OPINION: Have Sebastian Vettel’s Errors Already Cost Him The Title?

Sebastian Vettel - Hungary GP Podium
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

The quest for five world championships has been the main headline for the 2018 FIA Formula 1 World Championship with Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton fighting once again for the title. Both drivers battled hard in last year’s edition which saw the Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport of Hamilton clinching the championship with two races to spare. Scuderia Ferrari have mounted a strong title charge with the SF71H as they aim to win their first title in ten years. Vettel currently lies second in the championship, 24 points behind Hamilton going into the summer break, but the story could have been different for the German.

Vettel has so far claimed four wins, five pole positions and seven podium finishes. He also has led more laps than anyone so far this season, with the thirty-one year old leading a total of 297 laps compare to Hamilton’s 232. With those statistics, Vettel’s title charge is more ambitious and stronger on paper compare to 2017. So why is he far back going into the Belgian Grand Prix? There have been five races this year where Vettel and Ferrari have made errors or fell short which in return has cost them valuable championship points to the point where Vettel could even be leading the championship.

We all know how the German Grand Prix ended for Vettel. A massive hammer blow for himself and Ferrari as a rare error for the German saw him go off into the gravel and hitting the barrier in the stadium section. The incident alone helped his rival Hamilton go on and win the race, where the day before saw Hamilton suffer major issues with his car in qualifying, hindering his grid position. That resulted in Vettel gaining his first retirement of the season and lose his championship lead to the Brit by 17 points. If his race ending error didn’t happen, Vettel would have probably went on to win on home soil and we could have been looking at a different championship leader going into the summer break. It’s rare we see a multiple world champion make mistakes on track but when we go, it’s a reminder that they’re human too and even the best can mistakes.

After winning the opening two rounds in Australia and Bahrain, the Chinese Grand Prix saw Vettel at comfortably in third place with a handful of laps to go. Down at the hairpin after the long back straight, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing‘s Max Verstappen attempted to dive down the inside of Vettel in what was an ever closing gap. The two collided which send both drivers spinning and leaving Vettel with damage to his floor, which hindered his pace as he plummeted down the order. He would go on to finish eighth place in the race. Whilst this wasn’t Vettel’s fault in causing the incident and Verstappen being handed a time-penalty, it proved to be costly as he only left Shanghai with just four points.

The next race in Baku however, was a gamble that failed to pay off and proved to be very costly. At the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Vettel was on course to execute the perfect race. Pole position, comfortable around Baku and was on course to take back the lead of the race when Valtteri Bottas pits, who went long on his tyres. But an safety car on Lap 40 following the collision from the two Red Bull cars allowed Bottas to pit and hold onto the lead. On Lap 48 with the safety car in, Vettel attempted to pass Bottas for the lead down at Turn 1 but resulted in the Ferrari locking up and going wide into the corner, leaving him down to fourth place and with flat spotted tyres.

This move by Vettel proved to be unnecessary as a lap later, race leader Bottas suffered a tyre failure down the main straight and was forced to retire. If Vettel had not made that move the previous lap, he could have won the race. Was Vettel too ambitious with the move? Maybe so. Could he have saved the move for another lap? Most likely. You can’t blame him for having a go. He learned his lesson at the British Grand Prix as with patience saw him pass Bottas as he claimed victory at Silverstone. If he did that in Baku, he could have won the race.

At Paul Ricard, Vettel caused a Turn 1 incident when he tagged Valtteri Bottas when battling for second place, colliding into the Mercedes driver in the inside of the corner. Both cars suffered damage in the race, with Vettel having a broken front wing and Bottas a puncture, resulting in both drivers sent to the back of the field under the safety car. Whilst Vettel did deliver a great comeback through the field to finish in fifth place, a podium finish or even a challenge for the win was possible if the clash with Bottas didn’t happen.

Sebastian Vettel - France - Ferrar
Vettel’s Turn 1 Clash with Bottas eliminated a chance of clinching a podium at Paul Ricard. Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Whilst the Austrian Grand Prix saw both Mercedes drivers of Hamilton and Bottas retire from the race, handing Max Verstappen his first win of the season, it could have been a different story. During Qualifying, Renault Sport Formula One Team‘s Carlos Sainz Jr. was starting his flying lap but after Turn 1 had to take avoiding action as the Ferrari of Vettel was slow in the middle of the track. Sainz had to go off the track to avoid colliding with the slow Ferrari, hindering his qualifying run. Whilst both drivers made it into the final session, Vettel was penalised for the incident and was handed a three place grid drop. He started the race in sixth but finished the race in third, benefiting from Hamilton’s retirement. Had he not block Sainz in that qualifying session, he could of taken the chance of leaving with three extra points or even a winners’ trophy.

Whilst these mistakes could bite back at Vettel in the second half of the season, there is still hope for Ferrari and the German. Out of the last 17 seasons, only 12 drivers who led the championship into the summer break went on to win the championship. Last year Vettel had a 14 point lead to Hamilton at Hungary going into the break, which he infamously lost due to Ferrari’s downfall in the Asian races. However, it doesn’t mean the tide can be changed within the final nine races.

Vettel has been in this position when fighting for a world championship. Back in the 2012 season with eight races to go, Fernando Alonso led the championship by 40 points to second place Mark Webber. Vettel at that time was third overall and only holding one win and three podiums to his name. He suffered a difficult start to that year with incidents in the opening half of the season but a strong run and a bit of luck he was able to turn it around and win his third world championship at the final race at Brazil. Comebacks can happen as we saw last year with Hamilton and the previous year with Nico Rosberg in 2016, who slipped at the midway stage of the season before fighting back.

Sebastian Vettel - Brazil 2012 - Red Bull
Sebastian Vettel turned a 42 point gap to a third title with 8 races to go in 2012. Credit: Paul Gilham/Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Despite all the errors and question marks about Vettel’s errors, the German has remained calm and positive over the matter. In Baku, he admitted that the move was his mistake and said he doesn’t regret making the decision. His unexpected exit at homesoil saw Vettel nearly in tears over the the team radio as he slaps his Ferrari into the wall, but after the race he said that this things happen in racing. A lot of the media have made reference to Ferrari’s meltdown last year but it seems Vettel is trying to keep the Italian camp motivated, knowing they have the better overall package for the season ahead. He already learned his lesson from Baku in being patient with his attacking, as proven in Silverstone and Budapest. But the mistake in Germany could be an incident that could haunt Vettel for the future.

Out of the five races mentioned, Vettel has lost out on potentially collecting 62 extra points, which in turn would create a healthy lead going into the summer break.  That’s quite a big loss. It’s hard to question “what if’s” in a sport like F1 but with mistakes, you can imagine the potential outcome of results if they didn’t happen.

With the pressure strongly on Vettel to deliver Ferrari’s first title in ten years and his first ever in Ferrari colours, he will be hoping for a strong and clean run to the end of the season. His form in the second stage of the season has been strong in the past which has helped him deliver four world championships at Red Bull, but the nightmares of 2017 will be in the air even if Vettel continues to say they’re confident it won’t happen again. Is the season over yet? No. Vettel can still come back and win the championship but he is up against one of the sport’s most talented driver in Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. It’s a challenge both Ferrari and Vettel will want to come out on top and return the glory back Maranello.

Sebastian Vettel - Helmet - German GP
Sebastian Vettel is 24 points behind championship leader Lewis Hamilton. Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.