Seb is back, but was he ever really away?

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Perhaps it was unfair of me to describe Sebastian Vettel as being “resurgent” during today’s qualifying session for the Malaysian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 3:30am ET). After all, he’s only had one bad race in the last ten, and a retirement is hardly something that you can blame on a driver.

However, his performance in qualifying today was nothing short of spectacular as – following a winter of discontent for the entire Red Bull team – the four-time champion put his RB10 car on the front row of the grid.

Following Mercedes’ domination of all three practice sessions (FP1: 1/3, FP2: 1/4, FP3: 1/2), it seemed inconceivable that the front row could consist of any car besides a Silver Arrow. Even when the deluge of rain soaked the Sepang International Circuit, both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg continued to dominate. For most of Q1, Mercedes’ advantage over the rest of the field stood at over 1.7 seconds. Vettel was the only driver to get even close as he eventually finished only half a second off in third place, but it seemed that come rain or shine on Saturday, the front row was Mercedes’ to lose as they again romped to a 1-2 finish in Q2.

Come Q3, the weather gods decided to have their say. The rain grew heavier and the drivers had no choice but to venture out on the full wet tire, and it was ultimately the first runs that would decide the grid. Hamilton laid down the first benchmark of 1:59.431, but Vettel ran the British driver close to finish just 0.055 seconds off of this time. The Red Bull was in fact quicker in two of the three sectors, with Mercedes’ power advantage (thought to be around 80 BHP) telling in the first sector.

A poor lap from Nico Rosberg meant that he languished down in fourth place after his first run, having haemorrhaged time in the final two sectors (some 1.1 seconds compared to Vettel). The German driver admitted afterwards that he struggled to work with the full wet tires, but he was in fact the only driver to improve with his second run in the dying moments of the session as he edged out Fernando Alonso in third place – still over half a second behind Vettel, though.

After such a disastrous winter and opening race of the season in Australia, it was a fine performance from Red Bull. Questions still hang over the team concerning its fuel flow measurements, and this will undoubtedly be a closely-scrutinized story following tomorrow’s race regardless of where Vettel and teammate Daniel Ricciardo finish.

So could Vettel do the unthinkable and win tomorrow’s Malaysian Grand Prix? Should it be another wet affair, then there is no reason why not. As with most great champions, pedants try to pick flaws in his success, and one of the few criticisms is “Ooh Vettel can’t win in the wet.”

Being a Brit, I’m inclined to spout words such as “codswallop” or “balderdash” – essentially, “trash talk.”

The one race that is used to back up this point is the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix when, in sodden conditions, Vettel went off on the final lap of the race and handed the victory to Jenson Button (who had made six pit stops, had a drive-through penalty and been running last at one point).

What about that amazing win in Monza in 2008? 19-year-old Vettel finally announced himself on the global stage by taking a commanding victory in a Toro Rosso, a team that hasn’t won since he left at the end of that year for Red Bull.

What about his first Red Bull win in 2009? Another rain-affected race in China saw the German driver excel and lead home teammate Mark Webber (back when things were civil) for the team’s first win. Five years from first win to four straight titles – it’s a remarkable achievement, and much of it has been led by Vettel.

So why not add another great win in the wet to his collection? In dry conditions, you would expect Vettel to follow the all-conquering Mercedes drivers home and complete the podium, although Ferrari’s long-run pace is certainly impressive. Should Mercedes suffer another reliability problem, then he could even finish in the top two or claim an unlikely dry victory.

However, if we see similar conditions to what we saw in Q3 in the race on Sunday, then maybe, just maybe, Vettel could add another remarkable win to his collection – relying the fuel sensor complies with the regulations, of course…

Hamilton and Vettel already focused on 2018 F1 title battle

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are already looking forward to fighting each other for a fifth Formula One title next year.

With Hamilton wrapping up this year’s title two races ago, the pressure is off this week at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Both are projecting to 2018, where the four-time champions get back to the serious business of trying to catch Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio on five titles.

“Certainly we will never match him in how successful he was in such a short space of time,” Vettel said on Thursday at a news conference. “Back then racing was different. The cars were not that reliable and he still managed to be successful. (He was) the best we’ve ever had in terms of putting it all together and skill.”

Only Michael Schumacher with seven titles has won more than Fangio, who drove in F1 from 1950-58.

“It was the most dangerous period of time in motorsport. I feel honored to be so close to such a great sporting icon,” Hamilton said of Fangio. “He should be celebrated more for his success. He’s not mentioned a huge amount. He’s kind of the godfather of the sport for the drivers.”

Some may come to revere Hamilton like that in time.

He has won 62 races – second only to Schumacher’s 91 – and holds the record for pole positions with 72. The 32-year-old British driver has won three of the past four titles – losing to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016 – and was at the peak of his powers this season.

After trailing Vettel at the halfway point, he pulled away after the summer break and leads the German driver by 43 points.

Hamilton is arguably the fiercest competitor around and is already thinking about how Vettel plans to turn the tables.

“Whatever weakness Sebastian had, he’ll work on those over the winter. No one’s perfect, even I have things to work on,” Hamilton said, without a trace of irony. “He’s going to raise the bar next year and I’ll have to as well, otherwise things won’t be the same.

“Ferrari had a very, very good season. Half the season they were in the lead and that wasn’t down to luck,” Hamilton added. “Red Bull is also going to be (competing for the title) next year.”

Considering how poor Ferrari was in 2016, this year can still be viewed as a success with Vettel winning five races compared to none last year.

Vettel joked that winning the title in 2018 will be “a walk in the park” if Ferrari improves by the same amount, then took a more serious view of the situation.

“That final step is always the hardest. But the team is ready and fired up,” said Vettel, who won four titles with Red Bull from 2010-13. “We made the biggest step of all. We lost out as the season progressed. In the end we weren’t good enough to take it to the last race, but there’s so much potential still.”

He accepted that he ultimately fell short because “Lewis made less mistakes” than he did.

Poised to regain the championship lead, he crashed out of the Singapore GP from pole position back in September – turning the tide in Hamilton’s favor. Reliability issues plagued Ferrari at the next two races. He started last and finished fourth at the Malaysian GP and then qualified third before retiring from the Japanese GP.

In June, the rivals were embroiled in their most heated clash at the Azerbaijan GP in Baku.

Vettel drove alongside Hamilton’s Mercedes as they waited behind the safety car for the restart, and was adjudged to have deliberately nudged the side of him. Tempers frayed and barbs were exchanged. Vettel initially denied it was deliberate but subsequently apologized for dangerous driving.

That incident genuinely threatened to spoil their healthy rivalry, but they joke about it now.

Asked on Thursday what their highlight of the season was, both drivers – sitting next to each other – laughed easily when Baku was suggested.

Referring to the upcoming end-of-season F1 awards, Vettel put himself forward for three.

“I should get (overtaking) move of the year, personality of the year, and fair play … maybe not.”