Why Vettel might get the last laugh over struggling Ferrari

Last September Sebastian Vettel was locked in a volatile battle for supremacy inside a nascent Ferrari, but just 12 months later the four-time champion has stitched up a deal to flee the sinking scarlet ship for greener pastures.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

Racing Point has confirmed the paddock’s worst-kept secret this month by announcing spurned Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel would lead it from 2021, when it will rebrand to historic British auto brand Aston Martin.

The German will join alongside Lance Stroll, son of team owner Lawrence, and at the expense of Sergio Perez, whose own three-year deal was cut short to make space.

Expected though the announcement was, it was delivered with impact. Dropped on the morning of press conference day at the Tuscan Grand Prix, Ferrari’s 1000th grand prix anniversary weekend was dominated by talk not of its historic place in the sport but of the destination of the driver it mercilessly axed mere months ago.

It doesn’t take a cynic to suggest the timing was more than mere coincidence.

While it would be an exaggeration to say Vettel and Ferrari have suffered a relationship breakdown, the once happy marriage has become strained in the last 12 months, and this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix (27 September) marks the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the inevitable end.

This time last season young teammate Charles Leclerc was in undoubted ascendency. The Monegasque had converted a couple of poles to victory in Belgium and Italy, and pole in Singapore became second to Vettel only through a strategic quirk.

But in Russia, with Leclerc again on pole, things began to sour. Vettel had been allowed to slipstream into the lead from third as per a pre-race agreement, but when the team called for the positions to be swapped back, the German was suddenly unamenable to the proposition.

Several laps of embarrassing radio haggling ensued until Ferrari deployed strategy against him. Ironically a Vettel power unit failure handed Mercedes a free pit stop and delivered Hamilton victory.

It was an alarming act of insubordination, and if that wasn’t the moment Maranello began contemplating Vettel’s future, the crash he instigated in Brazil that took both cars out of the race — certainly not deliberate but absolutely unduly aggressive — confirmed the balance of power had shifted from the established leader to the newcomer.

By December Ferrari was negotiating with Carlos Sainz to take the seat. Vettel, who had been told he was the team’s first preference, found out in May that he wouldn’t be offered a contract.

Team and driver are now faced with a final loveless season together, and with a badly behaving and chronically underpowered car Vettel’s frustration in the cockpit has been as clear as his lack of inspiration outside it.

But Aston Martin presents a fresh start after six fruitless years at Maranello. The midfield team is not only beefing up its resources, but the imminent spending cap and prize money redistribution offers it an opportunity to take a substantial step forward.

And though he wasn’t to know when he was dropped in May, the team in its current guise as Racing Point is also fielding a car markedly quicker than the Ferrari. Vettel will likely be moving up the grid in 2021 by leaving Maranello.

In a new environment, freed from the crushing expectations and more recent fumbling of the Ferrari team, Vettel might just have the opportunity to turn his long run of poor and error-prone form around and rediscover the younger driver who dominated the sport in 2010–13.

After the pointed timing of his announcement in Tuscany, Sebastian Vettel may get the last laugh after all.