When Sebastian Vettel joined Ferrari in 2015, the excitement was palpable. Many thought the Italian marque could recreate the success it had had with German great Michael Schumacher in the early 2000s.
However, it was announced on Tuesday that Vettel — seen as Schumacher’s successor — would leave the team at the end of 2020, without having won a title so far. What started with great promise, amid a yearning for a return to the glory days, has ended with a whimper — unless Vettel conjures up some magic if a shortened season is held this year.
The decision, as seismic as it is, is not entirely surprising, considering the German’s recent career arc. Vettel and Ferrari made a mess of things and cleared Lewis Hamilton’s path in 2017 and 2018, with a mix of reliability concerns and driver errors.
In 2017, after having led the standings for a large part of the season, reliability issues in two races and Vettel’s triggering of a multi-car collision in Singapore allowed Hamilton to pick up the pieces and seal the title.
There was also the brain-fade moment earlier in Baku when he deliberately drove into Hamilton to make a point and received a big penalty.
String of errors
In 2018, Vettel’s errors kept piling up: the now-infamous images of him crashing out from the lead in the German GP, the incident in France when he hit Valtteri Bottas, the mistake when battling Hamilton in Italy and the failed move in Baku. All of them proved costly.
Last year was Vettel’s nadir, with new teammate Charles Leclerc getting the better of him. The defining moment came in the Italian GP where Leclerc overcame a raging Hamilton and Bottas to help Ferrari win its first home race in nine years while Vettel spun on his own, rejoined the track dangerously and drove like a rookie. With Leclerc signing up until 2024, the centre of power at Ferrari has shifted decisively.
The contrast with Schumacher is striking. After two close title fights in four seasons, Schumacher came back strongly to win five on the bounce (2000-04). Unfortunately for Vettel, it was not to be. The lack of success at Ferrari will reinforce the narrative that he was slightly fortunate to win the four titles he did with Red Bull in dominant cars.
It remains to be seen whether the 32-year-old Vettel, a father of three, will even stay in the sport after 2020. There is a possibility that former teammate Mark Webber’s prophecy will come true.
“I think Seb will do everything early in life,” Webber had remarked in 2014. “He’s got his titles early, he’s going to have a kid early and I think he’ll retire early. He’ll probably take a blast in the red car (Ferrari), then sayonara.”