Is Sebastian Vettel’s legacy being altered amidst title fights with Lewis Hamilton?

Image: Manuel Goria/Sutton Images via F1.com

Sunday afternoon provided another exciting Grand Prix in 2018, as a tight affair between Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen was ultimately decided by tyre wear and Mercedes’ great tactics — positioning the yet-to-stop Valterri Bottas in front of Raikkonen to draw Hamilton close — with Hamilton emerging as the victor and extended his championship lead to 30 points over Sebastian Vettel.

For Hamilton’s title rival, Vettel, his P4 required a recovery drive after a spin on lap 1 following contact with Lewis Hamilton heading into the second chicane sent him to the back of the grid.

The stewards ultimately deemed this a racing incident, but really this is Vettel’s fault and he rightly bore the brunt of the outcome as he spun around. Hamilton left him more than enough room and Vettel should’ve gotten out of it — I just think Vettel didn’t want to accept that Hamilton had just brilliantly done him around the outside and expected Hamilton to just get out of the way? Like that was going to happen…

Whether Vettel had the pace to win in Monza, whether his presence up front may have actually helped Ferrari win the race we’ll never know, but what do we do know is that it was another crucial swing in the championship as Hamilton extended his lead to 30 points over his German rival.

Vettel and Hamilton have shared the grid since 2007 and have both enjoyed driving title-winning cars, but only in 2017 did the two finally share a title-contending car at the same time and lock horns together as the two title favourites (2010 doesn’t really count, that was a Vettel-Webber-Alonso title showdown. Hamilton was just on the fringes come showdown). In these two years where Formula 1’s selling point has been ‘Hamilton vs. Vettel’, what has become abundantly clear is the consistency of Hamilton across an entire season compared to Vettel, who has faltered under the pressure with the Italian Grand Prix proving to be another blot for the German’s copybook in his quest to become the first Ferrari champion since 2007.

With this latest knock in the German’s title challenge, the question that should be arising about now: is Vettel’s legacy going to be altered as a result of the outcomes of his two title battles against Lewis Hamilton?

Let’s go over it so far…

Vettel has enjoyed a glittering career in which he has won four titles and amassed over 50 grand prix victories.

He quickly rose from the ranks of Toro Rosso to replace the retiring David Coulthard at Red Bull in 2009 and continued his rise as one of Formula 1’s hottest new properties as he secured the first win for Red Bull in China.

In 2010 he went all the way as he won the title at the final Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, pipping Fernando Alonso and teammate Mark Webber to the throne and claim the honour of youngest World Champion.

As Vettel made history, Red Bull had quickly developed a car that was the class of the field. By the end of 2009, it was the quickest car on the grid as Red Bull won the final three races of 2009.

In 2010, Ferrari and McLaren arrived with much improved cars from their 2009 counterparts — enabling Alonso, Hamilton and Jenson Button to win races — but the superiority eventually swung back to Red Bull, who won 9 of the 19 races in 2010.

By Abu Dhabi, the McLaren’s of Hamilton and Button had no chance of winning the title (Hamilton technically could have but it was never going to happen) and Alonso was sucking absolutely everything that Ferrari had to offer — it was clearly the worse car between itself and the Red Bull.

In 2011, Red Bull pressed their advantage right from the off as the Austrian outfit clearly had the best package right from the get-go as Vettel tore away to win five of the first six races. The respective packages from McLaren and Ferrari wasn’t up to snuff over the course of the season to contend with the Red Bulls, leaving Hamilton, Button and Alonso with no chance of contending for the title. The sister Red Bull in the hands of Mark Webber fared no better than Alonso, Button or Hamilton. By his own admission in his book, after his best title opportunity in 2010 slipped away, Webber admitted the “stuffing was knocked out of him”. He had prepared to retire after he had won the title but it didn’t happen, and Webber was on the decline in his career — no match for Vettel. In the end, it was a very easy title for Vettel to claim — which he did by round 15 of 19 in Japan — in what was easily the best car on the grid.

In 2012, again, the Red Bull proved to be the best car on the grid with Alonso, incredibly, willing his Ferrari to a title challenge despite winning just three races and winning none of them from Round 10 onwards — the infamous 2010 German Grand Prix where Ferrari enforced team orders, forcing Felipe Massa to move aside for Alonso. It took until the final round again but Vettel ultimately prevailed as he always should have given his machinery — his third world title coming a lot closer than it really should have.

And for the last of Vettel’s current four titles, 2013 was an absolute landslide as he won 12 races, including the last nine in a row, to win by 157 points over Alonso in second — the Red Bull as dominant as it’s ever been in the final year of the V8 era.

At the point of 2013, Vettel has had the dream career powered by a great car which had been the class of the field every year since the end of 2009.

Of course, Vettel’s unrelenting pace, in addition to a dream car, was unquestionable. His place as one of Formula 1’s finest drivers ever was, arguably, secured at the end of 2013 as he scured his fourth title in a row.

Anything that came after only cemented it…or did it?

Since 2014 began, Vettel hasn’t had everything his way. He went winless in 2014 as his teammate Daniel Ricciardo won three races before moving to Ferrari for the 2015 season, replacing Alonso. In his first two years with the Scuderia, Vettel didn’t have a title-winning car underneath him as Mercedes continued their domination in the V6 era.

In 2017, things changed.

After a regulation reshuffle, Ferrari finally produced a car in which the accomplished Vettel could finally mount a challenge to Lewis Hamilton’s and Mercedes’ throne, and so Vettel was thrust into the title fight.

When you’re in a title challenge, the microscope is incredibly fine. If there’s a fault in you it will be found out, especially when your opponent is Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.

The 2017 Ferrari was equally as capable of winning the 2017 driver’s title as the Mercedes but its challenge was let down by two things. One was the Ferrari’s reliability, which gave up the ghost in Japan (forcing Vettel to retire in the early stages) and Malaysia, where Vettel was also forced to start from the back of the grid after an engine issue.

The second reason why Vettel’s title quest came up short was that Vettel cracked in key moments whereas Hamilton did not.

At Round No. 8 in Baku, Vettel saw red as he intentionally drove alongside and then into the side of Hamilton’s Mercedes after Vettel adjudged the Brit to brake-check him under the safety car, leading to some damage to Vettel’s front wing.

Vettel was handed a 10 second stop-go penalty for his actions, which ultimately cost him victory after Hamilton was forced to pit after his head-rest became loose, requiring a replacement. Vettel ultimately finished fourth ahead of Hamilton in fifth but needlessly threw away the victory, and 13 points were lost that day on account on his own recklessness…

Arguably the pinnacle moment of the entire 2017 season (certainly an iconic one) ,and the moment that the championship tide turned for good, came that Singapore.

Having stuck his Ferrari on pole, Vettel’s getaway off the line in the wet was slow, with both Max Verstappen and Raikkonen both enjoying much better starts. Raikkonen hugged the wall as he went to attack Verstappen while Vettel — with all the track to his right available to him — veered to the left to cover off his threats and pinched Verstappen in between the two Ferraris, which ended up in a massive crash and all three were forced to retire, but not before Vettel had a second off as he lost the back-end and made contact with the wall.

The stewards decided that this was a racing incident but, really, Verstappen isn’t making contact with Raikkonen until Vettel comes over, which left Verstappen between a rock and a hard place. But the ultimate backshot was that Hamilton ended up winning the race — at a track Mercedes were genuinely struggling and Ferrari thriving — and extended his championship lead from 3 points to 28 points.

It marked the beginning of the end of Vettel’s title challenge…

After the reliability issues of Malaysia and Japan, Hamilton beat Vettel to victory in USA and had the chance to clinch the title at the next round in Mexico.

Having qualified on pole, Vettel faced pressure from Verstappen heading into Turn 1. Verstappen hangs his car around the outside through Turn 1 and is left very little room by Vettel. The two make tyre-to-tyre contact before Turn 2, before Verstappen claims the corner and makes slight contact with Vettel’s wing as they head into Turn 3. Meanwhile, Hamilton switches back on Vettel heading into Turn 2 and gets himself ahead of his rival. Vettel then makes contact with Hamilton’s rear tyre, damaging his own wing and giving Hamilton a puncture. After being forced to pit, both cars fought through the field in recovery drives but it wasn’t enough for Vettel to deny Hamilton his fourth world title.

In the race that would decide the title, Vettel not only lost a position off the line, squeezed another car off of the track limits, he has also made contact with his main championship rival in an incident that probably could’ve been avoided. Some believe that Vettel knew exactly what he was doing when he made contact with Hamilton…

If it was intentional, it didn’t pay off as Hamilton secured his fourth world title and Vettel is left to reflect on what could’ve been…

Ultimately, Vettel had the machinery to beat Hamilton in 2017. Yes reliability played its part in Malaysia and Japan but the Ferrari had the potential to win the title on pace — those cars were incredibly close, with perhaps a slight edge going toward Mercedes ultimately in terms of performance but it was marginal.

But in the end, over the course of the 20-race season, Vettel made more mistakes than Hamilton. Hamilton — who is used to facing incredible pressure in intense title fights with Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa and Nico Rosberg in particular — didn’t falter under the pressure, didn’t make mistakes as Vettel did and remained calm while Vettel made mistakes and lost his cool in Baku.

When the big moments came, Hamilton seized them and Vettel faltered.

While 2017 was a missed opportunity for Vettel and Ferrari, 2018 held a lot of promise, with Ferrari building on their 2017 resurgence.

Though Ferrari won the first two races, the general feeling was that Mercedes still held the quicker car but this advantage wouldn’t last for long as Ferrari made significant engine gains. The general feeling by Canada was that Ferrari now had the quicker car.

Heading into the French Grand Prix, Vettel led the championship by a single point after his win in Canada. The weekend not only represented F1’s first return to France in 10 years but the first major moment in terms of the championship.

Heading into Turn 1, Vettel — having qualified behind both Mercedes — locks up and makes contact with Valterri Bottas, resulting in a puncture for Bottas (as well as damage to the rear of the car and leaving him in last place for good measure) and a new wing required for Vettel. Hamilton would go on to secure an easy win, uncontested from his teammate and his title rival Vettel (who finished in 5th), and take the lead of the championship by 14 points.

A pretty major, unforced error from Vettel who received a five second penalty for the accident, ruined the race of Valterri Bottas and ruined his own race single-handedly, while handing the championship lead to Hamilton.

Vettel was handed a reprieve for his error in France as Hamilton suffered a mechanical fault in Austria while Vettel finished third, allowing Vettel to re-take the championship lead before extending it further to eight points in Britain after a brilliant victory at Silverstone.

The most pivotal moment of the season (at least as of right now) came in Germany…

Having absolutely smashed his way to pole position at his home grand prix (with a huge opportunity to extend his lead after a failure for Hamilton is qualifying meant he started from P14), Vettel comfortably led the first part of the race before making his pitstop on lap 26. Having got the jump on his teammate having stopped earlier, Kimi Raikkonen was ordered to move aside for Vettel as the rain loomed in the air. On Lap 44 the rain arrived and then on Lap 52, arguably the most important moment of the whole season arrived.

Leading the race, Vettel lost control as he made his way through the beginning of the stadium section and helplessly skidded into the gravel, into the barrier and out of the race, with German admitting afterwards he was on the brakes too late.

Vettel sounded extremely upset over team radio and sounded like a man who knew he had made a catastrophic error… An error that has probably cost him the world title…

It was the same conditions for everyone out there (though, perhaps a tad different for Pierre Gasly, who Toro Rosso incredibly sent out on full wets for a period) but ultimately it was only Vettel who fell victim to the conditions and retired as a result.

Meanwhile Hamilton (though in controversial circumstances after a shady excursion between the pitlane and the track) recovered to win the race and retake the championship lead by 17 points.

Even if Hamilton had finished 2nd behind Vettel in 1st, Vettel would’ve extended his lead to 15 points. Instead, it’s a DNF and Hamilton claims victory — a 32 point swing in favour of Hamilton. Instead of Vettel picking up the full 25 points and extending his lead into double figures, it’s Hamilton who takes the double-digit lead.

When the rain came again in Hungary on Saturday, it was Mercedes who triumphed over Ferrari, leaving Hamilton on pole on a track where track position is everything. With Vettel out-of-place in fourth, he did well to salvage second on race-day, but was powerless to prevent Hamilton from winning — as the German struggled behind the sister Merc of Bottas after a poor pitstop from Ferrari left him behind the Finn — and powerless to prevent Hamilton extending the championship lead to 24 points heading into the summer break.

With it all to do after the summer break, Vettel was able to strike-back in a statement win at Spa as Ferrari left Hamilton and Mercedes trailing in their dust, reducing the Hamilton’s gap to 17 points.

But just when momentum seemed to be with Vettel again, it slipped away.

Already disgruntled over how qualifying went at the Italian Grand Prix, Vettel — starting P2, ahead of Hamilton — was unable to get a move done on teammate Raikkonen heading into Turn 1. On the run down to the second chicane, Vettel is off the racing line on the left-hand side of the track as he tries to find a way by Raikkonen. Under braking, an opportunity opens for Hamilton around the outside. Hamilton’s overtake is delivered to perfection, clean around the outside whilst leaving Vettel fair space. But Vettel didn’t apply enough steering lock heading out of the corner, didn’t leave enough space for the second part of the chicane and makes contact with the Mercedes, spinning Vettel around and damaging part of his car.

The stewards, again, decided that this was a racing incident but, really, Vettel is to blame here. Hamilton left enough space and the move was done — that was Hamilton’s corner. Vettel could’ve avoided this incident if he had gotten out of it and applied more sterring lock instead of allowing his car to open up into Hamilton. Again, if Vettel expected Hamilton to get out of that move, he should’ve known better — he could’ve avoided this accident.

Hamilton would go on to win the race while Vettel finished fourth, the Brit extending his championship lead to what could be an insurmountable 30 points.

The error marks the third major error Vettel has made this season that has cost him significant points — France, Germany and now Italy. Against Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, such errors are punished and Hamilton has taken victory in each race Vettel has faltered in 2018.

Vettel isn’t out of this title race yet but it’s going to be extremely difficult to come back from here. Hamilton has, again, proven unshakable this season, and Vettel is going to have to hope Hamilton makes a mistake (which is very rare), or hope Mercedes’ bulletproof reliability is tested later in the year.

Again, in the key moments of the season, it’s Vettel who has made the mistakes and not Hamilton.

So, I come back to the question of which this piece is named after… Is Sebastian Vettel’s legacy being altered amidst his title fights with Lewis Hamilton?

Yes is the answer.

During his first four titles with Red Bull, and his battles squaring off against Fernando Alonso, Vettel clearly had the best car each and every time, he won the title. And that’s where things are different here. His car has been as good (2017) if not better (2018) than Hamilton’s.

In two title fights with equal cars this time around, there will be something said for Vettel’s inability to beat Hamilton over a season — that it was Vettel who made more mistakes over this two-year period than his title rival.

A huge knock some had on Vettel’s first four titles was ‘He had the best car, the best car by far’. There was no way to know for sure but what is for sure is that when Vettel has had more-or-less equal equipment than his title rival, he has fallen short.

Reliability issues near the end of 2017 were a factor for Vettel and Ferrari in their title quest but when people talk about 2017’s title and the key moments, Singapore and Baku (i.e. Vettel’s main errors) are the main talking points over the reliability issues in Malaysia or Japan. Japan was the exclamation point after the damage that Vettel had done in Singapore.

In 2018 so far, it’s actually been Hamilton who has been the recipient of reliability issues over Vettel, and Ferrari (marginally) have had the better car this year so far too. And yet, Hamilton is 30 points ahead…

It’s been Vettel’s errors/mistakes that have left him with everything to do with seven races to go and Hamilton’s consistency that has him in the ascendancy in the race for a fifth world title.

In two title battles with effectively equal cars, mistakes are going to define who wins the title and who doesn’t, and, consistently, it’s been Vettel who has slipped up and not Hamilton. It’s been Hamilton who has proven to be the more complete and consistent driver, not Vettel.

Hamilton and Vettel are two of the best drivers of their generation — entering Formula 1 at about the same time. Their careers will eventually end and they will draw comparisons for the rest of time, as two of the greatest drivers of their time. They’ve both enjoyed the best car in Formula 1 on their way to world championships — dominant cars at that — have taken many pole positions, many podiums, many wins and many world championships.

But, ultimately, in this two-year stretch where they’ve shared title winning cars and squared off for the world championship, it’s been Hamilton who has emerged on top and Vettel the one folding under pressure, Hamilton proving to be the model of consistency while Vettel continues to make mistakes.

And that is why Vettel’s legacy will be affected, unless he find away to overturn a 30 point deficit in the remaining seven races…

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