A tale mired in dishonest optimism — Vettel and the Scuderia Ferrari

By Lewis Wells

A collective sense of shock, disbelief and an insight into the unpredictability the sport can deliver. Among other things, the announcement this morning that Sebastian would leave Ferrari after effectively a near 6 years affiliation sent as many shockwaves as did Nico Rosberg’s retirement some years ago.

Yet he’s not leaving Ferrari, he’s leaving Maranello. He’s leaving a community, a philosophy, a unique stigmatising and personal treatment. As fans of the sport already know, the difference in terminology, association, debate — is profound. We’re not dealing with Robert Kubica, an experienced professional’s departure from an established professional team, Williams, as we had last year, but a firm end to a colossal era, Ferrari’s most recent era in the most emphatic and decisive manner. I’m going to talk through Sebastian’s red career — Sebastian’s, not Vettel’s, for the former greater personifies a great man and an excellent driver worth all our respect, to detail his journey through Formula One’s most definitive and prolific team.

“It was pure sense that Vettel wondered over to Ferrari near the end of his Red Bull tenure.”

It was not that long ago where Vettel became a household name for his consistent dominance, his ‘consistent consistency’, his sportsmanship and overwhelming capacity for performing above-par when all the cards were in play. No end to 4 years of dominance and securing both world championships for you and your team can dissuade the influence of a luring Ferrari marque. Many would consider Ferrari the team with which to at least end your career, but for many, it would be the team you would wish your career to be most decisive, beckoning the most success & fame. It was pure sense that Vettel wondered over to Ferrari near the end of his Red Bull tenure. He was on a high — his standing was above that of former successful champions, for he was young, at his peak, yet evidently having played a part in only one team for his entire career thus far.

The Alonso-Ferrari era was concluding. Many regard the state of Ferrari at the end of 2014 as damaged precisely because of Alonso. Alonso is well-regarded as one of the sport’s greats in spite of his troublesome demeanor and capacity for ill-fated managerial decision making. That Formula One is more than being fast and driving hard, Alonso was a prime example. His manipulation of the team in restricting teammate ability and his public criticism led to his welcome departure from the team. His commenting that Ferrari are not in a position to deliver him a title will always stick with me, as it will many of the sport’s fans and followers, that Alonso’s impatience prevented a title as much as Ferrari’s managerial faux pas did. Vettel presented an alternative. A fresh start, a happier, smilier appeal. Disputes were limited to team-mates, on the contrary to Alonso’s strategic, media and personnel criticisms in such a vocal and public manner.

“Where the expectation is below that of Ferrari’s philosophy — winning — the pressure manifests itself not at the drivers but at the sporting governance.”

Ferrari are often spotlighted for their politics as concerns the management of their drivers. Too often one forgets that with the biggest name and team in the sport comes the biggest drivers with the most power, influence and strength. Kimi Räikkönen was recruited on a second-driver basis. He would support Alonso. That then became the case with Vettel, as Kimi’s 1-year contract was extended several more years with the same obligations as did his contract beside Alonso. That Ferrari were confident Vettel would outperform Kimi and mould the team into his own, they were clearly.

He entered 2015 with a receptive attitude to the team and emerged successful on that basis. His embrace of the Italian language, waiting behind with his mechanics long after grands prix sessions, his extensive efforts with non-driving activities most representative of a profound intension of a partnership emblematic of his ‘boyhood idol’ Micheal Schumacher. Ferrari being a family, not just a team, his efforts were from the outset well received. With his team playing underdog in the second season led by Mercedes, his wins were chance, on individual merit, unexpected. Where the expectation is below that of Ferrari’s philosophy — winning — the pressure manifests itself not at the drivers but at the sporting governance. In this sense, right until Vettel became an expected title contender, an expected winner, he felt no pressure — merely amplified support as he succeeded where others may not have.

“That Ferrari were confident Vettel would outperform Kimi and mould the team into his own, they were clearly.”

Those podiums, surprise Singaporean success, courteous treatments of his unique partner Kimi, all building blocks into securing what he felt were the necessary steps for ample status, respect and trust in what will always be the most unprecedented team in the sport. In 2016, a year in which he expected more, the team resulted less. Mechanical failure, a lack of structure, a faultering Kimi.. all were conducive as part of Marchionne’s light-hearted rebuke of Vettel later on that year. That he just needs to drive, be the driver, not the mechanic, not the engineer. They were their roles and not his. With Vettel’s calibre being high, the woes of the team not at his doorstep, the pressure swifting through executive control, this was a mere reminder of who really controls the team, even when they aren’t doing that well, anyway.

2017 a fresh start, yet again. At this stage, an exuberance amounted from the Australian Grand Prix, always an enjoyable and fairly low pressure opportunity in demonstrating competence. Many argued that Mercedes’s faux pas cost them the race, others that Iñaki Rueda’s seizing of the chance gave Ferrari a win. That Ferrari’s Head of Strategy played as equal a part in the win as Vettel did emblematic of a restored trackside strength — that Vettel can only be bolstered up, not let down.

“But it is hard to admit, that 2018 if not 2017 were clear opportunities for the vehicle, if not the leadership from the garage.”

Maurizio Arrivabene and Sebastian enjoyed their professional relationship. With a background in marketing & advertising, Maurizio would have understood the comparative significance of £40m Sebastian over £20m Kimi, were the number of titles and sizable differing media coverage not influential in their own respective ways. That Sebastian was the key player in the team’s revival was fundamentally aware to Maurizio and this personal familiarity and father-son relationship a key pillar in Sebastian’s continued faith. At this stage, Ferrari’s long established engineer Mattio Binotto, appointed Chief Technical Officer, would ‘order’ his team to design a car capable of victory.

A set of mechanical failures and strategic errors were on equal footing with Vettel’s own mistakes across the year, costing him a first world title in red. Singapore stands out profoundly. With the awareness that supreme performance was now an expectation, not merely a hope, left Vettel little excuse in delivering exactly what was being asked. He led the grand prix from pole, no surprise given his textbook analysis of race tracks and systematic execution of single lap performance with qualifying a real strength. His mare came in his over-defensive positioning before the first corner. That he was worried about P2 Max and P3 Kimi was evident: he was less concerned of finishing anywhere than finishing first. Naturally, a real racer. But strategically wise? I will never forget this suicidal double Ferrari retirement, that Vettel could have mitigated his poor start and subsequent last-dash attempt at holding P1. You should never surrender yet never cost yourself a chance at redeeming that place later on in the race.

“The gesture of a ‘mental health coach’ less meaningful when your organisation is mired with clouded competitive judgment and an unrivalled lobby for controversial behaviour.”

Sadly, this became an eventual turning point in which was more a reflection on Vettel’s approach and feeling in red than on any position in whichever title race. Yet with cheap spark plug failure in Malaysia, his sense of personal responsibility never amounted to the level it should have. His woes were as costly and neglecting as those of the team — an equal sense of responsiblity. Falling back to Baku, his feeling of pressure manifesting itself into anger, a symptom of the power and superiority that driving the most important car in the sport can provide you. A sense that Sebastian had more opportunities, another year, if not many more, clouded the sense that this troubling behaviour had become a new precedent — if not a sense of what was yet to come.

This precise attitude conveyed over into 2018 — his primary opportunity for the title. Midway through the season, it became another task of working out how Vettel can ‘still’ win the title. The data, numbers, finishing places. He had long established a reputation for avoidable wheel-to-wheel contact — a decreased ability for racecraft when coupled with a unique new feeling of pressure.

“That the largest individual in the organisation you joined chose a young driver for a dying wish — surely you could not still have faith that your time was yet to come.”

His French Grand Prix ruined from the first corner. That ill-fated German Grand Prix accident — to date perhaps the most perplexing and yet honest image that is conjured when discussing Vettel’s red woes. That you can obliterate your race-leading, championship-leading and stragetic-favouring position with a quick mistake perhaps connotes the Vettel drama, if not also the near-miss title chances of Alonso and Massa with the Scuderia Ferrari. That a team comes so close yet so far. Many will blame the team for what has become a successive sense of near-misses and mismanagement of talent. But it is hard, to admit, that 2018 if not 2017 were clear opportunities for the vehicle, if not the leadership from the garage.

A frequent change in haircut, the riding of a bike to grands prix sessions, the receptive attitude to perhaps a few more inquisitive interviews than ample. The outward appearance of confidence and comfort — that Vettel was deep down content with what were effectively the warnings issued to him before his red time. You could not have had a more passive and submissive team-mate. The body language provided from leading interviews where Kimi was beside him, the ease of team orders, the strategic cards presented where they were welcome. To lose Kimi would have hurt. Not only did they enjoy a relationship where Sebastian felt in reasonable control — he could no longer confirm that his presence in the team was favoured or prioritized.

“Sebastian’s red tale was mired in dishonest optimism, a sense that a continued streak of similar performance would cause no harm nor structural change.”

Losing his President, a man that had congratulated and complemented Sebastian on a regular basis. That had visited the team most often at the race-track (sometimes to their unfortunate demise in performance). A sense of losing the mould that had been formed with Sebastian indicative of change. Otherwise, where else lay Sebastian’s confidence and faith in the team? In the brand en bloc? Philosophically, yes. In reality, probably not.

Another loss was losing Maurizio. To lose your number one asset, supporter, enabler — is surely suggestive that times are changing. No longer could he invest in the support of an individual unexperienced in racing management, racing or even engineering himself, yet for him, just someone on his side. His replacement a calm, unsensationalist logician with less public display of emotion and a greater likelihood for equal preference and more distant relationships with his effective employees. This led many to the conjuring of stories that explained Sebastian’s demise. That Ferrari were less cuddly than Red Bull — that he was being less favoured, less appreciated and less supported. The gesture of a ‘mental health coach’ less meaningful when your organisation is mired with clouded competitive judgment and an unrivalled lobby for controversial behaviour.

That the largest individual in the organisation you joined chose a young driver for a dying wish — surely you could not still have faith that your time was yet to come. For Sebastian, with 2019 a textbook repeat of 2014, the time was ripe to emerge a discussion on his future. You have a world champion, whose president, team-mate, team principal, mechanics and centralised media coverage have departed from beside him. The structural damage to Sebastian’s being at Ferrari evident and perhaps consequential of the various performance faux pas leading up to an eventual breath of reality. You cannot help but feel sorry.

Ferrari is not Mercedes. Ferrari have been in the sport since Day 1, and will likely continue for much longer. Their inability to exit the sport, prepare a championship bid and re-enter may lie as their strategic incapacity. Yet you can bet on their being formidable, year on year, decade by decade. You can never guarantee a title bid, yet you can guarantee a shot at it. The only team that waves flags (those currently winning) at the podium, whom display their personnel’s names on their clothing in professional arrangement, that consist of a workforce organized in a language other than English. With a media that originates out of the United Kingdom, with a fanbase spanning worldwide. To play a part in this tale is afforded only to the best drivers in the world, among which Vettel has demonstrated that he at least has been. So long as he remains dishonest, that his absence of one or two titles remains as much the team’s fault as his own, he will have no regrets. That a change in his approach would not render any former performance increase, his own potential viewpoint.

But it would not reflect upon the many tifosi spouting #VettelOut and the newspapers worldwide biding on his time. Sebastian’s red tale was mired in dishonest optimism, a sense that a continued streak of similar performance would cause no harm nor structural change. That his enthusiasm in both welcome and unwelcome sections in spite of changing reality would cause him no punishment. That a perspicacious approach to interviews and disputes would avoid the cold truth of his actions. To be optimistic when dishonest. This was not an Alonso repeat — Seb lost his temper never, controlled his team never, restricted the intentions of an extremely powerful marque never. This was not a Kimi repeat — he could not ignore the marque and simply race his best, avoiding the pressure, to seize whichever title was available. This was a Vettel era. A team that took 6 years to restructure — as Binotto affirms early in 2019.. a number of years too late? That Formula One has received young drivers open-armed — a sign of a changing environment that Vettel simply wound up within? It would be apologetic to conclude that Ferrari has ‘broken’ Sebastian. But with the changes to the team perhaps as a result of his actions, had Sebastian indirectly ‘broken’ Ferrari? Is that a fair verdict? Or was the team undergoing change? Is this yet another relationship plagued from the very start, with the team wholly at fault? In several years, Leclerc may win the world championship and Vettel’s plight may go ignored. All in all, it is fair to assess that Ferrari find themselves revived and formidable, once again. They may have just needed a Sebastian Vettel to make this possible.

Lewis Wells is the Editor-at-Large for Formula Fact Check, an independent fan-centric initiative to verify F1 news.

Twitter: @FormFactCheck

Write to us at formulafactcheck@gmail.com

“Idiosyncratic” and “Erratic”. Anglo-Irish student studying German, Spanish & Russian. Barista, Runner and amateur writer.