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Why Sebastian Vettel Will Finish 3rd in 2015 Formula 1 Championship Race

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2015

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari returns to the garage during practice for the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 8, 2015 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

If Ferrari had been a little bolder (and dare we say, a little smarter), Sebastian Vettel might have won last weekend's Monaco Grand Prix.

On Lap 30 of the 78-lap race, the German was, according to the FIA television feed, roughly a second adrift of second-placed Nico Rosberg as the pit-stop window approached, close enough to perfect the undercut technique.

And Seb knew it.

Vettel harried Rosberg for much of the Monaco GP, but couldn't get past.
Vettel harried Rosberg for much of the Monaco GP, but couldn't get past.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

"I'm close now," he told the team over the pit-to-car radio, per the same source, in that menacing way of his, encouraging the pit wall to do their thing, to exploit their lead-driver's good work at the first, only round of stops.

But Rosberg knew it too and, according to the FIA's Race Lap Analysis, upped his pace dramatically.

Having previously set times in the region of one minute, 21 seconds was producing laps as quick as 1:19.937, extending the gap, neutralising the threat of Vettel, as every lap passed by.

Rosberg's rapid pace during the pit stops was crucial to his retention of second place.
Rosberg's rapid pace during the pit stops was crucial to his retention of second place.Dan Istitene/Getty Images

The Mercedes driver's sheer speed meant that when Ferrari eventually called Vettel into the pit lane on Lap 36, the chance had effectively gone.

Ferrari's hesitation, coupled with Vettel being stuck in traffic—Sky Sports' Ted Kravitz claimed the German lost 1.5 seconds behind the lapped Manor Marussia of Roberto Merhi—meant Rosberg retained second place by a relatively comfortable margin.

That, in turn, meant that when the second, most notable pit-related clanger of the day occurred on Lap 64 and Mercedes pitted Lewis Hamilton, the runaway leader, under safety-car conditions, it was Rosberg, not Vettel, who inherited first place and, ultimately, the race win.

Rosberg lucks into the lead, but should Vettel have led the field behind the safety car?
Rosberg lucks into the lead, but should Vettel have led the field behind the safety car?Gero Breloer/Associated Press

Although Vettel, per the team's official website, insisted he was "very happy" with the runner-up spot, the nature of Ferrari's Monaco GP—when victory was there for the taking—epitomised why the Italian outfit and their drivers now seem willing to settle for the best-of-the-rest spot behind Mercedes in 2015.

Like Williams last season, Ferrari and Vettel—both starved of sustained success since '13—both appear to be less battle-hardened than their Mercedes rivals, who have now won 21 of a possible 25 races since the V6 turbo regulations were introduced at the start of 2014.

Just as Williams allowed potential grand prix victories to slip through their grasp in, for instance, Canada, Austria and even Abu Dhabi last year, Ferrari could be accused of missing opportunities in the opening six races of 2015.

Sebastian Vettel #5 @sebvettelnews

Sebastian Vettel: It's nice to always be on the podium, but both Ferrari and I now want more. #F1 #Seb5 http://t.co/Uqe8smF3tm

In addition to the undercut undoing in Monte Carlo, Vettel made several mistakes in the Bahrain GP, finishing a distant fifth—the only race he had failed to reach the podium this season—when, had he driven cleanly, he might have been in a position to take full advantage of Hamilton and Rosberg's braking problems in the latter stages. 

Not only do Mercedes, a well-drilled (if increasingly complacent) outfit, have an advantage when it comes to the winning habit, the Silver Arrows' technical excellence should allow them—just as Rosberg did during the pit stop window in Monaco—to counteract any move made by Ferrari to eradicate what remains a sizable performance gap.

This was most evident in the Spanish Grand Prix, where, according to Sky Sports' Pete Gill, Ferrari effectively introduced a B-spec car, arriving with no fewer than "16 different new parts," from a revised floor to "shrink-wrapped sidepods," in an aggressive bid to reel in Mercedes.

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 10:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari prepares on the grid before the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 10, 2015 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Yet at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, which due to its layout provides a stringent test of a car's performance, Vettel, according to the official F1 website, qualified 0.8 seconds adrift of Rosberg's pole position time, crossing the finish line over 45 seconds behind the German and 28 seconds adrift of Hamilton, despite running ahead of the British driver for much of the race. 

It seems that whatever Ferrari do to try and close the gap to Mercedes, the German team has an answer, which perhaps explains why the Italian outfit have postponed their latest upgrade.

As reported by Sky Sports in April, Ferrari planned to introduce a major upgrade to their power unit in time for the next round in Canada—thought to be worth between 20 and 30 horsepower—in what would have been the team's one, last attack on Mercedes this season.

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 23:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari speaks with a member of his team in Parc Ferme after claiming third position on the grid during qualifying for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 23, 2015 in
Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Yet Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble has quoted team principal Maurizio Arrivabene as admitting that Ferrari will now refrain from using their remaining 10 engine tokens until later in the campaign, sacrificing short-term pain for long-term gain.

This approach could, indeed, prove to be a masterstroke if Vettel can remain in the thick of the title race until the end of the European season—perhaps allowing him to come good at a crucial stage of the year, when the German has traditionally produced his finest performances—but it is more likely an admission that Mercedes are tantalisingly out of reach in 2015. 

And by presenting a heavily developed engine in the latter stages of 2015, Ferrari could treat the final flyaway races as glorified test sessions prior to making further amendments in the off-season in preparation for a serious, firm championship assault in '16 and beyond.

Although that, in theory, would be the wisest approach, it is some comedown from the Malaysian Grand Prix just two months ago, when Vettel, in the immediate aftermath of his and the team's first win since 2013, told Sky Sports' James Galloway of his hopes of winning the world championship as soon as possible.

On that scorching Sepang afternoon, the possibilities were endless when Vettel's celebratory index finger finally recovered from its bout of impotence and the Prancing Horse had shaken off its limp.

The sky felt like the limit for the first team to beat Mercedes in a relatively straight fight and Arrivabene's pre-season target of two victories, as reported by BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, was the miscalculation of the century.

Darren Heath @F1Photographer

The 'finger' is back! #Vettel #MalaysiaGP #F1 #Ferrari http://t.co/Z1zR22DSGx

As every race has passed by, however, and Mercedes win grands prix they deserve to lose, it has looked like a realistic aim, with Ferrari too quick to be challenged by Williams and Red Bull Racing, but not yet strong nor shrewd enough to go head-to-head with the Silver Arrows on a weekly basis.

It is increasingly clear that 2015 is a season of stability for Ferrari and Vettel, who both came into the year with much to prove and their reputations on the line, and a third-place finish in the drivers' standings will represent a solid platform to bigger and better things in the coming seasons.

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