Sebastian Vettel returns to scene of 2018 nightmare at German GP
Vettel made an agonising mistake at last year's German GP and has endured a trying 12 months since. Seb is heading home again this weekend, facing a defining period of his decorated career…
By Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 25/07/19 6:11am
Sebastian Vettel is going to go down in history as one of the F1 greats.
The German collected four world titles in a row - achieving a spell of dominance that only Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher have managed - and, although often less notable, many of his performances in the 'Mercedes era' since that last crown have been sensational.
But while Lewis Hamilton enjoyed a glorious homecoming at Silverstone two weeks ago, you wouldn't blame Vettel if he is heading into his home race with a little trepidation.
At last year's German GP, not only did his championship bid crumble after a mistake he will never likely forget, but there's an argument to suggest he's never truly recovered.
"What has been going on with Sebastian is one of F1's big mysteries," said Sky F1's Karun Chandhok.
With just one victory and an array of high-profile and costly errors, this has been a nightmare year for Vettel, one that many will claim has damaged his legacy forever, and which has sparked real doubts about his future in the sport.
We need to talk about Seb.
Vettel's home race turns into a nightmare
What must be so frustrating for Vettel is just how good last year's German GP could have been for him and Ferrari.
After beating Hamilton at Silverstone, Vettel was riding the crest of a wave and in Hockenheim, he then saw his championship rival exit Q2 in qualifying before sealing pole himself. Even as Hamilton charged through from 14th on the grid to fourth as the rain started to fall in the race, Vettel was in control and heading for a first F1 victory at his local track and, at the very least, a 15-point championship advantage.
But then Turn 12 happened. With just 15 laps remaining and under no immediate pressure, Vettel locked up in the rain and stumbled into the gravel and then the track-side barrier. His race was over in a matter of seconds and, smashing his fists on his steering wheel, Vettel was clearly emotional in the cockpit.
"I made a small mistake which had a huge impact on the result," said Vettel afterwards, and yes, it was a small mistake which may not have been punished at other tracks, or indeed other sections of the Hockenheim circuit.
But it was still a small mistake his main rivals - think Hamilton, or Max Verstappen from the past 12 months - rarely make. And Vettel went on to make many more.
Mistake, after mistake...
The Germany lock-up a year ago was an unforced error - which may sound unforgivable compared to faltering while racing another driver, locked in wheel-to-wheel combat. But it is the amount of times Vettel has come unstuck when fighting his rivals that has been alarming.
In September, Vettel battled Hamilton on the first lap in Italy - Ferrari's home race - before making contact with the Mercedes and spinning. A month later, Vettel tried an optimistic move on Verstappen in Suzuka, but hit the Red Bull and span. At the next race in the USA, Vettel tangled with Ricciardo in the other Red Bull on the opening lap. The end result? Another collision, another spin in the Ferrari.
"Vettel's forgotten how to do wheel-to-wheel combat," said Sky F1's Martin Brundle after the race. Hamilton went on the win the 2018 championship by a whopping 88 points.
Vettel would have hoped to have turned the page in the 2019 season, buoyed by the challenge of a new young team-mate in Charles Leclerc and a seemingly strong Ferrari package. But Ferrari have struggled - somehow still yet to win a race this year - while Vettel has been making the same mistakes under pressure.
At the season's second race in Bahrain, Vettel span when trying to defend from Hamilton. And the German wasn't in contention for a victory again until Canada came around.
The pole-sitter looked to be in control of that race until Hamilton closed the gap and Vettel, struggling for grip, locked-up and ran onto the grass, forcing the Mercedes towards the wall as a result. A five-second penalty was given, and Vettel had lost again. The punishment was harsh, but the stewards wouldn't have had a decision to make if Vettel had not made the error. His post-race antics at parc ferme and on the podium were emotional, and afterwards he spoke candidly about his wish to have raced in a different era. A telling rant.
"What we saw in Canada was a man falling out of love with Formula 1 without a safety net of success and fulfilment to catch him," said Ted Kravitz in a recent Sky F1 feature.
That defeat was crushing for Vettel, and he's struggled since, failing to beat the team-mate he was previously dominating in the following three races. In Silverstone came another mistake, as Vettel clattered into the back of Verstappen's Red Bull after being overtaken. He finished 16th.
The decorated F1 champion is currently 100 points behind Hamilton in the championship. He has one victory, at August's 2018 Belgian GP, since this time last year, while Hamilton has 15 including that Germany victory. Those are damning numbers.
Why so many errors, and what now for Seb?
Vettel was unfairly nicknamed 'the crash kid' by a rival team principal as a Red Bull youngster, while even before Germany last year he had crashed into Valtteri Bottas in France. In 2017, Vettel bashed wheels with Hamilton in Baku, collided with both Kimi Raikkonen and Verstappen in Singapore and clashed with Hamilton and Verstappen in Mexico.
But although he is often fighting closer with his rivals these days than he was during his 2010-2013 streak, you do not win four titles without excelling in attack and defence, and Vettel still won some epic duels with Fernando Alonso and the like.
It's therefore difficult to believe Vettel has always had an issue battling wheel-to-wheel.
"Has he lost a touch of vision, reaction and judgement which shows up at these speeds when under pressure?" pondered Brundle after Silverstone - an explicable judgement.
Having won his four titles so young, all by the age of 26, there is even an argument to suggest Vettel is past his peak. But it's easy to forget that Vettel is still in his early 30s, two years younger than Hamilton who seemingly continues to improve.
The four-time world champion is adamant that he will stay at Ferrari until he achieves his "dream" - to emulate his hero Schumacher and bring the glory days back to the Scuderia - and his current contract expires at the end of 2020.
But after a difficult start to the season, his motivation has been questioned, particularly after his Canada rant, and the German now can't arrive at a race weekend without being asked about retirement.
Vettel has batted away those questions so far, while Ferrari are also insistent that their driver line-up will stay the same beyond F1 2019.
F1 needs characters like Vettel - an F1 traditionalist who loves the history of sport, speaks passionately and eloquently about its future and who commands a huge amount of respect in the paddock - even from Hamilton who claimed "he will recover and he will redeem himself" after his latest setback.
Vettel will hope this past year is the anomaly from his career and not the beginning of the end. What better place to turn over a blank page than Hockenheim, his local track, where it all started to go wrong.
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