Keep calm and Sebastian Vettel can steer his way to F1 championship with Ferrari
A combination of poor tactics and a collision with Red Bull's Max Verstappen cost Vettel victory at the Chinese Grand Prix. But the mature way he dealt with those issues could mark a turning point in the German driver's career
Despite failing to make it a hat-trick of wins to start the season, Sebastian Vettel can still be pleased with an impressive performance at the Chinese Grand Prix last Sunday under difficult circumstances.
Even though the Ferrari man did not win in Shanghai he reaffirmed his title credentials and left few in doubt he is a serious contender to end the Mercedes-GP dominance of the Formula One drivers’ championship this year.
Vettel started the race on pole and only poor tactics on the pit wall from his Ferrari team lost him the lead mid-race to Valtteri Bottas. Finishing down in eighth from second place was down largely to circumstances outside his control.
The safety car period allowed Red Bull Racing to change both their drivers to a more aggressive tyre strategy and it left Vettel powerless to defend from the Austrian team’s cars. Vettel drove maturely, accepting his situation, and did not put up a fight when Daniel Ricciardo breezed past him.
Unfortunately the second Red Bull of Max Verstappen made a mess of his overtaking attempt and spun around Vettel, damaging the Ferrari in the process, forcing the German to nurse his limp car home.
What was impressive was that Vettel did not lose his cool over the incidents, at least not in public.
Vettel’s fiery temperament has become a noticeable trait in recent seasons.
From confronting Daniil Kvyat post-race in China two years ago over what he perceived as a dangerous passing move by the Russian, to shouting abusive messages at F1 race director Charlie Whiting in Mexico 2016, to steering his car into Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes behind the safety car in Azerbaijan last year, the German hasn't exactly covered himself in glory.
But in China it was refreshing to hear Vettel react calmly to an incident that was not his fault, but cost him championship points.
“I don’t need to say anything,” was Vettel’s response on the radio to the collision with Verstappen, which by previous standards was a conservative response to say the least.
Hopefully this is a sign that Vettel is learning that losing his cool behind the wheel, while entertaining to the outside world, is a detriment to his prospects of more championship titles.
Undeniably Vettel's outbursts and petulance hurt his prospects of winning a fifth world drivers’ title, and Ferrari’s first since 2008, last year. He threw away a race win in Azerbaijan following his collision with Hamilton. He had been behind his fellow four-time world champion at the time and Hamilton would go on to have a technical problem that dropped him down the order.
Vettel was penalised for dangerous driving and had to serve a 10-second stop and go penalty in the pits, resulting in a fourth-place finish when he could have won if he had kept his cool.
Poor reliability in his Ferrari and the improved form of Hamilton in the second half of the season did for Vettel’s title prospects in 2017, but if it had been nip and tuck all the way to the end of the year those 13 points he chucked away in Azerbaijan would ultimately prove costly.
Vettel’s past behaviour, including the fractious relationship with Mark Webber at Red Bull, detracts from his superb driving skills. He remains the only driver to have won a race for backmarkers Toro Rosso. He dominated at Red Bull, where he won all four of his drivers' titles, and he has proven to be a good figurehead for Ferrari’s challenge.
His calm demeanour on Sunday may not just be down to a new attitude, however. Backed by a powerful-performing Ferrari, coupled with Hamilton's poor start to the campaign, Vettel knows he is in a great position to win his first world title since 2013.
The Italian marque's race pace has been great, but Vettel’s qualifying form is equally impressive. Starting at the front gives more strategy options and the ability to control the race, and Vettel has made a good job of that so far.
It is easier to be calmer when things are going well, but hopefully Vettel’s new mature outlook is a sign of a more permanent change for him.
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Updated: April 17, 2018 12:39 PM