In September 2008, a young German driver by the name of Sebastian Vettel made history, not only by becoming the younger pole-sitter in Formula One history but by winning the Italian Grand Prix.
Aged just 21 years and 74 days, Vettel shocked the racing world, earning his team, Toro Rosso, their only race win. It led to him being named Baby Schumi by the press, a homage to one of the best drivers of all time, Michael Schumacher. Whilst Lewis Hamilton made it a one-two for British drivers during that season, becoming the youngest ever winner of the title, Vettel was the exciting prospect.
Two years later, Vettel ended Hamilton’s brief reign as the youngest victor ever, sparking a sensational run of four successive title wins, one shy of Schumacher’s record of five-in-a-row. Indeed, Bwin’s F1 post shows Vettel is only 30 podium finishes behind catching the legendary Michael Schumacher, and that he already has more race wins than both Alain Prost and the late, great Ayrton Senna. So why did he not kick on from his 2013 victory and become the greatest driver of all time?
2014 saw him struggle in a season dogged by reliability issues, and he became the first defending champion not to win a single race in a season, or to put it another way, the only four-time champion not to win a race. Instead, Hamilton picked up his second driver’s title to begin clawing away at Vettel’s legacy. It was a rivalry for the ages, one set to trump that of Prost and Senna, but whilst both of those drivers are fondly remembered as great competitors, Vettel’s stock has completely collapsed.
He should have been the pride and joy of Germany, the natural successor to the great Michael Schumacher, but his move to Ferrari in 2015 only brought more misery. In his 2013 title-winning season, Vettel won 13 races. Between 2014 and the upcoming 2021 season, he has won just 14. His switch to Ferrari was meant to be the next step in becoming the new Schumacher, driving the same car and claiming the crowd. Instead of a coronation, it became an abdication.
In 2016, Hamilton’s brief reign as champion was ended by another German, with Nico Rosberg taking his first championship. In 2017, Vettel and Hamilton resumed their rivalry. Vettel secured four wins before the summer break and one more in Brazil, the sort of form which might have left him as a contender in other years. Sadly, the Mercedes of Hamilton was too quick, and frustration boiled over in Baku when Vettel drove into Hamilton deliberately. Formula1.com reveals that the incident was put behind the drivers, but whilst Hamilton has since thrived, Vettel has all-but disappeared.
His move to Ferrari was meant to bring glory to the team and the driver – as it had with Schumacher – but instead, Vettel cut a frustrated figure in a car ill-equipped for his needs. His horrible understeer at Hockenheim in 2018 only underlined how far he had fallen. He qualified first on his home circuit, and he led from the first corner with Hamilton back in 13th. On lap 46, Vettel mounted the kerb and lost a portion of his front wing, before crashing out completely on lap 52. Hamilton won the race and opened a 27-point lead in the Driver’s Championship.
That race also saw a young Charles Leclerc finish in 15th and it is the Monegasque driver who has perhaps all-but ended Vettel’s legacy in Formula One. He is the chosen one at Ferrari now, and his form allowed the team to let Vettel go. Now 33, Vettel will race for the new Aston Martin team in 2021, further away from adding to this four world titles than he has ever been. In a British car, he will be watching from the middle of the pack as a British driver, one-time rival Hamilton, looks to better Michael Schumacher’s record of seven titles this year, making it five-in-a-row, too.
It seems Baby Schumi grew up and sadly, could not live up to the expectation pinned upon him.