Yesterday's man? Vettel in need of a boost as winless streak continues
When Sebastian Vettel won last year's Belgian Grand Prix at Spa to cut Lewis Hamilton's lead in the drivers' standings to 17 points, a thrilling title battle between two four-time world champions appeared tough to call.
How different things look now.
Ferrari again had reason to celebrate at Spa this time around, thanks to Charles Leclerc's maiden Formula One victory, a richly deserved triumph for the 21-year-old who came agonisingly close to earlier wins in Bahrain and Austria.
However, it was yet another day of frustration for Vettel, who finished fourth and has yet to taste another race win since his victory in Belgium last August.
A series of errors undermined his challenge for a fifth drivers' championship in 2018, that honour instead going to Hamilton as the Briton finished 88 points clear of Vettel in the final analysis.
If last season ultimately proved a failure, the present campaign has been much worse, with Vettel unable to offer any meaningful challenge to a dominant Mercedes outfit.
Ahead of this week's Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Ferrari's home race, the German languishes in fourth in the drivers' standings, a whopping 99 points behind Hamilton.
Perhaps more significantly, Vettel's lead over Leclerc – who is in only his second season on the grid – is just 12 points and it is easy to argue that margin flatters the more experienced man.
It would be foolish to write off any man who has claimed four world titles – a tally bettered only by Hamilton, Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher.
Nevertheless, Vettel will know his past glories with Red Bull will count for little if he continues to deliver underwhelming performances for the Scuderia.
Throughout the 2019 campaign, he has repeatedly made the same sort of mistakes that became worryingly frequent last term. On recent form, few would bet against Leclerc finishing his first Ferrari season ahead of a team-mate he has out-qualified in each of the past six races.
In the news conference that followed Sunday's race at Spa, Lewis Hamilton hailed the Monegasque racer, but in doing so also shone a light on Vettel's struggles.
"It's not easy for any driver to jump into a top team, let alone Ferrari, against a four-time world champion, [with] God knows how much more experience, and then to continuously from race one, out-perform, out-qualify and out-drive a four-time world champion is not easy to do," said Hamilton.
That assessment may be somewhat unfair to Vettel, who has after all claimed more points than his team-mate, but there can be no doubt Hamilton's most difficult battles so far this season have come against Leclerc and Max Verstappen, rather than his old rival.
Vettel's contract with Ferrari expires in 2020 and at this point it is not clear whether he or the team would seek to extend their partnership.
If things do not improve quickly, the 32-year-old is in danger of becoming yesterday's man in a series packed with emerging talent.Modified 21 Dec 2019, 00:22 IST