Sebastian Vettel Mathematical Career Review

Updated 29/07/2022

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.

Career Overall

Championships4 (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013)
Fastest Laps38

With rival Hamilton becoming the benchmark for so many F1 records, 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. 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. This assesses how strong Vettel was each year by comparing to his teammates, taking into account how strong each teammate was. As a quick reminder, the numbers correspond to how impressive the results of the driver are.

Box plots of Vettel’s, Webber’s, Räikkönen’s and Ricciardo’s careers.

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:

Graph showing Vettel’s scores over time. His average is well above Webber’s but below that of Hamilton’s.

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 one might expect for a top line driver in a competitive team.

Many F1 fans believe that Vettel lost his mojo towards the end of his career, 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 reflection of how strong Charles Leclerc is 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. He only reaches scores equal to that expected of Hamilton in his strongest years. So why is Vettel, a man that ultimately dominated teammates Webber (2009-2013) and Räikkönen (2015-2018), not considered the best of the best? The reason comes by looking at the teammate rankings for Vettel, as neither Webber or Räikkönen are considered to be particularly exceptional 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. For most of his career he’s considered to be the third best driver overall, behind Hamilton and Alonso.

Early Years

Vettel drinking champagne on the podium.
Success came early for Vettel

2007, Toro Rosso-Ferrari: 59%

2008, Toro Rosso-Ferrari : 88%

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. In a sign of things to come, he is ranked one of the top drivers in 2008. 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: 83%

2010, Red Bull-Renault: 77%

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 to be 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 had some high profile mistakes (crashing into other cars in Turkey and Belgium). Overall the model considers his results for the year to be subpar, although some of this deficit is explained by poor reliability compared to his teammate.

Domination And A New Challenge

2011, Red Bull-Renault: 96%

2012, Red Bull-Renault: 94%

2013, Red Bull-Renault: 100%

2014, Red Bull-Renault: 89%

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 only blip came in the first half of the 2012 season, where the nature of the Pirelli tyres saw Webber be much more competitive relative to his teammate. Vettel’s dominance in the season’s second half saw him overcome the points deficit to both Webber and Alonso and win the title against the odds.

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 McLaren struggles), and it is a shame that a rematch was denied by Vettel’s move to Ferrari.

Wins in Red

Sebastian Vettel celebrating a Ferrari victory.

2015, Ferrari: 99%

2016: Ferrari: 84%

2017, Ferrari: 96%

2018: Ferrari: 88%

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.

Vettel’s destroyed Ferrari after a post-race incident. He’s also shown to be “driver of the day”.

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.

Aston Martin

2021, Aston Martin-Mercedes: 85%

2022, Aston Martin-Mercedes: 91% (So far)

Like at Ferrari, Vettel was chosen as a superstar driver to lead Aston Martin into a new era. So far the results have been disappointing, with Vettel’s delivering only 1 podium so far. This has been mainly due to factors outside of Vettel’s control (e.g. his disqualification at Hungary 2021 for a fuel irregularity), but he’s had the measure of Lance Stroll and has generally performed well in cars that are significantly less competitive than he would have expected when he joined the team.