Why the Rest of Sebastian Vettel's F1 Career Could Be Shaped by 2nd Half of 2014

Oliver HardenFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2014

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 09:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Infiniti Red Bull Racing sits in his car in the garage during day two of testing at Silverstone Circuit on July 9, 2014 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Formula One's annual summer break has traditionally had an energising effect on Sebastian Vettel.

Perhaps a four-week rest from the heat of battle benefits the German more than any other driver. Or maybe he never fully switches off during the summer, using it to further develop his fitness and his skills.

Whatever the reason, Vettel has developed a knack for operating at a higher level of performance in the latter stages of a given season since his first championship-winning campaign in 2010.

That season, only a late engine failure in the Korean Grand Prix prevented Vettel from winning each of the final four races. Twelve months later, a run of five victories in the last eight grands prix saw him wrap up the title in style.

In 2012, a streak of four wins in as many races allowed him to place one hand on the crown, with his streak of nine straight victories in the second half of the 2013 season an F1 record.

SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 22:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Infiniti Red Bull racing drives during the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 22, 2013 in Singapore, Singapore.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

When the five red lights go out to signal the beginning of the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps— where the season has resumed every year since 2010—things become serious.

The fun for the likes of Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber, Vettel's main rivals in recent times—not to mention the rest of us—hits a brick wall as the lead Red Bull driver takes centre stage.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 26:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Infiniti Red Bull Racing uses dry ice to keep cool in the garage during final practice ahead of the Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix at Hungaroring on July 26, 2014 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Phot
Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Normal service resumes, and Vettel waltzes his way to his latest world title.

With the driver sitting 144 points behind current championship leader Nico Rosberg ahead of this year's race at Spa, however, the chances of yet another repeat of that devastating run of form in 2014 are virtually non-existent.

And it will be both fascinating and revealing to observe just how Vettel handles the unusual situation of entering the home straight of a season with precious little to play for.

Will he thrive under little pressure with no expectations? And will he play a role in deciding the destination of the crown he is set to relinquish by taking points off the dominant Mercedes' of Rosberg and Hamilton?

Or will he find himself shrouded in self-pity, with more arm-waving and whining over team radio from the cockpit of the RB10?

It could, in truth, go either way depending on the reliability record of Renault, Red Bull's power unit supplier—but with Daniel Ricciardo, Vettel's teammate, owning two victories to his name in a season in which the German has none, the reigning world champion will be left with no option but to attack.

Vettel's prime target over the remaining eight races, though, should not necessarily be to equal or beat Ricciardo's tally of wins—an unrealistic goal when Mercedes are, theoretically, likely to win every grand prix between now and the end of the campaign.

Instead, his focus might be on reminding everyone—from the sport's fans, his colleagues, his bosses, his peers and, perhaps most importantly, himself—exactly why he is a four-time Formula One World Champion.

That last-gasp pole position, that inch-perfect overtaking manoeuvre, that titanic battle—without the Silverstone-style radio gaga, of course—and, indeed, that grand prix win should all feature on Vettel's checklist between now and the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 23.

The Singapore Grand Prix, where Vettel reached the summit of his four-year dominance of F1 in 2013, and the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, where he has won on four occasions in the past, should in particular be weekends where the No. 1 car will be the one to watch.

If the 2014 campaign passes by without the reigning world champion making an impression, however, it will not only be damaging to Formula One—it will be damaging to Vettel's reputation.

There will be even more suspicions that, between 2010 and 2013, he was merely an average driver in the best car on the grid—a theory even hinted at by Alonso, who in 2012 told Andrew Benson of BBC Sport that he was fighting Adrian Newey, Red Bull's technical chief, for the title rather than Vettel.

NOIDA, INDIA - OCTOBER 27:  Race winner and 2013 Formula One World Champion Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Infiniti Red Bull Racing celebrates in front of the crowd on the main straight following the Indian Formula One Grand Prix at Buddh International C
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

There will, inevitably, be talk over whether his best days are behind him at the tender age of 27.

And there may even be suggestions that Vettel—who was last year quoted by F1 journalist James Allen as telling German publication Welt am Sonntag that he might quit the sport within five years—could bring his career to an early end, having already achieved everything he ever wanted.

The mark of a truly great Formula One driver, it is often said, is the ability to win races in unfancied cars.

Take a look at the current grid and you see Hamilton, who, despite enduring what was arguably a tougher title defence than Vettel this year, still managed to win two races for McLaren in 2009, and Alonso, who has made a living out of winning races in inferior machinery since 2008.

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 09:  Sebastian Vettel (2nd right) of Germany and Infiniti Red Bull Racing celebrates with his race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin (2nd left), second placed Fernando Alonso (left) of Spain and Ferrari and third placed Lewis Hamilton (righ
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

For Vettel to stand tall alongside the two drivers to whom he is most often compared, you suspect he will have to make his biggest-ever leap in performance in the second half of the season.

If not, he could be condemned to a career spent trying to prove his doubters wrong—an unprecedented, cruel position for a four-time world champion.

It's time to see what Vettel is really made of.