In his most comprehensive interview since the lights went out on the 2018 Formula 1 season, Sebastian Vettel describes the highs and lows of a year that started with so much promise only to end in disappointment as Ferrari once again succumbed to the dominance of Mercedes.
Nevertheless, records show that Ferrari scored more wins last season since 2008, and like last year were runner-up to the Silver Arrows, but this past season they appeared closer than ever.
Asked in an interview, with Auto Motor und Sport, whether they were they closer to the title last year or this year, Vettel replied, “One would tend to say this year but both years were surprisingly very similar. Last year we lacked the engine power. The car was good but inefficient on certain tracks.”
“This year the aerodynamics were more efficient. With the engine, we were closer to Mercedes but not yet where we should have been with the whole package.”
Many reports suggest that for many races Ferrari had the better car, but Vettel contends otherwise, “Was it dominant? As dominant as Mercedes was in Spain, France or Russia. Unfortunately, we didn’t have such races. That’s why both seasons are pretty similar.”
“Of course [Singapore, Sochi and Suzuka] cost us a lot of points, but overall the speed was not there as it should have been.”
Back from the summer break, Vettel started with a win at the Belgian Grand Prix but thereafter it was downhill fast, oddly he never won again all year.
It has become something of a tradition in F1 that Mercedes ramp up their efforts in the latter half of the season thus, was it a coincidence that Ferrari’s slump came at that point?
“I think so,” replied Vettel. “Maybe the tension was too high for us after races in which things did not go our way.”
It also happens that Ferrari headed in the wrong direction with the development updates for their car, which required a rethink of their programme, “Sure, there were times when we were not quick enough to react but it was also difficult for us to identify the problem.”
“We had to take a good step back [on development] so that we could get our performance back on track. That’s why we were not at the same level of development as our rivals late in the season. I don’t know where Mercedes had problems if they had any, maybe it was easier for them to find a solution.
Vettel himself made some glaring gaffes and no wonder the expensive German Grand Prix debacle still haunts him, “I have to carry with me the memory of the accident at Hockenheim and just deal with it.”
“That was really stupid, a small mistake with a huge impact. I didn’t try to attack, I had no idea who was behind me, how large my lead was, whether I would win or not.”
“It was raining a bit, I was just concentrating on my race, looking from corner to corner. I was really just a tad too late on the brakes, the rear-axle locked, I slid straight ahead carrying no speed. I could not believe it at first. Sure, I dropped a lot of points there.”
Every time Vettel and Ferrari slipped up Mercedes were there to capitalise, a fact that the four times F1 World champion acknowledged, “I believe the strength Mercedes had this year was to take maximum advantage of our weaknesses and fight back in those races.”
“At the same time, to increase pressure on us, they spread the word to everyone that our car was dominant. I see it differently: our car was not dominant, we had our chances, we used most of them but the bottom line is we were missing something.”
The Italian Grand Prix provided another defining moment in the German’s campaign when he came off second best in a first lap wheel-to-wheel tussle with title rival Lewis Hamilton, which left the #5 car facing the wrong way and playing catch-up all race while the #44 powered to an unexpected victory on the Scuderia’s home turf.
Vettel explained, “Many of the incidents were 50-50. At Monza, it could have been Lewis. He did not see me in his blind spot, he is not the kind of guy who cuts in or closes the door. I wanted to avoid the collision, but could not vanish.”
“In retrospect, I could have stayed on the gas and take both of us out, but I turned away and he got away. My car was damaged, not his. So that happened unfortunately, I was in the wrong place too often this year.”
The 31-year-old’s childhood rival Michael Schumacher cut a similar path at Ferrari two decades ago, only securing titles in his fifth season with the Scuderia.
“I don’t want to compare that era with myself,” insisted Vettel. “Although I understand that the comparison is inevitable. We are both German, both at Ferrari, both without a title for four years. If we win then we can talk about it, after that even half of Michael’s accomplishments will be good for me.
Asked to summarise his four seasons in red, Vettel said, “The team has developed a lot during this period. Today’s team is much stronger and more composed than four years ago. In the beginning, everything was very fragmented.”
“To some extent success has been achieved even if the great success has not yet materialised. However, we have shown in recent years that this team has potential. We already had a very good car in 2017 and this year achieved our goals as we had planned.”
“In retrospect, one would certainly have wished for some things to move a little faster, but the trend is positive, even if we are not yet where we want to be,” added Vettel.
The issue of blame for the team’s failings next year has become a contentious hot-potato in a power struggle that is simmering in the corridors of Maranello.
Team principal Maurizio Arrivabene and technical boss Mattia Binotto have been squaring up, the latter unhappy with the criticism by the pair of the package he delivered for the team this season.
With Vettel (not for the first time) continuing to claim there was something lacking, an interesting dynamic is developing within the team with next season fast approaching.