Outside Line: The curious case of Sebastian Vettel

Suffice to say, COVID-19 has had a significantly negative impact in Formula 1 circles. Whether you’re talking about stakeholders, race promoters, team employees, fans, or Lando Norris’ haircut, there’s been plenty of losers, and yet while he might not be among those who first come to mind, spare a though for Sebastian Vettel.

Even before the world went into lockdown, 2020 saw the four-time F1 world champion put in a tough spot. Upended as he was by Charles Leclerc in 2019, he came into the year with equal status to a teammate for the first time since 2009, and then the Scuderia went out and committed to his rival for a further five years while his own contract is still set to expire in December.

Then, you add-in the current situation, which sees him unable to exact revenge on the Monegasque, and things get very precarious indeed.

Whether its fans, media or even Ferrari itself, everyone seems to be writing him off as a legitimate force to be reckoned-with in F1. At just 32, it seems his days as an ‘alpha dog’ in the sport are behind him, and either he will have to content himself with the new state-of-affairs at Ferrari, move to a team further down the grid, or hang-up his boots entirely.

Personally, it just doesn’t sit right with me. Even if we don’t hold his four titles in as high a regard as some others, and even if he’s had his fair share of hiccups in recent years, I don’t think it’s fair to pull an Ariana Grande and say “thank u, next” to the guy after one down year, especially when it was he who led Ferrari’s return to prominence after a very disappointing end to the Fernando Alonso era.

And yes, Charles Leclerc was the better driver in 2019 – as Daniel Ricciardo was against him in 2014 – but I’d still love to see him get a chance to reply. Many of the greats, including Prost, Piquet and even Hamilton were bested by a teammate in at least one season and managed to respond the next year – are we certain Vettel can’t do likewise?

Unfortunately, the coronavirus might make this a moot point. Despite the optimism that continues to pervade F1, indications are that social distancing measures will have to be as prolonged as they are extensive to effectively combat the virus, and that would prohibit international air travel, to say nothing of large public gatherings like grands prix, even without fans.

As a result, Ferrari will continue to hold all the cards in its negotiations with Vettel, which in turn might push him out the door. As we saw with his tears on the top step of the podium last year in Singapore, he wants it as much as ever, but as his remarks to Autosport, last week about “happiness, not money” driving his decisions indicate, he could be about to reach his breaking point.

Should he need it, I hope he gets one more year to prove himself, and ensure he at least goes out with a bang instead of a whimper.