taking different approaches.
If Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel can’t win championships for Ferrari, you have to wonder who can.