Let’s Make A Deal

Quite a bit has been made of Sebastian’s defection from Red Bull. Does it really matter if it was because Adrian Newey did not supply him a championship-winning car this year? Or because his younger teammate showed him his backside commonly on Saturday and then again on Sunday? Daniel Ricciardo was even able to take the checkered flag on three occasions this year and Vettel’s win count? Zero.

I suppose it could just be the simple fact that Vettel, like all drivers, wants to pilot a scarlet race car at some time in his career and with four titles already in the bag now is just as good a time as any, right? Every driver wants to race for the only Formula 1 team that has been there since the beginning, not to mention by this very virtue the most successful. Maybe it is as Vettel himself has stated: he needs a new challenge.

Yep, Sebastian Vettel, although his destination has not been officially announced, will be changing employers; he has given his two weeks notice. Vettel is off to the Scuderia Ferrari to pick up where Michael Schumacher left off. To the team where Kimi Raikkonen was lucky enough to snatch the championship away from the McLaren in 2007, however that was it for him, one and done. To the team where superstar Fernando Alonso, who also gave two weeks notice (to Ferrari that is), came painfully close two years out of five to taking the WDC with uncompetitive machinery but in the end could not get the job done.

Sebastian Vettel is now going to the team to walk among the champions and hopefully add his name to the roster of drivers who have gone down as Ferrari greats, further WDCs notwithstanding.

Whatever the reason, let’s move on, let’s forget the why and concentrate on the how or to be more precise: how do we think this will work out for the four-time world champion when next year he takes to Albert Park for the first free practice session of 2015 in a red car as opposed to a blue one?

Have you ever heard of the game show called Let’s Make A Deal? It’s a very famous daytime game show that started in America in 1963 and has since been produced in many countries around the world. The original and most famous host was Monty Hall and throughout the show, Monty would offer the trader/contestant several chances to trade an item and/or give it to another trader in exchange for a different box or curtain. The Big Deal is the final trade of the game — the top trader can keep his/her current valuable item or choose one of three available doors, behind which might lay an even more valuable prize or, complete crap. See any similarities? Good! This should be fun.

Sebastian is our audience contestant and he knows that Ferrari with James Allison is the Big Deal that he has already chosen by giving up Red Bull. But what exactly is behind the Ferrari door is the question. Which one do you think he has picked? What lies ahead for Sebastian Vettel now that he will be wearing the red overalls?

Door # 1 – Things stay the same, Vettel wins races but there are no championships

There is a very good argument for the status quo remaining the same at Maranello despite James Allison’s best efforts. First, Mercedes and to a lesser degree Williams are far ahead in both the engine power/development (I’m speaking of all the components: turbo, battery, ERS, etc.) and downforce, not to mention the Mercedes is very well balanced which is very different than just making the front or rear end stick to the ground plane. It will take quite a bit of time even in the best possible scenario for Ferrari to close the gap. We are talking about three, maybe four years of development to find the second and in some cases the two seconds that Mercedes has on Ferrari.

Second, unlike the Red Bull years when Vettel’s cars had a huge competitive advantage, and Vettel really only raced against his teammate Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso, and in some cases only against himself, in all likelihood he will now be racing against both Mercs, both Williams, and even his own teammate, if by chance the second-time around Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen can channel the first-time around Ferrari Kimi for next year and beyond.

That is a total of five other cars Vettel will have to contend with. Even if Ferrari do solve their wind tunnel issue and add extra horses to the engine per the allowance already in place, this will be a much different landscape than 2011, 2012 or 2013 when Vettel was winning everything in sight with no one to challenge him and his superior RB machinery.

Let me pile it on just a little more. What if, and it is a big if I admit, McLaren and Honda actually field a truly fast car next year or the year following? You can add Fernando Alonso (assuming he goes to McLaren) to that list of cars Vettel will have to race against and one thing is for sure, if the MP4-30 or 31 is fast and Alonso is driving one, he will be unstoppable.

Sebastian Vettel will win races again if he gets a decent car, that I am sure of, but enough to win a championship with Ferrari? In the next three years? Taking into account what has transpired over the last five years and everything I just outlined, this will be a big ask. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but the odds are not in Vettel’s favor, not given what we know now anyway.

Door # 2 – Things get worse, Vettel becomes disillusioned and leaves

It would not be the first time that a great driver went to Ferrari and things did not work out. Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost come to mind immediately, I’m not even going to mention Alonso for a minute. In the case of Mansell not only where there no championships, “Il leone” announced his retirement. Ouch. With Prost it was worse, he was fired, for calling his race car a truck…

With the changing of the guard, which is a nice way to say mass firings, of Stefano, Luca, the other Luca, and who knows who else, Ferrari is a team in flux and this will compound issues currently plaguing Maranello – engine and chassis integration, the ever present issue of one lap pace (lack of it) and of course the all important down force issue that has been a thorn in Ferrari’s side for a long time now.

Throw in the fact that the Ferrari engine is way too slow and will take several years to become as powerful as the Mercedes power plant, Vettel is going to have to find time in corners, something right now he is not able to do. The irony in regards to engine power here is that Enzo was always of the opinion that engines win championships not wings (aero), and in this case he is right – it’s just not his engine that is winning of late.

As I have alluded to, we have yet to see Vettel come to grips with this new formula in regards to the overall downforce of the cars and in particular the rear end. If Vettel had problems with his RB10 this year, with the team that took downforce to a new level, to several new levels, just think of the difficulty Vettel will have at corner entry with a Ferrari? It is true that James Allison has taken charge of the design process and this could be a defining moment for both Ferrari and the German, but Vettel’s issue seems to me to be something bigger than one designer can solve.

It seems as if Vettel is a victim of Adrian Newey and the rest of the black art masters that did such a good job in this area of the car, that now Vettel is at a disadvantage and unable to adapt in this new era of F1.

Moving right along, there has been a lot made of the fact that Vettel is moving to Ferrari for a new challenge and to emulate what Michael Schumacher did who returned the Scuderia to its former glory. It would be an incredible story if Vettel could do what Alonso could not. Here is the reason why this is highly unlikely, or rather 60,000 of them. What am I referring to? KLMs or let me spell it out for you k-i-l-o-m-e-t-e-r-s. 60K KLMs is what Ferrari’s testing team racked up each and every year at the height of the testing era when McLaren and Ferrari were battling each other tong and hammer.

If you think back to this period there was not one part on Schumacher’s Ferrari that did not undergo the most rigorous of testing for correlation and for reliability. In one year Ferrari elected to race the first three races with the previous year’s car until the team felt confident enough that its new car was ready to race. Translation: more testing to ensure Ferrari’s new challenger was up to snuff. To say that by the time Michael raced with each and every part and/or update it was tried and true would be a gross understatement.

Those days are long gone. Currently teams depend mostly on simulator work to develop the car and to test out new parts from the wind tunnel, but as you can imagine there is really no substitute for the real thing. Just ask Ferrari’s design department what their experience has been over the last five years in this regard. Wind tunnel + sim-work does not equal performance gains on Sunday.

Sebastian Vettel is still young, this past July the kid from Heppenheim celebrated his 27th birthday, and I suppose this is a benefit. Many have said he has the luxury of time and so he can afford to wait while Ferrari presumably moves back to the sharp part of the grid. However, I think most people have got that backwards. It is not Vettel who has time on his side, rather Ferrari.

It is the team that has reset and has a little less pressure (speaking solely about a timeline here) due to the fact that their new WDC already has several titles. Unlike Alonso or Hamilton who are still chasing their third and second titles respectively, Vettel can take time to get to his fifth – something that would seem a foregone conclusion.

This honeymoon period will not last long. I am sure Vettel wants be winning asap and if Ferrari cannot deliver him a car to fight for the championship in three years tops, then much like Alonso, Vettel will again start to “have an idea in his mind that will start to grow”, which simply put means “I’m out of here!”

Door #3 – Things improve dramatically and Vettel wins a fifth title or more

Ok, that is enough doom and gloom even for someone who is not a fan of Sebastian Vettel. I have not hid over the years in many posts the fact that I am not a Vettel fan, not do I believe he is as good as his stats suggest. But this is not a post about my personal feelings, more an exploration of what lies ahead.

For the record I have also written several posts on just the opposite. I have typed many words extolling the job the Wunderkid has done, how he has stayed so consistent and how despite the best efforts of Ferrari and Alonso (by the way the guy I favor the most just in case you’re not clear about that, ha ha), never really lost his cool and drove brilliantly these last four years especially in the last half of the 2012 season.

I have dedicated several posts to giving credit where credit was due (sometime begrudgingly, truth be known), to Vettel, the team, Christian Horner, Adrian Newey and Helmut Marko (well maybe not Marko) for the job they have done. Anyone who follows F1 at even a cursory level is quite aware how absolutely difficult it is to win just once in this formula, let alone several times, then enough to be called World Champions – and then to do it four years in a row, super impressive. So let’s give Vettel some credit and here we go with door #3.

Although Luca di Montezemolo was instrumental in Ferrari proudly calling itself the best of the best, it is also true that he let it all slip away and Ferrari now are but a remnant of their former self and those days when Michael was winning everything in sight have been over for quite some time now. Ferrari has not won a race since last year’s Spanish GP and this will be the first year in many that Ferrari will be winless unless something well out of the norm happens in the last three races. It is probably for the better that Montezemolo moved on and Ferrari has a clean slate now. This will be a plus for Vettel. New president, new WDC driver, new designer, new atmosphere, new everything.

Speaking of Ferrari’s new designer, I am pretty sure the super talented James Allison was part of the design team that allowed Alonso to end Schumacher’s reign as champion while he was at Renault. Funny how these things work isn’t? Anyway, it’s being reported that Allison has been given carte blanche to do whatever it takes to ensure Ferrari are winners as soon as possible. Most seem to be of the opinion Allison is the man for the job. Ok, I am game, let’s see what happens.

Furthermore, Allison is innovative, something that has been missing in Maranello for some time. He knows what it takes to win and after the debacle of Renault/Lotus – going from championship winners with Alonso to nothing and then Lotus not being able to pay its top driver Raikkonen, one has to assume Allison is parched and in need of some champagne. Allison is hungry to win again in F1 – period. More good news for Vettel.

In addition, let’s not forget that Ferrari does have the knowledge, resources and prior experience of winning races (a crapload before Michael and after) not to mention championships. It’s not as though all of a sudden they forgot their past. As far as cycles go, Ferrari are due to change the tide and it could all very well come good for the team and Vettel next year and for a long time beyond. Ferrari knows exactly where they are deficient and have more than likely corrected a large majority of the issues the F-14T suffered from this year. The engine will not be on par with Mercedes but as we saw with Ricciardo and Red Bull, it is still possible to take the fight to them.

Also, this one is out of left field but what if Ross Brawn is tempted back to Ferrari? I’m thinking about Phil Jackson and the Lakers and how his return produced yet again a Lakers title, a few of them. What if some kind of package, the kind that come along only once in a lifetime, is offered to Brawn? Marchionne has the resources to make such an offer and I can’t see Brawn not wanting to thank Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda for the nice job of removing him right on the eve of Mercedes’ success due to all of his hard work the previous three years in the team. Yep, beating Mercedes with Vettel (with a German over the Germans) would be a nice thank you present do you agree? Even though there is a lot of geopolitical crossover in all teams, this stuff still does matter on some level if only ceremoniously.

Note: Ross Brawn has won championships in every F1 team that he has worked for (it’s true, look it up) from Benetton to Ferrari to Brawn and if we include his laying the foundation for this year’s runaway championship team, then Mercedes AMG as well. Who would not want this guy to run their team? A championship is all but guaranteed. Awesome news for Seb (if it actually happened).

Also playing in Vettel’s favor will be the fact that Mercedes’ domination this year does not mean it will carry over to the next. It commonly does – it would seem that a two-year dominance is the norm in F1. Think back to McLaren with Mika Haikkonen 1998,99; Renault with Alonso 2005/6. Ferrari almost made it two with Massa and Raikkonen and again McLaren almost made it two with Alonso and Hamilton in the years 2007/2008 for both teams. But on the other hand McLaren, Ferrari, and Brawn GP all won the title only one year before being displaced by one of their competitors.

Vettel could get lucky next year, or at the very least Vettel might have to wait only one year before Mercedes loses their edge or makes a design error and allows the chasing teams a real chance to fight for the titles. And Williams have come a long way but they are not world champion caliber yet. The team from Grove has all the ingredients needed to win races, but sustaining the level of competitiveness an entire season is still a ways off.

As for McLaren, I would love nothing more than for 2015 and new engine partner Honda to immediately yield race wins and a WDC for my man Alonso (if that is indeed where he ends up). However the reality of the matter is that it will probably not happen. More good news for Vettel and Ferrari it they get it right in year one or year two.

Also in his favor, this last point is obvious: Sebastian Vettel is an extremely proficient driver. Vettel is one of the top three drivers in the sport and I have said many times in regards to Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, that there is so little time difference between them that on any given day with the right car, any one of them can outrace the others, no questions asked.

If Vettel finds himself in a car that possesses even the slightest bit of performance, I have no doubt he will use it to great effect. So what if this season the RB10 was not to his liking, that does not mean he is incapable of winning races or a world title in this new turbo era. Allison and company will have taken note of Vettel’s problems with the current levels of downforce available now and are probably at this very moment writing an algorithm to compensate for this, or pulling some other cool trick out of the carbon-fiber hat.

Next year’s Ferrari is probably being tailor made for the German’s style of driving, similar to the way Adrian Newey’s cars were a perfect fit for Vettel – right up to the point when they weren’t, which of course is why we are having this nice little chat.

Not a bad argument for the case that Vettel is destined for greatness right from the moment he zips up the pulls on his little red boots, don’t you think? I even managed to convince myself in this matter as I wrote it!

Summation

This is usually where I try to wax poetically, throw in a few of my now usual quips and finish off with something sounding profound in regards to the subject that I just typed 3000 words about. None of that this time around. This time it is all up to you to finish writing the story. How do you think it will end? Better yet, how do you think it will begin?

In Doors #1 & #2, two wrongs don’t make a right. Neither Vettel nor Ferrari have adjusted well to this new turbo era. They’re both counting on the other to save them. That could be a recipe for disaster.

But maybe it’s Door #3. Is Vettel destined for greatness? Will he burnish his reputation as one of the all time greats while at Ferrari? The recent BBC’s twenty-five all time F1 drivers has Vettel placed in eighth spot. It would seem he still has a way to go. Does Vettel now have the last piece of the puzzle to achieve more?

Alonso, while not winning more championships at Ferrari, at the very least made a convincing argument for many that he is the best driver on the grid – a bittersweet reward for not having a car to challenge for more titles. But Vettel already has four titles, and so maybe Vettel wants something different, maybe being the best is not what is now important. Maybe Vettel is chasing something more Olympian: to restore Ferrari’s rightful place in F1 and go down in history as much more than a four-time or even five or six time world champion, something superhuman, God-like: Something Alonso, despite how the experts rate him could not and did not do.

What door do you think Vettel chose?

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