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'Vettel is not past his peak!' - Reader responds to Jackie Stewart's claims

2018-11-01 12:14

Neil Hamilton

Image: AP / Wong Maye-E

Wheels24 reader Neil Hamilton - no relation to the F1 champ -  shares his thoughts after F1 legend Sir Jackie Stewart claims Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel has passed his peak form in the sport.

I would be a fool to argue with the triple world champion, Sir Jackie Stewart, but, here goes anyway.

I don’t think Sebastian Vettel is past his peak. I think he just encountered an extremely strong Lewis Hamilton, who had learned from his own mistakes, whilst he and his team have tripped over themselves in their eagerness to win and bring the title back to Maranello.

READ: 'Sebastian Vettel is past his peak in F1' - Sir Jackie Stewart

Hamilton has had the advantage of an extremely strong team, and was pushed hard by former team mate Nico Rosberg in their time at Mercedes. That rivalry, although toxic at times, helped strengthen both the team as well as hone Hamilton’s skills.

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel

                                                                 Image: RODRIGO ARANGUA / AFP
 
Losing the title by five points in 2016 would have made him even more motivated to come back and win, which he did after Ferrari imploded in Singapore in 2017 and Vettel’s Japanese Grand Prix was compromised by a dud plug in Japan. 2018 was the fight for "1st to 5". Hamilton knew he would need to be on top form, as winter testing showed the SF71 had pace.

There lies the difference in the two drivers this year.

Aside from Ferrari getting their strategies wrong on a number of occasions, Vettel has also been more prone to mistakes, whilst Hamilton has been ultra-consistent, and made basically no errors.

Sebastian Vettel Japanese gp

                                                  Image: MARK THOMPSON / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

When the Mercedes has been off the pace, it was Hamilton who was able to maximise the potential in the car – his run of podium finishes a testament to his metronomic consistency; his 2nd half of the season was one of domination as Mercedes got it spot on, and Ferrari went down the wrong development path. Their ability in wheel-to-wheel racing also needs to be looked at, and there the advantage is clearly in Hamilton’s favour.

Is Vettel past his peak? I doubt it.

What I do think is that he does not have the advantage that he had at Red Bull, when he won four titles back to back with the Adrian Newey designed Red Bulls. There, he had a technical advantage such as the blown diffuser, the engine mapping by Renault to suit the characteristics of each track and his driving style (remembering that Mark Webber admits to never quite getting to grips with the tyres or the car – he described the driving style needed to get the most from the Red Bull as counter-intuitive). His race craft in wheel to wheel battles has been his undoing.

                                                              Image: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP

Red Bull is also far more relaxed than Ferrari. Some will say that Fernando Alonso ran him close, as he well did in 2010 and 2012, but I believe that to be more testament to the driving ability of Alonso than the design of the Ferrari. And remember, they got their strategy horrendously wrong at Abu Dhabi for the season finale in 2010. But for that, and Alonso could have had his three titles by the end of 2012, Ferrari was already heading into their slump, the car was nowhere near as good as the Red Bull and despite spinning in Brazil on Lap 1, Vettel still managed to win the title.

Vettel came into that Ferrari team, post Alonso, in 2015. We know that the team was in disarray, and the car was horrible. Between 2015 and 2017 we have seen a leap in performance both chassis and engine-wise. At the same time, Hamilton has been on top of the world in Mercedes, with titles in 2014, 2015, 2017 and losing by only 5 points in 2016 due to horrible reliability on his car.

                                                                Image: AFP / Charles Coates

Their paths have been different. Hamilton, able to focus on winning, on driving, and on maximising every ounce of performance. Vettel has been part of a team trying to rebuild itself for three years. One has often heard him debate calls from the pit wall during races – notably in Germany this year, a race he lost after going off while in the lead. This detracts from his focus to drive the car.

Vettel, in my view, is now experiencing the same as Hamilton did in his years at McLaren from 2009 to 2012, before he moved to Mercedes. He knew he could win, but didn’t quite have the equipment. Frustration leads to mistakes, mistakes lead to pressure and pressure leads to frustration and mistakes.

Ferrari 'makes too many mistakes' - Rosberg

                                                                    Image: GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP

Ferrari has had a car able to win a title in both 2017 and 2018. The whole world and especially the tifosi all expect Vettel to bring them the crown, just as his idol and friend, Michael Schumacher did. That alone, is already a mountain of pressure on his shoulders.

In 2017, he made fewer mistakes, but was tripped up by that infamous accident in Singapore, and then the final nail in Suzuka, when he had to retire again; also don’t discount the incident in Baku where he rammed Hamilton, which was also a mindless error in judgment hence my earlier reference to wheel-to-wheel battles and racecraft. More incidents are mentioned below.

                                                                    Image: AFP / JOHANNES EISELE

In 2018, he started well: 2 wins from 2. In China, Ferrari got it wrong and were undercut by Mercedes Valtteri Bottas, and then Vettel was taken out by Red Bull's Max Verstappen.

In Baku, he dropped from 2nd to 4th after a failed overtake after the safety car, in a race he had dominated - again an error - and may well have inherited a win with Bottas' retirement. In the event, Hamilton won.

In Germany he crashed out of the lead in the wet, another driver error BUT also, Ferrari got it hopelessly wrong on strategy by not having team mate Kimi Raikkonen released sooner after the pitstops. Again, a flawless performance saw Hamilton win from 14th.

                                                                  Image: EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP

Monza was a disaster. By not being clear about the strategy the two Ferraris fought over the lead in turn 1, Hamilton surprised Vettel at Variante Roggia and he spun after contact with the Mercedes.

Hamilton won courtesy of better tyre strategy and a compliant Bottas backing up the lead Ferrari of Raikkonen. At Singapore, Hamilton dominated as Vettel finished thtird after another strategic gamble failed. This was also when Ferrari lost the plot in terms of development as discussed on SKYF1 - the new parts made a fast Ferrari slower, and at first it was ascribed to the FIA investigations regarding the dual-battery system.

Sebastian Vettel Suzuka

                                                                Image: MARTIN BUREAU / AFP

At this point, one would say that Vettel started over-driving as pressure in the points battle ramped up and Mercedes and Hamilton were racking up win after win and benefiting from Ferrari, and Vettel’s mistakes.

In Suzuka, Ferrari gambled again, and lost again. A poor grid slot after being sent out on a (then) dry circuit on intermediate tyres, and then being on slicks as the rain fell and making another error in qualifying, meant that Vettel had to drive like a man possessed from 9th on the grid. He was making good progress, but then tried a risky move on Max Verstappen, and spun after a coming together at Spoon corner. Again, a silly error as the pace in the Ferrari was such that he could have had the Dutchman on the run through 130R into the chicane or with DRS on the main straight.

Sebastian Vettel japan

                                                                 Image: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA / AFP

In Austin, Ferrari went back to their Hockenheim spec, and instantly were back on the pace. Vettel lost pole by 0.06sm but again, a silly error in FP1 led to a 3-place grid drop. He made things worse when he passed Daniel Ricciardo on lap 1, made a mistake under breaking and then hung with the Red Bull into the twisty complex and spun, again, after contact. A recovery drive saw him finish fourth, again, on a day when Mercedes was struggling and a certain 1-2 was on the cards for the Scuderia. Raikkonen took a famous win, but you can be certain had Vettel been in contention, it would have been he who took the victory.

3 races. 3 spins: Monza, Suzuka, Austin. All after contact, and all completely unnecessary. 1 x self inflicted DNF in Germany. Grid penalties in Austin and Austria.

Add the loss of points of all the incidents during the year and one notices that the title was lost by Vettel as much as it was won by Hamilton.

Is Vettel past his prime? NO. I think he is learning, cruelly, from his own mistakes. I think pressure to perform at Ferrari is getting to him - something he did not have to the same extent at Red Bull.

The news that he is spending more time at his former team says that he seeks a dynamic that he doesn’t have at Ferrari at present. Whilst I am sad to see Kimi go next year, the new young gun Charles Leclerc may push Vettel a bit harder, whilst also moving the spotlight from him to the new buck.

Vettel needs to learn from his mistakes, and he will. He is still a multiple champion. He knows how to win. At the same time, stability is key to success for Ferrari; it takes time to build and perfect a successful formula. They also need to find a way in which to make it easy for Vettel to do his job by setting a good atmosphere.

Schumacher took five years to win his first title. Vettel has come close twice now within 4 years. If Ferrari can build another front running car, he will be in the fight, but he will have to be near perfect. 

In Mexico, Vettel drove as well as he has the entire season. Maybe a case of pressure being off as the title was a foregone conclusion. In this game, you are either giving pressure or taking it. Hamilton can do both, Vettel needs to cope better when taking it.

As Jackie Stewart says, he is facing an opponent at the peak of his own ability and a seemingly invincible team.

Roll on Brazil!

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