ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Sebastian Vettel’s move to Ferrari seems a fitting one, bringing together motor sport’s most prestigious team and the most successful driver in the current era.
The pleasant symmetry stops there.
The harsh reality is that both Ferrari and Vettel have lost their way and need each other to find a route back to the top.
This season, Ferrari failed to win a race for the first time since 1993, while Vettel went without a win for the first time since 2007, his debut F1 season in which he raced only eight times.
Some contrast to last year, when Vettel won 13 races. This year he managed just four podiums and finished fifth, 217 points behind F1 champion Lewis Hamilton.
“I know that there is a mountain of work waiting for me, and that is part of the task that I have chosen,” Vettel said. “I think if you climb a mountain together, that is a very strong bond, and then ending up successful, that is a fantastic outlook.”
Patience will clearly be required by both parties.
Since Alonso’s triumph at the Spanish GP in May, 2013, Ferrari has gone 33 races without a win — a painfully long stretch that has already led to decisive action, with Marco Mattiacci replacing long-time team principal Stefano Domenicali.
After five seasons, and three runners-up campaigns, two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso decided he’d had enough. Despite the offer of a new contract until 2019, he left Ferrari and is widely tipped to replace Jenson Button at McLaren.
“We both wanted to open new cycles,” Mattiacci said. “With Sebastian we get one of the youngest world champions ever.”
But if Ferrari’s problems keeping up with Red Bull during Vettel’s era were frustrating enough, this year Ferrari has fallen even further behind Mercedes, which easily secured a 1-2 double in both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
Ferrari finished fourth in the constructors’ championship, more than 100 points behind Williams.
This gave Ferrari limited bargaining power when it came to persuading Vettel to join.
“The arguments have to be solid arguments … the project, the investment. You don’t just over-sell,” Mattiacci said. “I was really impressed with how clever he is — an extremely clever person with great passion for Ferrari.”
Still, the challenge facing Vettel — who grew up with seven-time champion Michael Schumacher as his idol — is considerable.
He was comprehensively beaten by Daniel Ricciardo, his less experienced and less illustrious teammate, who won three races and took five third-place finishes in his first season with Red Bull.
Vettel was supposed to be Ricciardo’s mentor, yet it was the Australian who drove like the senior racer.
Vettel has been on the front row of the grid only three times this season — with no pole positions — and qualified in the top four only once in the last seven races of the campaign. Quite some fall for a driver who clocked up 39 career GP wins and 45 pole positions, helping Red Bull to four straight doubles.
“If you take the overall situation this year, yes, it was strenuous,” Vettel said. “Facing technical problems all the way through the season didn’t make life easy.”
In a somewhat humiliating end to his Red Bull career as he finished eighth at Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, starting from last place after both Red Bulls were sent to the back of the grid because of an illegal aerodynamic influence on the front wing flaps.
At least Red Bull placed a giant sticker on the garage floor which said “Danke Seb!” (“Thanks Seb!”) in recognition of his efforts.
“We can look back with a huge amount of pride,” team principal Christian Horner said. “It’s not just the experiences you share on track, it’s outside the cockpit and as not much more than a boy when he arrived, he now leaves us a young man, as a father and he can be incredibly proud of what he’s achieved.”
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