Schumacher’s Footsteps: With Ferrari, can Sebastian Vettel emulate his hero?

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Back in 1994, Michael Schumacher was taking the Formula 1 world by storm. At the age of 25, the German racer had his first championship in sight, and would eventually retire 18 years later as – statistically – the greatest driver in the history of the sport.

However, in the very same year, another German driver was making great strides in his own career. Seven-year-old Sebastian Vettel was finding his feet in go-karts with dreams of being like Schumacher when he grew up, just like thousands of other young racers.

That year, Vettel was surprised at a karting event when he was awarded the winner’s trophy by Schumacher (picture), who at the time may not have thought much of the young man that he squatted down to shake hands with and congratulate.

Fast forward to the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix. Having fought back from almost a lap down to finish inside the points at his 308th and final F1 race, Schumacher parks his car up in the Interlagos pit lane. His attention soon turns to the same young man whom he had met 18 years earlier, only this time, the prize is far greater: a third F1 world championship. They embrace and share words as Schumacher symbolically hands the torch over to Vettel in his final grand prix.

The correlations between the two drivers have been there from the beginning. When Vettel first arrived in Formula 1 as a fresh-faced 19-year-old in 2006, he was dubbed “Baby Schumi”, and has since delivered on much of the promise that he showed all the way back in 1994. With Red Bull, he won four world titles and 38 grands prix, spearheading the team’s success over the past six years.

However, for 2015, he has moved to pastures new: Scuderia Ferrari. A revolution has taken place at Maranello over the past year, costing Luca di Montezemolo, Stefano Domenicali, Marco Mattiacci and Fernando Alonso their jobs as a new regime was been ushered in. The goal is to return the team to its former self, having won just a solitary drivers’ title in the past ten years.

And Vettel is at the centre of all of this, just like Schumacher was.

Michael pulled exactly the same move in 1996, just two years after that iconic photo of the pair was taken. After winning titles with Benetton in 1994 and 1995, he made the shock decision to quit the team and join Ferrari – a team that, for all of its history, had not won a championship since 1979.

The dream team was built up over the years that followed. Ross Brawn, Jean Todt and Rory Byrne were all critical to Ferrari’s success with Schumacher, setting the stage for a devastating run of form that would see the German win five consecutive world titles between 2000 and 2004.

Vettel may already have bagged four-in-a-row with Red Bull, but like any great sportsman, he wants more. He now has the chance to become a true great by building a team around him like Schumacher did, taking Ferrari back to the pinnacle of F1 after years in the doldrums. The similarities are frightening at times.

Oddly though, Sebastian still has a point to prove. Few doubt that the car Red Bull produced in each of his championship winning years was the best in the grid, with the 2011 and 2013 models being particularly dominant. The naysayers argued that it was not Vettel who had won these titles, but chief designer Adrian Newey; Seb had just done a better job than teammate Mark Webber.

This was an argument that only grew stronger in 2014. Joined by Toro Rosso graduate Daniel Ricciardo, most expected Vettel to blow his teammate out of the water. Instead, the German failed to get to grips with the new technical regulations and car, leaving him a lowly fifth in the championship without a single win. Ricciardo had three to his name, finishing third in the standings. Sebastian had been soundly beaten and made to look rather average.

But an opportunity presented itself at Ferrari. It was clear that change was needed, resulting in a purge of many of the gestione sportiva’s top personnel, including lead driver Fernando Alonso. Quite clearly, Vettel was the man they always had in mind. Rumour has it that the final straw for Alonso came in the summer, when what he thought would be a positive chat with team principal Marco Mattiacci ended with the Spaniard storming out, calling his boss a “son of a b****”. At that moment, the path was cleared for Vettel to move to Maranello.

Vettel’s poor showing in 2014 was also instrumental in securing his move to Ferrari. A clause in his contract permitted the German to leave Red Bull if he sat any lower than third in the drivers’ championship. In a hotel room on the Friday of the Japanese Grand Prix, Vettel broke down in tears and told team principal Christian Horner of his decision. Red Bull didn’t dwell on the matter: Daniil Kvyat was confirmed as his replacement just 12 hours later.

It wasn’t a done deal, though. Vettel considered walking away from F1 completely, but after conversations with the incoming management at Ferrari, Sergio Marchionne and Maurizio Arrivabene, his mind was nearly made up. A conversation with Sabine Kehm – Michael Schumacher’s manager – was what sealed the deal.

Clearly, Schumacher has had an influence on Vettel’s career ever since he stepped into a go-kart for the very first time. The goal has always been to be like Michael; to be as successful as him; to dominate like him.

Ferrari has always been a dream for Vettel. In a recent interview with Italian newspaper Gazzetta della Sport, he revealed that he first spoke with the team back in 2008 about a future there, and even held secret talks following the 2012 season at Maranello. “It was a dream for me,” he said. “Now I’m happy I’m inside that dream.”

Vettel was unable to speak to his hero about the move in 2014, though. After suffering a severe head injury whilst skiing in December 2013, Schumacher was in a coma for many months, and despite returning home, he remains in rehabilitation.

He did, however, know of Vettel’s desire to race for Ferrari.

“Unfortunately I couldn’t speak with Michael,” Vettel said. “A while ago I told him about the possibility offered by Domenicali, and he said that if I agreed, I would find a nice atmosphere and a great enthusiasm in Maranello.”

And that is what Vettel appears to have found in 2015. The atmosphere at Ferrari has changed dramatically, and he is said to have made such an impression that, upon getting out of the car following his first test at Jerez, the mechanics gave him a round of applause. He has even began to learn Italian to aid communication with his engineers. They clearly see him as the future of this team; as the man who can return Ferrari to its glory days.

The spirit of Schumacher is perhaps stronger now at Ferrari than it has been since he left the team in 2006 upon his first retirement, such are the similarities between Michael and Sebastian. Speaking to Italian journalist Leo Turrini, new team boss Maurizio Arrivabene said himself how starting the similarities are.

“I was around in Michael’s time,” Arrivabene said, “and I confess that there are times when I look at Vettel and, in some ways, it really seems like a carbon copy of Schumi.

“There are impressive similarities, for those who have known both. We all hope that the results are the same as well.”

The seven-year-old boy who received that trophy back in 1994 has realized his dream: he has followed in Schumacher’s footsteps. Now, he has the chance to truly emulate his hero with Ferrari and establish himself as one of Formula 1’s all-time greats.