At the conclusion of last year's World Championship season, Sebastian Vettel, who seemed in a considerably richer vein of form finished third on the podium with 278 points. He showed flashes of brilliance, winning three races, the best undoubtedly being his stellar drive at Singapore last year.
The pairing of unarguably the most popular Formula One team with the most gifted driver meant that something positive was in the offing; that Scuderia would be re-inducted to the former glories it had so accustomed to fetching was a seemingly high probability. Moreover, Sebastian Vettel's debut season with Ferrari was indicative of his supreme self- confidence, the German going 117 points better than Fernando Alonso who could manage 161 from 2014, a season where Vettel was still at Red Bull.
This meant he had a hefty margin worth 128 points of lead over Ferrari-teammate Kimi Raikkonen who had an upsetting season, managing just 150 from 2015. He put forth Ferrari where they belong- somewhere on the podium, if not on the numero uno spot, considering the red hot and unstoppable form of the Silver Arrows. Mind you, this was no mean achievement, the former pairing of Alonso-Kimi proving to be a damp squib 2014.
Many thought Vettel was there to reign supreme
When Sebastian donned the supremely mighty 'red outfit', many thought the days of Mercedes' ruling were short-lived. This, after all, was a man thought to be in charge, having been crowned the youngest driver to be crowned world champion (winning 2010) and an ace with 85 podium finishes.
But this is Formula One where fortunes change at blazing speed and where there's little space for innuendo and guesswork. Cut to 2016. Vettel is languishing on P6 in the driver's standings, managing just 165 points thus far. Ironically, this indicates that Raikkonen, who was considerably behind the German racing champ last season is now five points ahead and with four races to go.
The impending trouble that no one saw coming
So what really happened to Sebastian Vettel- a four-time championship winner- the one who dreamed of reigning in 'red season' driving for his dream-outfit, one where his hero, the 'regenmeister' truly came in his own heralding the Scuderia to unparalleled heights?
Besides being involved in myriad verbatim with drivers much junior to him although with as much talent if you like- Vettel barring his frequent 'run-ins' with Max Verstappen- both on track and off it- has been seen struggling with grip, consistency and the ability to maximize use of softer and ultra soft tyre compounds, his teammate managing it all the better in a season marked with much needed improvement.
This is Sebastian Vettel, a complex figure, a multiple championship winner and an utterly dynamic luminary in a sport that is ruthless to mediocrity and inconsistency. In a contest of supreme skill, where speed matters just as much as a driver's attitude has found Vettel wanting. And if signs from the previous four races are any indicative of Vettel's predicament, then it may just be a far-fetched assumption to expect Vettel jumping around atop the podium- a site he's been frequently linked to, much to the viewers' desire.
Is the newfound confidence in Red Bull spurring Vettel's mistakes?
Vettel, despite frequently featuring in somewhat unbecoming sights of collisions in 2016, has fetched 5 podium finishes this year, including a best place second at the European Grand Prix. But instead of spurring confidence in the Maranello based outfit, this indicates rather lack-luster form from the German racing legend.
Where is that elusive victory, something he had bagged so comfortably, early on in the last season, in fact in the second race of the 2015 calendar?
Forget race victories, the podium finishes have been hard to find. Vettel's five are only one better than Kimi Raikkonen's four this year, a driver seeming to have found his lost mojo, if the triumvirate of P4's from Italy, Singapore and Malaysia are an indication.
But amidst all this tarmac panic, Ferrari seemed to have been handled an olive branch by their arch rivals this season. And you'd be wrong to predict that to be Mercedes, for it is the Max-Ricciardo powered Red Bull that have been showing a nasty rear to the famous Italian team.
Daniel and Max proving a bit too much for Vettel
Their inspired performances, evidenced by the lucky maiden race win for Ricciardo in 2016 last week at Sepang and the utterly impressive Verstappen, seen too often on the podium for Ferrari's liking has given Christian Horner and his team a lot to cheer about. Their 50 point lead over the Scuderia has been largely thanks to some clinical and consistent performances by the smiling Aussie.
In five out of the last seven races, Ricciardo has been on the podium. That's a terrific spell of form for a driver who knows he can get the better of Lewis Hamilton provided he keeps up with that burning desire to win.
Max on the other hand, has made light-work of the pressure pressed on him by the Ferrari duo of Raikkonen and Vettel, the former himself being involved in a typical Iceman-style laidback verbal spat and Vettel, clearly turning red angry with the seemingly unstoppable Dutchman.
Those inexplicable collisions
Contrary to the popular image of seeing an ever smiling Seb looming large on the podium, if there's a phrase that indicates his 2016 season, then it's one involving 'uncharacteristic collisions and ensuing scoffs' with drivers. At China, he's had one, a bitter one with Russian Daniil Kvyat. That clearly compromised Raikkonen's race. Then one at Spa-Francorchamps and then one again recently at Malaysia, where Vettel clearly was the one to blame.
That said, it can't be denied that for any world class driver and there's no doubt about Sebastian being one, there's that extra bit of added pressure to perform well at the Scuderia.
But no matter what you may be, an expert decoding tactical issues in driving or a moaner who grins at the sight of an on-track collision, Vettel had no rational decision to uncharacteristically dive in the inside on turn one on Nico Rosberg at Sepang, thus sending him back of the grid and taking himself out of the race. Prompting Max to call the experienced bloke 'an idiot' didn't exactly lift his spirits.
If there was any pride that could be salvaged, it was only due to Raikkonen's P4 which didn't make Ferrari smile who were visibly squirming with anger with Vettel.
The pressure of performing at Ferrari
But gone are the tactically brilliant days of Jean Todt and the exuberant charm of Lucca Di Montezemolo. The outfit where Vettel is seen struggling is under the moderately impressive leadership of a communication's expert called Maurizio Arrivabene, who's no pro at race-strategies. He himself seems to be under incredible pressure to save his job from the temperamental Sergio Marchionne.
Ferrari have shown in their utterly faulty team strategy at Singapore- where Raikkonen was called at the last minute in for a pit- that they have loads to learn from the likes of Williams. They have repeatedly compromised Kimi's race and as an outfit ruled by the somewhat iron-fisted Marchionne always seem to put that extra bit of pressure on drivers to perform.
With four races to go and not much to savor from 2016 apart from a visibly impressive Raikkonen, this hasn't been Sebastian's season. Save the funny laughs he's shared with Hamilton discussing seagulls at Canada and giving the Tifosi something to smile about with a P3 at Monza, he needs to give it all in the remainder of the season.