Sebastian Vettel was on impressive form in Singapore qualifying, pushing the Ferrari to the limit and beyond to set the pole position lap. Afterwards both sides of the car showed damage to the tyres and wheel rims from contact with the Marina Bay walls.
A few minutes later he was in the press conference room, sitting between two drivers, one of whom could be his team mate in 2019.
That scenario became more likely this weekend with the chain of events around the switch-abount of Honda and Renault engines. Renault’s contract with Red Bull ends in 2018 and they have told the drinks manufacturer that after that date they will not be supplying them engines any more.
Both sides were evasive about that on Friday, suggesting that there may be some legal angles being pursued, but as we wrote at the time, this potentially throws the driver market open for 2019.
Ten short months from now Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo will need to be making decisions on which team is going to give them a winning car in 2019. Is that long enough for Red Bull to find a strong engine package for 2019 or long enough for Honda to catch Mercedes and Ferrari on power and reliability?
The dynamic this night between Vettel, Ricciardo and Verstappen was fascinating to watch. There was some camaraderie between the former Red Bull team mates, but an edge too.
Vettel was quick to put Ricciardo down when the Aussie asked if he was “missing us” when he went to inspect the Red Bull car on the start straight after qualifying.
“I don’t miss you,” Vettel shot back. Not nastily, but neither was his trademark sardonic smile on his lips.
The banter level had been high before that and was again afterwards.
Vettel teased Ricciardo after the Australian had first joked about pizza and alcohol being the best preparation for humid races, then talked about dehydration – “Yesterday I felt like I had a bottle in my hand all day and I was still struggling to go to the toilet”. Vettel turned to him and said, “Just to get that straight, you were struggling to get to the toilet because you were struggling to keep balance because you were drinking so much?”
Before the conference started there was banter; Vettel had changed his sweat soaked undervest for a Ferrari team shirt, baring his torso as he walked onto the stage where the press conference seats are. A female journalist asked Ricciardo for a comment on Vettel’s six-pack and he made a “so-so” hand gesture which got everyone laughing before the conference went live.
On Vettel’s right Verstappen tried to join in the banter, but it’s not really his forte yet and Vettel rarely made eye contact with him, unlike Ricciardo. For example this exchange,
MV: Do you think you’ll have a good start?
MV: I hope not.
DR: Your starts haven’t been that good, have they?
SV: Yeah, they have been. Monza, no, but the other ones have been.
More tellingly – the real take-home from the night for me – Vettel paid tribute to Ferrari junior driver Charles Leclerc, for his work on the simulator at Maranello overnight Friday to Saturday that had made the difference between a tricky car in practice and a pitch perfect one for qualifying,
“I think it’s been phenomenal, the amount of work,” said Vettel. “Obviously yesterday (Friday) we were a little bit caught off guard. The car wasn’t behaving the way we wanted it to.
“But it’s been pretty special the amount of effort that has gone in overnight, the support from Maranello. Charles (Leclerc) has been in the simulator – usually it’s swapping between Antonio Giovinazzi and Charles so that’s very very important for us.
“They answered a lot of questions that we couldn’t, simply because we didn’t have time enough and a lot of questions remaining.”
For a four time world champion to be talking up a 19 year old for his simulator work doesn’t happen by accident. Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne is pushing for both of his juniors to race for Sauber next season in a Ferrari junior team type scenario. Vettel made sure to mention Giovinazzi in his answer, but the subtext and messaging was clear; post Kimi Raikkonen my team mate for 2019 could be one of our two Ferrari youngsters, we don’t need either of the gentlemen sitting around me right now.
Vettel showed real class on Saturday night; Singapore performance ramps up run by run, but it wasn’t easy this year and the German was the only one to really improve by 0.17s in final Q3 runs. Verstappen was slower in his final attempt, Ricciardo found just 0.02s, Hamilton 0.07s.
Much will depend on how this year ends up. If Vettel achieves his goal of winning the championship with Ferrari he will be in a strong position and Ferrari will be able to relax a bit.
If he loses this year and then in the first half of 2018 doesn’t look like he’s on target to win the title, Ferrari may feel some doubt and in that scenario one could imagine them wondering whether they need to put a Ricciardo or a Verstappen alongside him, despite the risk to team stability.
Moments like the start in Singapore (although he was not officially blamed, the collision would not have happened had he not moved left) and the road rage incident at Baku cost points and cast doubt.
But the dynamic on Saturday night in Singapore told the story quite clearly. Vettel doesn’t want either of those guys as his team mate in 2019 and if it ends up that way, it will be for the wrong reasons, as far as he is concerned.
What did you think of the qualifying and the way Vettel felt afterwards? Do you think he will get the job done this year and/or next? Leave your comments below