Grading Sebastian Vettel's Start to Life at Ferrari Formula 1 Team
The announcement at the Japanese Grand Prix effectively confirmed Fernando Alonso would be leaving the Scuderia, saw Daniil Kvyat called up to Red Bull and opened an exciting new chapter in the history of Formula One's most successful team.
It was a boyhood dream come true, but replacing Alonso would not be easy. Not only would Vettel have to perform on the track, but he'd also have to step in as the team's new talisman, helping to drive Ferrari forward in their quest to catch Mercedes.
Eight months on from his first drive in one of the red cars—a 2012 machine at a private Fiorano test—his name has been added to the long list of grand prix winners for the team, and he lies third in the drivers' championship. Things are looking good—but could they be better?
Here, we look back on the start of Vettel's life at Ferrari and grade his performance in four key areas.
Qualifying has always been considered one of Vettel's major strengths, and he hasn't disappointed following his switch from purple to red.
Where both have had a healthy car, Vettel has out-qualified team-mate Kimi Raikkonen by a margin of seven to one. The Finn's sole triumph came at Silverstone, where he was quicker by a little under two-tenths of a second.
But even that small victory—and the hollow one in Canada, where Vettel had power unit issues—did little to close the average qualifying gap between the duo. F1 Fanatic lists this at 0.592 seconds—the largest representative gulf between any team-mate pairing.
On top of this, Vettel has twice beaten the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, starting on the front row in both Malaysia and Bahrain.
Only one grade is appropriate.
Race Pace: B
Getting the job done over a single lap is important, but it doesn't mean anything if the driver can't maintain his position over a race distance.
For the most part, Vettel has achieved this. Only Bahrain really stands out as a grand prix in which his race driving could be described as poor.
The rest have been a mixture of exceptional—Malaysia, for example—or as expected. A driver in the second-fastest car should finish third, fourth or higher; aside from Bahrain, every time he has had a healthy car in both qualifying and the race, that is what Vettel has done.
But Raikkonen is definitely closer in terms of absolute long-run pace, and, as we saw in Silverstone when it was dry, sometimes ahead. It'd be interesting to see what the championship looked like if the two men had the same average starting position.
Acquisition of Status: A
Since 1996, there have been only two seasons in which there was any doubt over who the Ferrari No. 1 driver was. Contractually or otherwise, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso ruled the roost for 16 years between them, while Raikkonen was the top dog in 2007.
In 2008 and 2009, the situation wasn't so clear-cut—the supposed No. 2, Felipe Massa, made things confusing.
It would be difficult to argue that Vettel wasn't signed with the understanding and expectation that he'd be the team leader, but that guaranteed nothing. After all, he was supposed to be the team leader at Red Bull in 2014, and look what happened...
So with Raikkonen almost an unknown quantity—despite being poor the previous year, the Finn has exceptional natural talent—Vettel needed to quickly stamp his authority to show the team he was the man to back.
A podium on his Ferrari debut went some way to securing his position; the win in Malaysia hammered it home a little further.
By the time of the Spanish Grand Prix, any lingering doubts over his de facto No. 1 status were erased. The German got all the new upgrades on his SF15-T, while Raikkonen "took one for the team," running only some new parts to provide a comparison.
Motivation and Development: B
As Fernando Alonso's replacement and the intended team leader for at least the next few years, Vettel was never going to be allowed time to blend in slowly. He had to be a talismanic presence from the off—the guy the team revolved around.
There were early signs he had settled into this role very well. The post-Alonso vibe at Ferrari appeared to be a positive one, with Raikkonen telling press after the first test (h/t Sky Sports): "The atmosphere is very good in the team. There have been a lot of changes but the changes have been for the right reasons and hopefully we can have a good year with some good results."
Even Flavio Briatore—who has had a huge hand in Alonso's career—thought things looked better. He told RAI (h/t motorsport.com): "I believe the change of drivers was appropriate. Vettel brings something different to Ferrari and helps to motivate a group that, in terms of management, is completely new."
To look at Vettel now, it would be easy to believe he'd been wearing red his whole racing life. He looks entirely at home at Ferrari, and those around him are entirely happy to have him there. The team works for him now—quite an achievement after only a few months of work.
On the developmental side, things are less rosy. Though they made a promising start to the season with a win at the second race, Ferrari appear to have lost ground to Mercedes.
Vettel can't be blamed for the Scuderia's apparent lack of developmental progress. He doesn't sit in in an office in Maranello with pencil and paper, drawing new front wings and floors.
But it's not an area he can be given credit for, either.
After being embarrassed by rising star Daniel Ricciardo in 2014, Vettel needed to hit the ground running with Ferrari and few would argue he hasn't achieved that.
He has been supreme over a single lap, quick over a race distance, is firmly ensconced as the de facto No. 1 and appears well-liked by his new colleagues.
It's a matter for debate whether Vettel has truly been exceptional or whether he is being flattered a little by Raikkonen's sub-par displays. Let's not forget how comprehensively the Finn was outperformed by Fernando Alonso in 2014.
But as the old saying goes, you can only beat what's put in front of you, and Vettel has very much done that. His 135 points compare very favourably to Raikkonen's 76.
He's also the only driver to have beaten a healthy, strategically sound Mercedes in a straight fight in either qualifying (twice) or a race (once).
Fault is very hard to find.