Does Vettel have a Schumacher moment in him?

The 2019 season could prove defining for both Vettel’s legacy and Ferrari’s reputation in modern-day F1. Can they evoke the spirit of 2000?

A German driver begins his fifth season at an Italian team starved of championship success, in pursuit of an elusive title, having come close twice before.

This could well have been the voice-over introducing a documentary on the 2000 Formula One season. Almost two decades later, the wheel, it seems, has come full circle. The exact same situation greets us ahead of the 2019 season, which will be flagged off in Melbourne this weekend.

Having joined Ferrari in 1996, Michael Schumacher came close in 1997 and 1998, before finally ending the team’s 21-year wait for a drivers’ title in 2000. The parallels with Sebastian Vettel are uncanny. Having signed with Ferrari in 2015, he has fallen short the last two seasons. And the Prancing Horse has gone 11 years without a champion — Kimi Raikkonen was its most recent, in 2007.

It is a crucial season for the German’s legacy. He had the car to win it last year but his errors cost him. The fact that the team was not at its best operationally did not help.

Ahead of 2019, Ferrari has made changes at the management level, removing team principal Maurizio Arrivabene and replacing him with technical boss Mattia Binotto.

Binotto was instrumental in fixing the engine situation after the disaster that was 2014. He then ensured Ferrari produced a car capable of taking on Mercedes. The Italian is expected to bring stability to a team that has often self-destructed because of internal politics and a culture of fear and blame.

Vettel appears happy with the change. “If we can maintain the level of joy and fun I found on the track here and saw on people’s faces the last couple of months, then I’m positive and hopeful for the future,” Vettel said after the first test in Barcelona.

When Vettel was unstoppable at Red Bull, he had the backing of the whole team —something Ferrari didn’t provide him last year. At Germany, for instance, the team took far too long to ask Raikkonen to give way after he got ahead on a different strategy. A frustrated Vettel lost precious time before he could make the pass. He eventually dropped 25 points, crashing when he was leading the race

Binotto has made it clear, however, that the team will prioritise Vettel if the need arises, especially early in the season. “If there are particular situations, our priority will be Sebastian. I think it’s normal, especially early in the season. He is the guide with which we aim for the championship,” said Binotto at the car launch.

If the pre-season testing times from Barcelona are to be believed, and they come with plenty of caveats, the unanimous feeling is that Ferrari is the team to beat.

Vettel set the fastest time of the tests, posting a 1:16.221, with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes doing a 1:16.224. On the face of it, the teams are closely matched, but the onboard video of Vettel’s lap showed he wasn’t exactly pushing the limits.

More importantly, on long runs, Ferrari looked two- to three-tenths of a second quicker per lap. The team’s new recruit, Charles Leclerc, set the third-fastest time of the test, just a tenth behind Vettel. “Obviously like every team we are not flat out,” said Leclerc. “There is still some margin. There is a bit in myself. The car feels comfortable, from day one the balance is pretty nice, and it hasn’t changed.”

Mercedes, which has dominated the sport since 2014, is trying to equal Ferrari’s record of six consecutive constructors’ titles (1999-2004). But it seems as if the team will go into the season opener second-best for the first time in five years.

Hamilton, who is chasing a sixth world title, reckons Mercedes could be off the pace by as much as half a second, in the worst-case scenario. However, the team has shown remarkable tenacity and kept on developing. There were significant improvements between the first and second tests.

The other team to watch is Red Bull, with new engine partner Honda. The former champion has made all the right noises about the Honda engine after years of publicly criticising Renault. Towards the end of last year, Max Verstappen and Red Bull were more than a match for Ferrari and Mercedes. With a better engine, they could have won more races.

While it hasn’t produced headline-grabbing times, the team looks to have a solid car, which will be a lot closer to Ferrari and Mercedes than 12 months ago. And with Verstappen’s rough edges smoothened out — he turned in blindingly quick drives after Monaco last year, eliminating the crashes and clumsiness — Red Bull could make it a three-team race.

Beyond the big three, Renault will be watched closely to see how much progress it has made, especially with its much-maligned power unit. Daniel Ricciardo will attract attention as well — will his gamble to leave Red Bull and join Renault pay off?

But there’s no doubt that the season’s central narrative will feature Vettel in a major role. In the pantheon of greats, his position continues to have an unfair asterisk — the perception is that his titles came in dominant Red Bull cars and he was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time. The fact that he lost to Hamilton in straight fights over the last two years has not helped his case.

In this light, 2019 is make or break for Vettel. If the German wants to secure his place among the sport’s best-ever drivers, he needs to do what Schumacher did in his fifth year at Ferrari. If he doesn’t, his career in red will mirror that of Fernando Alonso, whom he beat in tight contests in 2010 and 2012 and who walked away from the Italian team after five frustrating years.

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