Sebastian Vettel and Formula 1's Great Career Moves

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2016

Sebastian Vettel and Formula 1's Great Career Moves

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    Handout/Getty Images

    Sebastian Vettel is probably feeling pretty good about life as he prepares for the 2016 Formula One season.

    When he signed for Ferrari toward the end of 2014, the Scuderia were nowhere. The Italian team had got their new V6 turbo hybrid power unit horribly wrong and had yet again built a disappointing car.

    Thanks to Fernando Alonso's efforts, they finished fourth in the constructors' championship; without the Spaniard, they would likely have been down in sixth.

    But Vettel's arrival coincided with an upturn in Ferrari's fortunes. He won the 2015 Malaysian Grand Prix, only his second race for the team, and stood on the podium 13 times on his way to third in the drivers' standings.

    He scored 278 pointsjust 44 fewer than Nico Rosberg, who had been driving the dominant Mercedes W06. If any team are going to challenge Mercedes in 2016, in will be Ferrariand if any driver is going to stop one of the Silver Arrows waltzing away with the drivers' championship, it will be Vettel.

    How different might his future look had he opted to remain at Red Bull?

    Success in F1 has always been about a driver finding himself in the right car at the right time; a single signature on a contract could easily determine whether a great talent ends his career with one world championship or four.

    The Ferrari switch could yet turn out to be a terrible mistake, but even if it does, Vettel will still be able to look back on an earlier move that turned out very well for him indeed.

    Here, we look back on that career-defining move—and at four other drivers, all of whom raced in the German's lifetime, who also made the right call and reaped the benefits further down the line.

Alain Prost: Renault to McLaren in 1984

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    Alain Prost in 1985.
    Alain Prost in 1985.Mike King/Getty Images

    Alain Prost started his F1 career with McLaren, but he made his name at the Renault team between 1981 and 1983. In those early days of the first turbo era, the French manufacturer was very good at building quick carsbut not so good at making them reliable.

    As a result, Prost was unable to win the championship the teamand his countrycraved. Renault decided it was his fault and kicked him out at the end of 1983; Prost, suddenly finding himself in need of a new team, rejoined McLaren.

    The move couldn't have come at a better time.

    Prost won on his McLaren debut and stood on the top step of the podium a further six times as the new MP4/2 dominated the 1984 season. Team-mate Niki Lauda took the title by just half a point, but in 1985, Prost blitzed the field to claim his first drivers' championship.

    He added his second in 1986 and a third in 1989, before a breakdown in his relationship with team-mate Ayrton Senna led Prost to switch to Ferrari, ending his six-year stay at McLaren.

    Between 1983 and 1989, Prost won 30 grands prix, started from pole position 10 times and set 24 fastest laps. Known as a talented driver when he arrived at McLaren, he left as a three-time world champion and one of the most successful drivers in F1 history.

    And Renault?

    An all-new driver lineup of Patrick Tambay and Derek Warwick managed just seven podiums between them over the next two seasonsand none of them were race wins. After finishing seventh in the 1985 constructors' championship, Renault pulled the plug and disappeared from the grid.

Ayrton Senna: Lotus to McLaren in 1988

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    Ayrton Senna in his first McLaren—the mighty MP4/4.
    Ayrton Senna in his first McLaren—the mighty MP4/4.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

    Ayrton Senna spent the early years of his career as a big fish in a relatively small pond. After his impressive debut season with minnows Toleman, he joined the fading Lotus team and spent three years keeping them somewhere near the front.

    He finished third in the drivers' standings in 1987, behind only the Williams pair of Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. Senna could have stayed at Lotus for longer had he wished, but for 1988, he opted to spread his wings.

    The brilliant Brazilian moved to McLaren to partner Alain Prostand so began one of the most memorable relationships in F1 history.

    Senna started on pole for the first six races of his McLaren career and edged out Prost in their first season together to take his first world championship. He lost out to the Frenchman in 1989, and by the end of that year, the relationship between the two men had fallen apart.

    Prost left to join Ferrari and Senna remained at McLaren, adding his second and third titles in 1990 and 1991.

    In six years with McLaren, Senna won 35 races, took 45 pole positions and stood on the podium 55 times, cementing his position in the history books as an all-time great in terms of both talent and results.

    Lotus, meanwhile, became a shadow of their former selves. Nelson Piquet's third place at the 1988 Australian Grand Prix was their final podium, and a steady decline followed from 1989 onward.

    At the 1991 Japanese Grand Prixthe race at which Senna clinched his third titlethe Lotus cars qualified 21st and 23rd.

    Three years later, Colin Chapman's once-mighty team was no more.

Michael Schumacher: Benetton to Ferrari in 1996

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    Michael Schumacher with team boss Jean Todt and 1996 team-mate Eddie Irvine.
    Michael Schumacher with team boss Jean Todt and 1996 team-mate Eddie Irvine.ERCOLE COLOMBO/Associated Press

    Michael Schumacher had only one world championship to his name when the August of 1995 rolled around, but he was already regarded as the best driver on the F1 grid. He was also sat in one of the best cars of the yearthe Renault-powered Benetton B195.

    He could have stayed with the team for 1996, and it wouldn't have been a bad idea. They were keeping the field-leading engines and would almost certainly build another car in which he could fight for the title.

    But he had an alternative offer on the table from Ferrari. The Italian team hadn't won a drivers' championship since 1979 and hadn't built a decent car since 1990, but they were offering the opportunity to rebuild the sport's most famous nameas well as a huge pile of money.

    Schumacher decided to accept the Scuderia's offer and took his place at the head of the Maranello table.

    Despite their poor recent form, he was bullish about his chances of quickly helping to turn the team into winnersSchumacher was quoted by the Telegraph's Timothy Collings (h/t motorsport.com) as saying he wanted win the title in his second year.

    The impressive Williams FW19 ensured that didn't happen, and Mika Hakkinen spoiled the party in 1998 and 1999. But 2000 was Schumacher's year, and from then on, he never looked back.

    With Jean Todt leading a heavily funded team that included technical director Ross Brawn and designer Rory Byrne, Schumacher and Ferrari won drivers' and constructors' championship doubles every year from 2000 to 2004.

    It was a period of dominance unlike any other in the sport's history, and when Schumacher retired for the first time at the end of 2006, he held almost every record in the book. He won more races (91), took more pole positions (68), set more fastest laps (77) and won more championships (seven) than anyone before himand his records remain unbroken to this day.

    His old team, Benetton, hung around near the front for a couple of years but only won one race in the six years following Schumacher's departure.

    What might the history books look like had he decided to stay?

Sebastian Vettel: BMW to Toro Rosso in 2008

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    Sebastian Vettel before making his debut for the Toro Rosso team.
    Sebastian Vettel before making his debut for the Toro Rosso team.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Sebastian Vettel joined the Red Bull Junior Team as an 11-year-old kart racer in 1998, but as his career progressed, he attracted the support of another giant corporation. BMW added their backing for 2005 and gave Vettel his first taste of F1 machinery with a test later the same year.

    He became BMW-Sauber's primary test driver in 2006, taking part in a number of Friday practice sessions, and in 2007, he made his racing debut for the team at the United States Grand Prixscoring a point for finishing eighth.

    Vettel certainly looked the part, but he was only deputising for the injured Robert Kubica, and he returned to his reserve role when the Pole came back. BMW didn't have the space for himbut his other backers, Red Bull, did.

    BMW let him out of his contract and Vettel was driving for Toro Rossosister team of Red Bullwhen he made his second F1 start at the 2007 Hungarian Grand Prix. He won his first race with the team in 2008 before switching to the main Red Bull squad for 2009, and what happened next was very special indeed.

    Vettel won 39 races with Red Bull and Toro Rosso, started from pole 45 times and set 24 fastest laps. More importantly, he won the drivers' title for four consecutive years between 2010 and 2013, becoming the youngest-ever world champion and earning himself a permanent place in the F1 history books.

    Speaking after Vettel's 2008 win at the Italian Grand Prix, BMW boss Mario Theissen told the press in the Monza paddock:

    It's been the perfect move for Sebastian to come here for a few years in order to develop without too much pressure.

    I think he will do very well in the future.

    A year ago it wasn't possible to put him in our car, he was very inexperienced and you cannot gamble.

    It was much more important to give him the chance to develop in a team like this and he will do that for a few years and then we will see.

    Fortunately for Vettel, they didn't follow up their interest. BMW withdrew at the end of 2009 with just one race win to show for their four-year involvement with Sauber. They haven't been back since.

Lewis Hamilton: McLaren to Mercedes in 2013

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    Lewis Hamilton at the launch of his first Mercedes.
    Lewis Hamilton at the launch of his first Mercedes.Angel Fernandez/Associated Press

    Lewis Hamilton had two contracts on his table as he approached the end of the 2012 season.

    One was to remain at established winners McLaren, who had built one of the fastest cars of the year and with whom he still hador so it appeareda shot of winning his second world title.

    The other was an offer from Mercedes, mighty in the 1950s but with no recent history of anything approaching true success. Though they'd won the Chinese Grand Prix of 2012, they'd managed just six podiums since returning as a constructor in 2010.

    For a driver seeking championships, it seemed like a no-brainerMcLaren, every time.

    But Hamilton opted for Mercedes. A new V6 turbo hybrid engine was due to be introduced in 2014, and there was reason to believe Mercedes—as one of only three suppliers of the complex new power units—might gain an advantage.

    Hamilton also considered his own personal happiness. He wasn't enjoying the rigid, structured way of life at McLaren and wanted more freedom. Speaking to this writer in late 2015, he revealed, "I wanted to really be in a place where I could be myself and express myself in my own ways."

    It turned out to be a very good decision.

    Had Hamilton remained at McLaren, he would still have just one world championship to his name. Barring a minor miracle, his win tally would stand at 21the number it was at the end of 2012and he would have a career total of 26 pole positions.

    Instead, he is now a three-time world champion with 43 career wins, 47 pole positions and 28 fastest laps. His place in the history books is secure, and his name is known even by those with absolutely no interest in F1.

    And he's in a much happier place away from the circuit, too.

    @NeilJamesF1

    Season and career stats used throughout sourced from DriverDB.

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