Incredible as it may seem, August 26th marked a year since Sebastian Vettel last won a Formula One Grand Prix, when he triumphed at Spa-Francorchamps.
In that year, his form has been blighted by errors and a marked loss of form, while new teammate Charles Leclerc goes from strength-to-strength.
But is this the continued sign of a driver frustrated with his lot, or one limping toward the end of his Formula One career?
If one happened to be a Ferrari fan, the 2019 season would not have made for the prettiest of readings.
Naturally, Charles Leclerc’s emotionally charged victory would have raised the heartbeat somewhat, particularly as he so expertly kept Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton at bay in the final tours.
But for the most part, this year has proved disappointing for the Italian squad. Considering they were talking and being talked up as the team to finally take dethrone Mercedes, helped largely by the 2019 evolution of their power unit, for the most part have been disappointing.
There have been potential shots of victory that have gone away – Bahrain, Monaco, Austria, and Canada come to mind – yet there has been a notable change in form, as it has been Leclerc who has generally shone for Ferrari.
For far too often, Vettel has been absent. With former teammate Kimi Raikkonen now with the Alfa Romeo team – formerly Sauber – Vettel‘s position as the primary driver has been threatened and following Leclerc’s Belgian success, may finally have been overturned.
There are still the occasional flashes of brilliance. During June’s Canadian Grand Prix, Vettel was exceptional for the most part, but as the race aged, Hamilton closed in and Vettel cracked under pressure.
Just as he had at Hockenheim last year, just as he had at Singapore the year before that and just as he had during his final year with Red Bull Racing in 2014, when he was outperformed by Daniel Ricciardo.
The German racer may have taken 1st position on the road on that day in Canada – only to lose it when he received a five-second time penalty for re-joining the track too forcefully in front of Hamilton when the Briton pressed Vettel beyond his capabilities.
His off whilst defending against Hamilton earned him a controversial penalty that gave the Mercedes driver victory and left Vettel and Ferrari seething, but the takeaway from the incident was that Vettel had erred yet again.
It had been an excellent performance up until his mistake, but it did not mark a return to permanent form. Alas, one Swallow does not make a summer.
Until now, Vettel’s experience has helped keep his head in front of Leclerc in the points and arguably, with more nuance, Leclerc may well have been heading Vettel. The young Monegasque driver has made mistakes – crashing during qualifying for Baku being the most obvious – but in general pace, Leclerc is looking stronger now and the 32-year-old Vettel may finally be feeling the push.
As the European season draws to a close, Leclerc sits 5th in the points standings, trailing Vettel by just 12 points, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen a further 12 points ahead in 3rd place.
Both positions are up for grabs and while Verstappen may press harder against the charging Ferrari man, Vettel comes across as a driver already beaten.
On Sunday, for the first time in recent memory, Vettel played wingman to another racer – certainly a far cry from the charging driver who became embroiled in the “multi-21” fiasco with Mark Webber in 2013.
At Spa yesterday, Vettel spent laps 28-32 keeping Hamilton at bay, allowing Leclerc to build a decisive gap that would eventually win him the race, while Vettel would eventually drop behind to assume 4th place.
Next weekend’s race at Monza is expected to be the final track this year that will favour Ferrari’s outright speed. Should Leclerc continue to show the kind of pace he has so far and beat Vettel again, it’s not inconceivable that their positions will in the points standings will swap.
But that would merely be a formalisation of what may have already taken place within the team.