ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel must handle pressure better if he wants to wrestle the Formula One title back from Lewis Hamilton.
Vettel should be kicking himself after missing out on a fifth F1 title. He lost his way in September and never regained the momentum as Hamilton went on to earn his fourth title, and third in four seasons with Mercedes.
Hamilton’s winning margin of 46 points over Vettel does not reflect an often tense title battle, one in which Ferrari had a genuine chance of breaking Mercedes’ stranglehold until Vettel’s alarming dip.
“I’m very hungry for next year,” Vettel said on Sunday after the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “For the team it’s flat out from now.”
It’s back to the factories until the cars are rolled out again for preseason testing in late February. The season begins with the Australian GP on March 25.
Vettel has been fair play in defeat and has detailed why he thinks Mercedes was the superior team.
“Look at the amount of pole positions, of race wins. Overall, we were not quick enough. Simple as that,” he said. “In the end you can break it down to a lot of details, this and that, but overall the package wasn’t good enough.”
It is a somewhat convenient argument, too, for statistics tell only part of the story.
Chasing its first drivers’ title since 2007, Ferrari was faster than Mercedes several times. The huge speed advantage Mercedes enjoyed since new engine changes came into play in 2014 was wiped out by Ferrari this year.
The uncomfortable conclusion is that Vettel self-destructed when poised to crank the pressure up on Hamilton.
For all of his experience – 47 wins from nearly 200 races – Vettel is still prone to emotional swings that undermine him. He showed glimpses of that when bickering with his former Red Bull teammate Mark Webber and with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen last year.
After the Azerbaijan GP in June, Hamilton publicly spoke about Vettel’s vulnerability under pressure as something he could exploit.
Vettel played a very weak hand in Baku.
Irritated by what he perceived to be Hamilton’s deliberately slow driving behind a safety car – known in F1 as backing up – he accelerated alongside the British driver and then inexplicably swerved into the left side of his Mercedes.
It was a clear error of judgment and Vettel subsequently apologized for dangerous driving. The two exchanged heated barbs afterward.
Vettel’s red mist that day was as bright as his gleaming Ferrari.
He escaped with a time penalty when a one-race ban was spoken of. The penalty itself was damaging, however, since it prevented him from finishing higher than fourth and so valuable points were needlessly lost.
A second and momentous mistake from Vettel came at the Singapore GP. It perhaps defined the season itself.
Before the race, Vettel was only three points behind Hamilton in the championship with seven races remaining. He was inspired in qualifying and took pole position on the sinewy street circuit. Better still, Hamilton was starting from fifth on the grid.
It was the perfect scenario for Vettel to both regain the lead and pad it out at the next race in Malaysia – another track suited to Ferrari.
A few seconds later, jaws were dropping and eyes bulging in the Ferrari garage – but for all the wrong reasons.
Vettel went diagonally across the track to cut off Verstappen, starting from second. A four-car collision ensued that took them both out, along with Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso.
With 25 points beckoning, on a track where no F1 driver has more podiums than him, Vettel scored none. The nightmare scenario concluded with Hamilton profiting from the chaos to win.
It was a total gift, but somehow Vettel minimized the incident and the team spared him justifiable reproach.
F1 observers pointed to Vettel’s previous verbal spats with Verstappen. In theory, he simply could not accept losing ground to Verstappen even though the Dutchman was not a title threat.
While Hamilton strengthened his title bid Vettel went out of his way – literally – to undermine his own.
Vettel will need to think twice if the red mist starts descending next year.