Trouble is filling up the rear-view mirrors of Sebastian Vettel. He's not winning on track and is also losing the perception battle. Each racing incident - be it lock-ups, slides, tangles or crashes that he's involved in, chips away at his reputation. It is a crisis that is slowly brewing the froth of trouble.
The last time Vettel was world champion was in 2013 when he reeled off a world record 9 consecutive wins to snuff out any opposition. That was his zenith. Peak Vettel. In 2014, with a rule reset, in the first year of V6 turbo hybrid engines, he was found out against a much younger and hungrier Aussie in Daniel Ricciardo - who grabbed 3 eye-catching wins.
Vettel jumped shipped to emulate his friend Michael Schumacher and his success at Ferrari. It seemed like a project with promise, merits, and a sense of historical parallels. A world champion German driver coming into the Italian outfit struggling to win a world title.
In 2015 Ferrari made a very powerful engine and since the fight was between Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg for the title, the third slot on the podium was his for the taking most of the time. He won thrice in the maiden campaign - in Sepang, Hungaroring and under the lights in Marina Bay.
The honeymoon phase was going well as it usually does. 2016 though was a winless year, and the tempers were fraying as every chance of a Grand Prix win slipped away from grasp.
The catastrophic Singapore crash
However, it is the next 2 years that his stock has been hit severely. This is for a couple of reasons. First, he had a very quick, reliable car that was capable of a championship tilt and secondly he was in a direct fight with Lewis Hamilton in the battle of the No.1 drivers of Ferrari and Mercedes.
Ferrari made huge strides in both 2017 and 2018, catching up with Mercedes to the point that in 2018, Ferrari had the faster car in half of the circuits (11 off 21) and Mercedes in the remaining. Maranello knew this, Tifosi knew this, the paddock knew this, Vettel knew this.
The critics will not grudge a driver who had a succession of cars in which he could fight, but not win and then gets a championship-winning car. It has a redemption angle.
Case in point, Nigel Mansell, who had epic scraps in the 80s against Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, and Keke Rosberg, then got the 1992 Williams-Renault to romp to a title.
Mansell was hailed and cheered. It shows the guy was always good, and now he has the machinery to be much better. When it is the other way around, i.e. a driver gets a great car very soon, but then can't perform in cars that are not the best on the grid, critics are never kind.
Vettel eased into a blisteringly quick, race-winning car in his second full year in Formula 1 with Red Bull. Then, he had 4 years of almost half a second, sometimes almost 1 second a lap advantage over others.
His ability to run away from the pole is undoubted. For a lights-to-flag win, he's the guy. But, he has never won starting from below third on the grid. Never won when not on the front or second row. Others greats have. Multiple times.
That is a telling statement for someone who has the second most wins in the history of the sport. He is in his fifth year at Ferrari. A team that is intensely political and each year they are not winning the championship, with the blame going everywhere except the lead driver, which is a fairly unique and recent phenomenon.
Even Fernando Alonso was skewered from time to time despite what he did with what he had during his 5 years with the Italian side.
Ferrari have given Vettel the preferential treatment over Leclerc in 2019
The last time Ferrari had an unclear and fluid driver hierarchy was in 2008. That year Kimi Raikkonen played the team game when Felipe Massa was in with a shout of being the champion, just like Massa had done the previous year with Raikkonen, who remains the last Ferrari world champion to date.
There is no doubt that 2017 and 2018 were seasons where the title fight should have gone down to the last race. Ferrari and Vettel have both imploded in the face of pressure and opportunity. Promisingly for Formula 1, the 2019 winter testing pointed to a very quick Ferrari, but that advantage too is being dwindled and bungled away.
The scarlet garage has begun to murmur their deep disappointment. In Monaco this year, rumors of Vettel's retirement sprang up. They were denied, and with the next racing weekend came another mistake while leading the race in Montreal, Canada.
The lengthy and controversial debate of his Montreal 5-second penalty would have been unnecessary if he hadn't gone off the track while Lewis Hamilton attacked.
Ferrari is still backing Vettel, however, it is becoming clear that Charles Leclerc is quicker. The undercurrent is perhaps ripe for a change in tide with the arrival of Leclerc. One can only imagine what is going on in the mind of Vettel, chasing his fifth title in vain in his fifth year at Ferrari.
The new generation of drivers has arrived and he has not established himself as the best of the previous one. F1 needs him to step up. Those four Sebastian Vettel-Red Bull titles are faraway memories from an era flown by.
Whether he likes it or not, it is a deepening crisis. And it has been 5 years in the making.Published 01 Jul 2019, 12:10 IST