When Sebastian Vettel broke onto the F1 scene as a fresh-faced 19-year-old, the comparisons with Michael Schumacher were obvious from the go.
He even earned the nickname “Baby Schumi” as Germany’s next great F1 talent after claiming a shock win in 2008 for Toro Rosso at the Italian Grand Prix that loudly announced his arrival on the grand stage.
Six years later, Vettel’s potential has been realised. He is a four-time world champion, with only Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio boasting more world titles. So why do question marks about his ability still hang over his head?
Critics claim that Vettel’s success has not been self-induced – that is, without Red Bull (or more precisely, without Adrian Newey), he wouldn’t be fighting at the very front of the field. His waning title defence in 2014 has only furthered their argument.
Sebastian’s departure at the end of the season comes with the break-up of the ‘dream team’ at Red Bull. Newey is set to take up more of a mentor role for 2015 so he can focus on other projects with Red Bull, and race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin will move upstairs into a more senior position. Things are changing at Milton Keynes, just as they did at Ferrari when Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Jean Todt all left. For Seb, now is the right time to leave.
And it could indeed be the making of him. Many said that Schumacher had to leave Benetton to truly establish himself as a world beater, while others scoffed at his decision to switch to the fading Ferrari team for the 1996 season. However, he soon proved them wrong, finishing with seven world titles upon his first retirement in 2006.
For Vettel, it’s a very similar case. Ferrari has openly said that its plan is not short-term, but long-term. It wants to be dominating the sport in the next three years or so, not immediately in 2015. Vettel has agreed a deal with the team knowing this, but also in the knowledge that he is the man to head up this charge.
“Baby Schumi” is a nickname that is becoming all the more poignant.
It’s a challenge that Vettel will relish, though. He will have, for the first time, the free rein to build a team around himself, just as Schumacher did. He will be racing in the first James Allison-designed Ferrari in 2015, and is very much at the beginning of a new era at Maranello.
There is also the mystique of racing for Ferrari, even if the team isn’t a world beater. Schumacher did it, Prost did it, Lauda did it, Senna would probably have done it – many of the greats of F1 enjoyed a stint with the Italian team. Vettel will be adding his name to this long list.
Vettel has a perfect chance to lay down a Schumacher-esque record over the coming years with Ferrari. He is set to become the highest paid driver in the sport, and knows that it is a ‘work in progress’. The weight of expectation has been enormous at Ferrari in the past, but from 2015, it will be reduced. Everyone knows that this is the beginning of something new at the team. Gone are Luca di Montezemolo, Stefano Domenicali and – soon to be – Fernando Alonso.
Alonso was perceived the be the man with the key to the 2015 driver market, yet it was Vettel who started the domino effect. His decision to leave Red Bull, and the team’s own decision to replace him with Daniil Kvyat, has left Alonso on the seat of his pants scrambling for a place on the grid next season. McLaren is the most likely destination, but his bargaining power has been reduced considerably because of Vettel’s move.
Seb has a golden chance to silence his critics and see what life outside of Red Bull is like in 2015. It could well be the making of him.