Make no mistake, Ferrari are pinning the hopes for the next 3-5years on Sebastien Vettel. Pre-season testing suggests Ferrari could surprise us in 2015 but the greatest surprise could actually be Kimi Raikkonen upstaging his 4-time Champion team mate.
Vettel moved to Ferrari for two reasons: one, to address the lack of enthusiasm he felt continuing to race for Red Bull and two, to legitimise his 4 World titles. Many – myself included – do not consider Vettel to truly rank amongst the greats of Formula 1. Dominant cars, a genius designer, dubious decisions on tyre compounds are just a few of the themes that ran through each of Vettel’s titles to date. Ferrari is his opportunity to prove all of that was insignificant white noise.
The broad concensus is that Vettel’s superior performance and focus will rout Raikkonen, in exactly the same way Fernando Alonso did in 2014. Raikkonen’s perceived lack of application, ‘instinct over intelligence’ driving style and generally laid-back/disinterested demeanour are touted as reasons he won’t add to his single World title. Ironically, they could be the characteristics that help him beat Vettel this season.
There were 3 primary factors in Vettel’s dominance at Red Bull: the implicit (but often explicit) understanding that Red Bull was ‘his’ team; an at times psychologically weak team-mate and a particularly well-suited car design. Consider each in turn and it doesn’t look like plain sailing for the German.
Is it my team or your team?
Despite the perspective of Ferrari’s management and the fanfare around Vettel’s arrival, Ferrari is far from ‘his’ team. This has been Fernando Alonso’s team for 5 seasons, and subsequently Kimi Raikkonen’s when the Spaniard’s departure became common knowledge. Many drivers perform best when the engineers, the designers and management are right behind them. Vettel’s position as the first true Red Bull academy success story meant the F1 team could never have been Mark Webber’s and that damaged the Aussie’s prospects from day one. This sort of ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling is not something Raikkonen needs to maximise his performances as much as a Webber or a Felipe Massa. That’s one weapon in Vettel’s arsenal that won’t help him this season at least.
Not feeling supported by Red Bull did not help Webber when his battle with Vettel became particularly intense and at times, fraught. The big Australian wears his heart on his sleeve but unlike good friend Fernando Alonso, never managed to control it to maintain the mental toughness needed when a bitter intra-team rivalry begins. When it came to the psychological games, Webber always came out looking frustrated, angry and increasingly distant from his own team. Once again, the sort of games Vettel played and his petulance in refusing to admit culpability in episodes like ‘multi-21’ won’t impact on Raikkonen. The Iceman simply doesn’t give any time or energy to such things – he drives, goes home and appears to pretty much forget about F1 there and then. It is not so much that he exhibits mental toughness as he doesn’t need to.
Over the course of his 4 titles, the design of successive Red Bull’s was refined and honed. Vettel’s driving style meshed beautifully with all of them – taking full advantage of the superior aero downforce to nail the throttle out of corners quicker than anyone else as one particular example. 2014’s new regulations – designed to nullify Adrian Newey – stripped the Red Bull of many of the traits Vettel loved and left him struggling deep in to the season. If he had stayed at Red Bull, this year’s design would have been refined to help smooth out some of those issues. Ferrari’s car for 2015 will be based on the feedback given by Alonso and, more importantly, Raikkonen during 2014. Vettel’s speed in pre-season suggests the Ferrari might be better suited to him but the glowing praise from Kimi – legendary for his lack of positivity about anything – signifies the 2015 car is much more to the Finn’s liking.
In time Ferrari will become Vettel’s team and Raikkonen will get bored of the F1 circus once more. But before then, there is a real chance Sebastien Vettel’s plans to legitimise his 4 World titles could be seriously hindered.