As a four time world champion, Vettel’s place in the history books is assured. As with many successful drivers though, there are accusations that his Red Bull car was doing most of the heavy lifting. Mixed results at Ferrari (particularly in 2019 and 2020) have further muddied the waters. So where does Vettel really stand? Let’s find out.
Let’s start with his career stats.
With Lewis Hamilton smashing F1 records left and right, it’s easy to forget that Vettel is also one of the most successful drivers ever. A quadruple world champion (only 3 drivers have won more) with 53 wins (only 2 drivers have more) commands respect. Of course, he has had the benefit of a long career with top teams Red Bull and Ferrari. It’s noteworthy that since 2008 only once (in 2020) has his team not won a race. So how much of his records are due to the cars? We can start to analyse this by comparing his career with that of his long term teammates by applying the mathematical model:
For context, an average year from Hamilton is given a rating of 100. As you might expect, Vettel has a clear advantage over both Mark Webber and Kimi Räikkönen, but the model considers him to be of a similar level to Daniel Ricciardo.
Now let’s break down his career into yearly performances:
It’s clear that Vettel took some time to reach his peak form. This is understandable given that he entered F1 at a young age (as well as half way through the 2007 season), and does not necessarily reflect poorly on his overall ability. Several other high profile drivers, including champions Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg also took time to find their feet. By 2011, Vettel was performing at close to his peak, although there is more volatility in his ranking year to year than for many other drivers, particularly given that he has always had competitive (or at least midfield) cars.
Many F1 fans believe that Vettel lost his mojo in recent years, with several specifics incidents (e.g. Singapore 2017, Germany 2018 and Canada 2019) referenced as catalysts for a downwards spiral. The model thinks that Vettel’s performances from 2017-2019 were actually pretty strong, and only in 2020 is there a noticeable dip in form. Even then, his results are considered respectable, which is a reflecting of how strong Charles LeClerc is currently considered to be.
We can also see that Vettel is a driver that is significantly above average, but perhaps falls short of being the absolute best. Vettel only reaches scores of 100 (Hamilton’s average score) in his strongest years. So why is Vettel, a man that ultimately dominated teammates Webber (2009-2013) and Räikkönen (2015-2018), not considered as good as Hamilton? The reason comes by looking at the teammate rankings for Vettel, as neither Webber or Räikkönen are considered above average drivers (see how often the green line is below the overall average grid performance). Nevertheless, Vettel is reliably in the top 5 performances for each year and a deserved world champion.
2007, Toro Rosso-Ferrari: 59%
2008, Toro Rosso-Ferrari : 87%
Vettel made his debut for BMW, scoring a point on his debut. He then saw out the last races of the 2007 season with Toro Rosso, memorably crashing into the back of future teammate Webber under the safety car at Fuji. After securing a drive for 2008, his start to the season was a disaster, with 3 race ending lap 1 collisions in the first 4 races. However, both car and driver improved over time, and he took Toro Rosso’s only pole and only win in the rain at Monza. He was duly promoted to Red Bull for 2009, despite the fact that Toro Rosso outscored and outraced the senior team across the previous year.
“Du bist Weltmeister”
2009, Red Bull-Renault: 72%
2010, Red Bull-Renault: 86%
The major regulation changes in 2009 totally shook up the grid order, with Vettel and Red Bull propelled into front running machinery. After a slow start, Sebastian duly took their first win in China (another impressive drive in the wet), before a strong second half of the season. Ultimately though, he fell short of overhauling Jensen Button, in what the model considers only the 2nd best car.
A year later he duly delivered the title with the fastest car on the grid. However, he was behind teammate Webber for much of the season, and the model considers his year overall to be subpar, despite a noticeable improvement on previous years.
Domination And A New Challenge
2011, Red Bull-Renault: 95%
2012, Red Bull-Renault: 93%
2013, Red Bull-Renault: 98%
2014, Red Bull-Renault: 84%
Webber had run Vettel close across 2009-2010, but Vettel held a significant (although varying) advantage over their next 3 years together. With the Red Bull considered the best car across this period, Vettel duly wrapped in four titles in a row. 2011 and 2013 were particularly impressive, and there is some evidence that Vettel performs better with better cars. His record of 9 consecutive victories from 2013 looks unlikely to be broken anytime soon.
The hybrid era saw a new teammate in Daniel Ricciardo, who managed to outpace and outscore his illustrious teammate across the season. Whilst the result was considered a major upset at the time, we now know that Ricciardo is an extremely capable driver (despite his 2021 struggles), and it is a shame that a rematch was denied by Vettel’s move to Ferrari.
Wins in Red
2015, Ferrari: 98%
2016: Ferrari: 83%
2017, Ferrari: 95%
2018: Ferrari: 87%
After Alonso’s departure Ferrari were looking for a superstar driver, and Vettel fit the bill. He was immediately competitive, winning at just his second attempt with a fantastic drive at Malaysia. Ultimately the car was never as quick as the Mercedes across 2015-2016, but Vettel established himself against Räikkonen and slotted into the role of team leader.
The car was more competitive across 2017-2018, and was at times the class of the field. The model concludes that the Mercedes was ultimately the better car both years, after Ferrari’s championship campaigns fell flat. Criticisms of Vettel’s driving also emerged, with costly mistakes and spins adding up. Despite these, the evidence suggests that Vettel was still driving to a high level, and he is closer to being the top performer in 2017 than in any other year.
Frustrations at Ferrari
2019, Ferrari: 97%
2020, Ferrari: 78%
With the departure of Räikkönen, Vettel got a new teammate in 2019: Charles Leclerc. At the time, Vettel was considered Ferrari’s lead driver, and not many (even within the team) thought Leclerc would be able to take the fight to his teammate. At the 3rd race of the season, team principal Mattia Binotto had this to say:
At the moment certainly we wish to give the preference to Seb. Because of his long experience at Ferrari and because we think he has the most potential to be ahead at the end of the season in the championship.
However, these sentiments did not last the year. Although it was close between the two of them, Leclerc ended the season with more wins (2 vs 1) and more points (264 vs 240). Meanwhile Vettel’s relationship with the team was deteriorating, and Ferrari ultimately decided that their future lay with Leclerc. The exact level of Vettel performances during this period is still adjusting slightly as Leclerc’s level is not fully settled, but the evidence is that he was still performing at a reasonably high level, even across his disappointing 2020 season.
Whilst a switch to Aston Martin for 2021 appears to see Vettel in a more harmonious relationship, it has so far yielded mixed results, with a slow start combined with a car that has also gone backwards. It is not unusual for Vettel to improve as the season progresses, so a complete assessment will have to wait.
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