In 2015, Sebastian Vettel had a glorious year with a team that appeared to have been reborn from the ashes of despair. He was on the podium 13 times out of 19 races, earned the only non Mercedes pole of the season and finished on the top step three times. Until his retirement in the Mexican Grand Prix, it even looked as if he could finish in the championship standings above Rosberg.

This year is in stark contrast. Whilst he still has a fairly respectable 5 podiums in 12 races, he’s failed to finish two races, he couldn’t even start one other, he’s had three grid penalties for changing his gearbox and the Ferrari team has slipped down the World Constructor’s Championship standings behind Red Bull. Lets not forget that Kimi Raikkonen, his team mate who he comprehensively beat last year, is outscoring him. The happy go lucky driver of 2015 who cried with joy when he earned his first victory in the prancing horse is, understandably, starting to frown.

2015 raised expectations too high

When Vettel left Red Bull to join Ferrari, he knew that Ferrari were in the midst of rebuilding themselves.With four championships under his belt at then only twenty-seven years old, Sebastian Vettel could afford the luxury of being patient and help build a team and return them back to winning ways a few years down the line. No doubt hoping to recreate what his hero and mentor, Michael Schumacher, accomplished during his years with the Maranello based outfit.

In the months before the season began, Ferrari had played down expectations, explaining that they were in a phase of rebuilding and they even apologised in advance to both Ferrari drivers for the car they would drive heading into the season. If Vettel and Ferrari knew that the car was going to improve by the extent that it did, they hid it well. They were bracing themselves for a difficult season.

But when Vettel tasted the champagne at the top step in Malaysia after soundly beating both Mercedes in a fair fight in just his second race, he sensed the potential for the team to do much more. Suddenly, the rebuilding job that initially looked set to take several seasons was now looking like it was almost complete after just a short winter. The Ferrari engine was near to a match to the Mercedes and there was a raft of new development pieces scheduled to arrive for their race in Barcelona. Even when Mercedes eventually took both titles, there was a lot of optimism around Ferrari’s 2016 title challenge.

If Ferrari had a more modest improvement in 2015, and improved incrementally to their current performance today, then finishing behind one or both of the Red Bulls would sting a little less. But after last year, Vettel had got used to leaving his old team in his wake.

Ferrari is standing still

If you’re not moving forwards, you’re going backwards, a truism that is often repeated in Formula 1. Whilst other teams appear to be closing their own gap to Mercedes, Ferrari’s gap remains stubbornly stable. Meanwhile the Ferrari boss, Sergio Marchionne,  is demanding wins and is reorganising the team. He has appointed Mattia Binotto, previously head of the engine department, to replace James Allison as Technical Director and hopes to change its structure to something similar to McLaren’s. It is hard to know if this was initiated by the departure of the gifted engineer due to the untimely and tragic loss of his wife, or if Ferrari themselves decided they needed to change things around yet again. Either way, Vettel’s plans to be winning championships again may have put on ice for a season or two.

Vettel is used to winning

Vettel’s success in F1 began so early and persisted for so long that his patience with Ferrari is being tested. So far, he is still very much the team player and still seems committed to the job in hand. But this was the man that revelled in racking up the fastest laps, pole positions and wins. In the last 12 months he saw Lewis Hamilton surpass his race win and pole position tally. This year he has watched Max Verstappen steal a number of his records including youngest race winner. No F1 driver likes to lose, but Sebastian Vettel isn’t used to not winning. He has only two seasons in F1 where he has failed to win a race, his debut season in 2007 and his last season with Red Bull, in 2014. In the latter instance, he changed teams the following year.

Grounds for divorce?

Even though the situation looks dire right now, Vettel won’t be leaving in the immediate future. His current contract doesn’t expire until after 2017 and there are still good reasons to be optimistic for next season. Ferrari’s engine is excellent whereas their chassis tends to be their weak point. And whilst the engine regulations remain the same, the rules on aerodynamics are set for a massive shake up. There’s still a reasonable chance that Ferrari will build a title contender. Even if Vettel did want to leave prematurely, where would he go? Red Bull and Mercedes are spoken for and McLaren already have too many drivers as they ponder where to put their new protégé, Stoffel Vandoorne.

Vettel would be wiser to see how the momentum shifts next season before planning any hasty departures. But if Ferrari fail to deliver next year, he may want to start looking elsewhere. I would keep one eye open on Renault who have recently increased investment. Their engine upgrade in Monaco shows promise and they may be making attempts to re-sign James Allison, with a view of winning races and challenging for the title in 2018/2019. Renault could also mutually benefit by having a man of Vettel’s experience and talents around to maximise any opportunity should it arise.

Stay for the kids

Even if Ferrari have a disastrous season next year, Vettel’s sentimental attachment to the Scuderia might be enough to keep him there long term. And with rumours of a new 3 year contract, perhaps it’s more important for him to win with Ferrari, rather than to win at all costs. Unlike Fernando Alonso, who is 35 and still in search for his elusive 3rd title, Vettel can afford to wait.

 

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