On 24 November 2013, Sebastian Vettel celebrated his 39th grand prix victory having long-since sealed his fourth consecutive drivers’ world championship.
The Formula 1 world was at the 26-year-old’s feet and matching Michael Schumacher’s record of seven titles and perhaps even threatening the seemingly-impregnable 91 wins record seemed plausible.
Instead, that was the future that lay in wait for the driver who finished ninth that day to round out a decent first season with Mercedes – Lewis Hamilton. As he has gone on to rack up six world championships to add to the one he took with McLaren 2008 and set new records for wins and pole positions, Vettel’s career has stagnated.
When Vettel was taking his fourth title, it was Hamilton whose career had lost momentum. Since winning that first championship, he’d only added 13 victories in five years, as well as enduring a very difficult 2011 season that led to many questioning his qualities.
But the fact Hamilton still won three races in 2011 actually spoke volumes for his quality. By and large, it was clear he was performing well – if a little inconsistently as he was not yet the rounded driver he became – and the big problem there was an underachieving McLaren team.
The 2009 season is a classic example of this as Hamilton was arguably the best driver over the course of the season, winning twice in a car that was rarely in the top 10 on the grid in the first half of the year.
Even so, it’s often forgotten Hamilton was still in title contention in the 2010 season finale – albeit a complete outsider – despite McLaren’s form dropping off badly. And in 2012, but for reliability problems and operational blunders, Hamilton could have been world champion. Hamilton’s years in the wilderness were still strong, even if he seemed less comfortable with his place in the world than Vettel was.
Hamilton’s number of wins during that period is similar to the 14 victories Vettel added to his record in the seven seasons that followed his last title. That took Vettel’s tally to a still-remarkable 53 – behind only Hamilton and Schumacher – but he has never done better than second in the world championship in that time. While he’s still been a key driver of the V6 turbo hybrid era, it certainly hasn’t gone as planned.
Initially, it seemed that Vettel was just the victim of the usual ebbs and flows in any career. The weakness of the Renault engine meant that Red Bull was feeding off scraps in 2014 and, while he was outperformed by new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, it felt at the time like a ‘hangover’ season.
Having pushed himself so hard to win those four titles, Vettel perhaps could be excused a year off where he struggled to come to terms with his status as an also-ran – and he did have some bad luck during the year that potentially cost him a victory.
While Vettel was enduring a difficult season, Hamilton prevailed in a season-long battle for the title with team-mate Nico Rosberg. Mercedes was the dominant force and his bold decision to sign for the team for 2013 was vindicated.
2014: Hamilton 33 wins, Vettel 39 wins
It seemed Vettel might have pulled off a similar move when he switched to Ferrari for 2015 and won second-time-out in Malaysia. That was one of three wins that year for Vettel as Ferrari appeared to have recovered from its terrible start to the V6 turbo hybrid era. Given Vettel was still perceived as a driver with something to prove having dominated with Red Bull only, his reputation was enhanced by this strong start and a Ferrari title seemed inevitable in the future.
2015: Hamilton 43 wins, Vettel 42 wins
Instead, this simply proved the starting point for the ebbs and flows of Vettel’s Ferrari career. For both, 2016 was a difficult year as Hamilton was beaten to the title by Rosberg and Ferrari went winless. Hamilton’s failure was largely as a result of bad luck (he suffered half of the serious engine-related problems Mercedes encountered across all its teams that year) although there were occasions where he left points on the table.
But while this was the season that made Hamilton take the final step in transforming himself into the no-stone-unturned winning machine that dominates today, it was the beginning of a recurring nightmare for Vettel.
2016: Hamilton 53 wins, Vettel 42 wins
In 2017, the Ferrari was a strong car on the slower circuits and Vettel was a title threat. After 13 races, he was just three points behind Hamilton but things started to unravel when he caused the start shunt in Singapore.
While reliability problems and Ferrari’s struggles meant winning the title would have been difficult, this was the start of what might be called Vettel’s error-prone Ferrari period. Given the 2017 Mercedes was not perhaps as strong a car as the results suggest, it has to go down as a missed opportunity.
2017: Hamilton 62 wins, Vettel 47 wins
But 2018 really was the one that got away for Vettel. While Hamilton was on his way to a fifth world championship, Vettel had the machinery to win the title but his own mistakes cost him.
In Baku, a big lock-up compromised his race, at Paul Ricard he rear-ended Valtteri Bottas at the start, at Hockenheim he slid off while leading, at Monza he spun while battling with Hamilton on the first lap, at Austin he clattered into Ricciardo, at Suzuka, Max Verstappen was his victim. There were other mistakes that year and this was unquestionably Vettel’s big chance to win the title with Ferrari.
2018: Hamilton 73 wins, Vettel 52 wins
While Hamilton benefitted from a partnership with Bottas, a driver capable of pushing him in qualifying and contributing well to the Mercedes team without having the adaptability on Sundays to be a consistent problem, Vettel found himself up against Charles Leclerc in 2019. The writing on the wall was clear early on with a series of minor team orders skirmishes and it was clear Vettel was struggling to hang on to his status as de facto team leader.
The mistakes were still there, spinning in battle with Hamilton in Bahrain, running off the track while leading in Canada and losing victory to a post-race time penalty, rear-ending Verstappen in Britain and spinning into the gravel and rejoining dangerously in Italy. While he had a mini-revival at the end of the season as the rear end of the Ferrari became stronger, winning in Singapore thanks to a fortuitous accidental undercut on Leclerc and, most impressively, taking pole position at Suzuka, it wasn’t sustainable.
That old problem of struggling with rear instability has proved to be limiting for Vettel up against Leclerc. While his team-mate is capable of some heroic laps even with the rear end misbehaving – his live wire Singapore pole lap last year proved that – Vettel is constrained by it. That, and Ferrari’s decision to replace him with Carlos Sainz Jr for 2021 that was made during the COVID-19-enforced hiatus, set the scene for a dismal 2020 campaign that is unquestionably Vettel’s worst in F1.
2019: Hamilton 84 wins, Vettel 53 wins
Qualifying pace has been the key problem this season. Vettel has outqualified Leclerc only three times, twice in wet conditions, and by regularly starting outside the top 10 his stronger race pace has rarely translated into results. In Turkey, he finished third having gained eight places on the opening lap, while he also had a strong run to sixth from fifth on the grid in Hungary. But save for a one-stop run to seventh in Spain, results have been well below what is expected of a Ferrari driver.
2020: Hamilton 94 wins, Vettel 53 wins
Hamilton, meanwhile, has gone on to set new records. It’s an illustration of how vital it is to be in the right place at the right time, but history might look very different had Vettel made the most of 2018 and perhaps even 2017. While it would have been a big ask to win in the second of those seasons, it’s not impossible that Vettel could have six titles and Hamilton still ‘only’ five.
It’s not correct to say Vettel didn’t have the opportunity to win more races and at least one title with Ferrari and ultimately he has to carry the can for that despite the team’s obvious weaknesses during his time there.
Ultimately, while Hamilton has evolved as a driver to become the dominant force of today, Vettel appears to be caught out by the same problems repeatedly. It’s certainly true that were the Ferrari team operating at the same level as Mercedes he would have won more races and titles. But while Hamilton has largely made the most of his opportunities, there have been too many mistakes for Vettel.
That’s not to say Vettel is not a great driver. You do not win four world championships and master the intricacies of exhaust blown downforce without being that. But what has become increasingly clear is that Vettel is a driver who needs a narrower set of circumstances than Hamilton to win a title.
It also casts light on just how good Hamilton has been. If this is Vettel’s worst season performance-wise, the level of Hamilton’s weakest has been significantly higher. After all, he’s won at least one race in each of his 14 seasons in F1 – a record.
Amid all the talk of whether it’s the car or driver that achieves the success, which is a reductive and overly simplistic debate, it’s important to focus on what the driver contributes. And while some dismissed Hamilton’s post-2008 results as a sign he was over-rated, those paying close attention could see the class shining through even when he was making mistakes.
As for Vettel, his 2010-2013 success cannot be called lucky or devalued. But the fact he has not managed to sustain that kind of level even allowing for the machinery over his career shows that there are limitations there. That is what ensured that none of the big three teams were interested in his services in 2021.
But as a 33-year-old who moves to the upwardly mobile Racing Point/Aston Martin team next year, Vettel’s career also reminds us not to underestimate him. Out of the Ferrari environment, perhaps we will see more of the ‘old’ Vettel on track next season. As what happened in 2013/14 shows us, a lot can change between seasons.