Sebastian Vettel’s and Ferrari’s descent from Formula One championship contenders to also-rans since July has been painful to watch. But is this form truly a surprise or the reality of a team and driver combination having reached their Level of Incompetence?
There is a concept known as The Peter Principle, more commonly known today as the Level of Incompetence. Written in 1969 by Raymond Hull from research by Laurence Peter, The Peter Principle relates to employees promoted to roles based on previous successes, until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent.
At this point the employee hits a ceiling of ability, as skills in one position do not necessarily translate to another and their incompetence become apparent. Some bumble along struggling to manage, while others are often moved sideways or to a similar, but less challenging role in another department or organisation, where their limitations better suit their professional qualities.
In the case of Formula One, this applied not only to designers, team managers, engineers, PRs and catering staff, but also to drivers and in this, Ferrari may have a problem.
Admittedly considering the roll they were on come the end of 2017 and the driver line-up in their roster, it is unlikely that one would have received particularly high odds of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes claiming another brace of titles this year.
They have been the strongest package in the sport for nearly half-a-decade and even within that, it took an almost superhuman effort from Nico Rosberg to wrestle the Driver’s crown from Hamilton two years ago. So overwhelmed was he by the experience, Rosberg retired a few weeks after taking the crown. Beyond that, Hamilton has excelled and has added three titles to the one he earned with McLaren back in 2008.
Yet Ferrari had shown signs of closing in on the silver cars. Last season, Ferrari were clearly getting more from their power unit than in previous years, but their challenge fell apart during the Italy-Singapore-Malaysia-Japan batch of races from September to early-October, when a mixture of mistakes and component failures killed the title run-in. In the end, Lewis cruised to his fourth championship with races to spare and Ferrari were made to lick their wounds and contemplate how they would come back stronger.
Initially they did.
Despite a jaw-dropping “qualifying” mode used during Saturday’s grid-forming session in Melbourne, Vettel took wins in both Australia and Bahrain. A safety car miscalculation in the former and five-place penalty in the latter for Hamilton eased the path to victory for Vettel, but even when one takes these into account, the initial signs were that Ferrari had the race pace.
The pack leader pushed and pulled through the year, with Ferrari enjoying the quicker package during the summer, with the red and silver cars offering up the battle that Formula One had been waiting for, for so long, such was the anticipation of a Hamilton vs Vettel battle. But like 2017, it just fizzled out… so disappointingly.
Without a car, and one may dare say regulations, that play to his strengths, Vettel has far too often driven like a racer wringing 9/10s out of a machine, but then falling into desperation and disarray for that final one-tenth. And when mistakes come – and they have so readily this year – he has been punished in the strongest possible way.
From hitting the rear of Bottas in France, to sliding off the track in the damp while leading in Germany, an ill-advised defence in the Roggia chicane against Hamilton at Monza, to a and a poor qualifying in Japan, followed by another ill-advised and poorly timed overtake, this time on Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Of the races listed above, Vettel has taken the following results: 5th, retirement, 4th and 6th. Hamilton, meanwhile, has won them all.
Since the British Grand Prix in mid-July, Vettel and Ferrari have only won once – at Spa-Francorchamps, in Belgium – and it was one of Vettel’s few fearless and determined drives of late. Now even that tide has turned and it appears as if the strength of pace once again lies with Mercedes, but the German squad are not making mistakes and Hamilton is crushing the opposition. Even when Ferrari perform well, they now fall some way distant of the lead.
On their behalf, Ferrari must share the blame for what appeared to be a confused and headless qualifying strategy at Suzuka, coming only two Grand Prix after they incorrectly positioned their drivers during qualifying at Monza, which resulted in the other Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen taking pole position. Ferrari too have struggled to find a way to properly use Raikkonen during Grand Prix, often resulting in a poor result for the Finn and a half-baked strategy for Vettel.
So has the combination of Vettel and Ferrari reached its level of incompetence? Is their erratic form a sign of The Peter Principle at work? Possibly. During his Red Bull years, Vettel did face pressure from speedy opponents – particularly in 2010 and 2012, but in hindsight maybe it wasn’t quite as intense as the pressure applied by the Hamilton/Mercedes combination.
With opponents ramping up the competition to a level he has never quite experienced, it is not inconceivable that Vettel and Ferrari will just fall short, no matter what they attempt and that the only way to change the result may be to change the building blocks that make the team.
There has been some conversation from the Formula One media that the hiring of Charles Leclerc for 2019 onward has less to do with Raikkonen’s performance and more to do with the Scuderia losing faith in Vettel. If that is the case, then it could soon signal the end for the German racer who so effortlessly secured four titles with Red Bull Racing at the beginning of this decade. But that seems so long ago now.
True champions – the ones so often recalled by fans – rarely make so many mistakes so readily and when history looks back at this period of Formula One, it will be curious to see how Vettel is judged in the reckoning.
There is little doubt that Sebastian Vettel is a an excellent driver with immense speed and intelligence, while Ferrari a high achieving team with the loftiest of goals. But against the Mercedes juggernaut, both have been found wanting and come Abu Dhabi, it seems certain that the combination of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes will have pummelled them – again.