He was finally out on his own, away from the Red Bull family who had nurtured his career since he was a teenager and with whom he won four Formula One world championships.
November 29 was also a very important day for Ferrari. It marked the end of the once-promising Fernando Alonso era and the beginning of the Vettel era. The last time a world champion German driver joined the Scuderia, he ended up winning five drivers' titles.
The test was an emotional experience for Vettel, who grew up watching his countryman Michael Schumacher win those championships for Ferrari in the early 2000s.
After his day at Fiorano, Vettel told the Ferrari website:
You know there are a lot of fairytales about Ferrari and how it feels to drive a red car and in the end I can only confirm these fairytales, it’s not just a story, it’s a true legend that exists and it feels really, really special to become part of that and to be inside the car, to see the people coming, running to the track and trying to climb the walls to see the car, so there is definitely something very magic and something that happened today which I will never forget.
One of those fans climbing the walls for a glimpse of Vettel in a Ferrari was Lorenzo Santi. Born in Florence, the 24-year-old computer engineer has lived in Fiorano since he was three. He has been breathing Ferrari exhaust fumes nearly his entire life.
Although a Ferrari fan since birth, it had been years since Santi had been to the track to watch a Ferrari test, despite living just a few kilometres away. "It is like living next to the Colosseum or next to the Niagara Falls," he said. "You don’t go visiting those awesome places everyday because you know you can go there when you want!"
But last weekend was something different, something special. Vettel is a four-time world champion, hired to restore the luster that has faded from Ferrari in the years since 2008, when the Scuderia won their last world championship.
On Saturday morning, with the town still drying from the early morning rain, Santi picked up his friend Andrea Manna in his 1989 Jeep Wrangler. They arrived at the circuit just as Vettel appeared. He wore a new, white helmet for the occasion and was driving Ferrari's 2012 car, with a V8 engine—not the current model with the quieter, hybrid V6.
"In Fiorano, there is a sound condition you can’t find in many places," Santi explained. "There are many buildings around the track, especially a very big ceramic industry with a big wall facing the track. So, even if the car is far from where you are, you can hear the real sound escaping from the exhausts...I guarantee you this is a very good reason just to be there!"
Standing on the hood and roof of the Jeep, the two men watched the beginning of the new Ferrari era.
"I remember I’ve been here a long time ago as a little child, driving through Maranello and trying to look over the fence," Vettel said in his interview with the Ferrari website. "Looking back to the years when I was 11 or 12, trying to look over the fence and trying to see a glimpse of Michael running on the track, well, today I was the one running and saw the tifosi around."
The tifosi are Ferrari's diehard supporters, although the name—which literally means "fans" in Italian—can be applied to the supporters of any sports team in Italy. But in motor racing circles, it means just one thing: the type of fan who will give up a day of their weekend to peer over a fence to see a flash of red through the trees.
Davide Barbolini was there, too. He was born just four kilometres from the Ferrari factory in Maranello, a neighbouring town of Fiorano. The 31-year-old, who still lives nearby with his wife, used to skip classes as a teenager to watch Schumacher test at the Ferrari circuit.
"I can swear in Fiorano you really lived inside Ferrari," he remembered, "with the pure smell of rubber, brakes and gasoline coming from that red car."
In those days, there were fewer restrictions on testing, so the red cars would be on track all the time. "From my family house I could clearly hear the F1 car running on the test circuit and it was incredible symphony for a young Ferrari supporter," Barbolini said.
With a friend, he chose a different spot to watch the action from—a public bridge near Turn 12 at the back of the circuit. Barbolini estimated there were 100 fans with him, on the side of the busy road, with others climbing trees or the fence around the track.
"That day," said Barbolini, "I was there to see the new Ferrari driver showing the world his will and his determination to be part of a team he loved sincerely since his childhood. That's enough—to me and to many tifosi—for a new hope, even if that was only a test with old car and no relevant impact on 2015 performances."
As Vettel performed his final cool-down lap of the session, he waved to the tifosi gathered around the track, as you can see in the video below. That brought back a special memory for Barbolini.
"On a cold rainy day of February, in 1999, Michael waved his hand during a slow lap right in my direction," he recalled. "I turned myself and realised I was alone due to the heavy rain...he was just saying hello to me!"
Of course, Barbolini was not alone last weekend. The tifosi were out in force to celebrate.
Andrea Ettori lives in Modena, the hometown of company founder Enzo Ferrari, but he is not a tifoso. His favourite driver is McLaren's Jenson Button, ever since he saw the Brit claim his first pole in Imola at the 2004 San Marino Grand Prix.
As a big F1 fan, though, he has often made the drive to Fiorano to watch Ferrari tests. He knew Vettel's first laps in red would be a special event and wanted to be there.
"I think Vettel is the man for the Ferrari team right now," Ettori said. "He and Kimi [Raikkonen] are great friends, they can work in the same direction and I think that Ferrari, in the next two years, can return to competitiveness."
Much of that will depend on whether Ferrari can deliver a competitive car for Vettel and his new team-mate, Raikkonen.
Alonso came close to two titles with the Scuderia, but he never had the best car on the grid and was never able to fulfill the potential his two previous titles with Renault promised.
In 2014, Ferrari were even further behind, having failed to adapt as well as Mercedes to the new engine regulations. Vettel also struggled last season, uncomfortable with his Red Bull car and thoroughly beaten by his team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo.
Enzo Ferrari once told Car magazine's Keith Botsford that "the greatest drivers were distinguished by their supreme ability to handle any kind of situation, any car, any driving condition, any kind of race."
Despite four titles, Vettel has faced critics who said he must prove himself with a team other than Red Bull to show that his success was not just the product of a dominant car.
Now, he has that opportunity. If he can win at Ferrari, he will earn the love of the tifosi clambering over the fences for a glimpse of him. If not...well, now is not the time for thinking that way. As the sport's oldest and most popular team, success for Ferrari is good for F1.
The sun is rising again over Maranello—now Vettel and his new team must prove it is not another false dawn.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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