In the aftermath of the Belgian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel has come in for a fair bit of criticism for putting himself out of contention once again and damaging his championship chances.
Spa was his third retirement of the season. He is now 31 points off the championship lead. He’s made things more difficult for himself, but with 150 points up for grabs, he can still recover.
He’s under the spotlight for a collision with Jenson Button, which put the world champion out of the race and he made five visits to the pits, including a drive through penalty. It was another messy day, when there was a clear podium to be had from his fourth place on the grid.
But there is more to it than that.
McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh called him the “Crash Kid” after the race, which is clever and will almost certainly stick to him for a while, increasing the pressure. And it is the pressure, in my view, that is the issue here.
Vettel is very fast and as intelligent a driver as you will find on the grid, but he’s not handling the pressure well this year. In a Red Bull car which clearly deserves to win the title – Schumacher had the title wrapped up in July or August in the years when he had such a car – Vettel feels under pressure to get the job done, but has failed to impose himself on his team mate or secure the necessary race results.
There is no doubt his weak point, exacerbated by the pressure, is impetuousness. particularly in races, as we saw in Istanbul when he collided with his team mate, or Silverstone where he insisted on a pass at the start that was never going to come off. Ron Dennis used the word “impetuous” after the race,
“It seems Sebastian is just too impetuous,” says Dennis. “Look at the incident with his own team-mate (Istanbul), look at incidents that put him out of the race. It’s good to push, it’s good to be competitive, but there are so many historical lines in motorsport and the one that fits him more than anything is, ‘To finish first, first you have to finish.’
Red Bull boss Christian Horner is not afraid to confront this. He says that Vettel is aware of his growing reputation as an impetuous racer, but has the capacity to change that, “Nobody knows that better than Sebastian, he is a pretty mature individual,” said Horner. “He analyses his own performance very, very carefully and I am sure he will bounce back from this. He is a great racing driver, he is still a very young guy and it is easy to be very critical on somebody who is relatively inexperienced – but for sure he will learn a lot from what happened.””
I’m sure he will too.
It’s not just about his age. Vettel is young, just turned 23, so he is the same age now as Lewis Hamilton was at the start of the 2008 season. He has more Grands Prix starts under his belt than Hamilton had then; Spa was Vettel’s 56th Grand Prix start where Hamilton had only 17 starts at the same age.
Hamilton made mistakes in his first two seasons in particular, such as crashing into Kimi Raikkonen in the pit lane at Montreal. He was also involved in his fair share of controversies, like the accident behind the safety car in Fuji in 2008. However Hamilton won the world championship in that second season, having fought for and lost the title the year before. In that second season he had less pressure from his team mate, McLaren had put Heikki Kovalainen alongside him to replace Alonso, but he had the pressure of expectation on his shoulders, not least from his father, who always pushed him hard.
Vettel had the advantage over Hamilton of being able to serve an apprenticeship out of the spotlight, first as a well used Friday driver for BMW and then at the Toro Rosso team, with whom he competed in 2008. Alonso had the same thing with Minardi and then an up and coming Renault team. This is worth a lot; Hamilton was thrown straight in to a championship contesting car, with the strongest driver in the sport as his team mate. The only thing mitigating the pressure in that situation was that everyone expected Alonso to win the title, so he was able to push against that. Hamilton showed some impetuousness in those early years too, but not as much as Vettel.
If you look back, many champions have it. It was impetuousness that caused Mika Hakkinen to try to pass Michael Schumacher in Macau, there are countless examples from the early careers of Senna, Schumacher and others.
I think it’s a negative quality which is born out of a positive one, in the sense that great competitors, who feel they should be ahead of the man in front, want to impose themselves and feel they must do so. It’s the mentality of a champion.
It is this part of Vettel’s psyche which finds it so hard to deal with Webber’s competitiveness, for example. But it goes wrong when it’s deployed at the wrong moment, in the wrong way, as we have seen a few times now with Vettel.
He wants it all now, but he hasn’t yet learned to pick his moments.
Vettel is not as sure footed coming through the field and passing cars as Hamilton. They both had the same schooling in karting since the age of 8, but Vettel is less comfortable in close proximity to other cars. That is something he has to take into account when racing others. As a competitor, you are only as strong as your weaknesses.
Winning in F1 isn’t simple, it’s very complex and it takes a blend of the right car, the right team environment and the right mentality to pull it off. Alonso was considered F1’s most complete driver a year ago and yet his struggles at Ferrari, for example, show that he can make mistakes when there is a high emotional charge around him. That’s something he and his team need to put right.
I think Vettel has the raw quality to overcome his “Crash Kid” moniker and go on to be one of the top drivers. Hamilton had a difficult year last year and has come out of it an immeasurably stronger and more complete driver and person – he knows when and how to pick his moments and he has got the maximum out of every opportunity this year.
Vettel will be seasoned by these tough moments, take heart from the notion that anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and will step up a level in 2011. He is very grounded and has more F1 experience than Hamilton had at this age.
All that’s lacking now is the mental poise that comes from maturity.