Sebastian Vettel skulked through the paddock on Sunday night with his headphones on and his face a mask of torment. All year, the Ferrari driver has reached for all manner of excuses to try to explain his underperformance, but this time there was no contesting the facts. In a year when he was once thought to have the fastest car, he now lies a staggering 100 points adrift of Lewis Hamilton with 11 races of 21 still left. A crash on Sunday with Max Verstappen, which relegated him to 16th and which the stewards decided was entirely his fault, was but the latest entry in a catalogue of failure.
Rumours are rife that Vettel, in a state of deep disillusion with F1 since a penalty in Montreal last month deprived him of a win, could yet follow Nico Rosberg’s example and take a shock early retirement at the end of the year. That might be an overdramatic reading – for a start, he is under contract at Ferrari until the end of 2020 – but he looks this summer like a pale imitation of the driver who won four world titles at Red Bull.
Since his row with the stewards in Canada, Vettel has not managed even to qualify in the top five for three races in a row. Plus, just as happened with Daniel Ricciardo in 2014, he is finding himself upstaged by a younger team-mate in Charles Leclerc. Where Vettel slid off at Vale, locking up and hitting Verstappen as he tried to defend, Leclerc had spent the earlier part of the race in extraordinary wheel-to-wheel combat with the Dutchman.
“Even though I have only been doing this for a year and a half, it was definitely the best race I have ever been a part of,” the young Monegasque smiled.
For Vettel, it was undoubtedly one of the worst. Having qualified a dismal sixth, he became embroiled in a skirmish with Verstappen and not for the first time came second best. For once, it was resolved diplomatically, with Verstappen disclosing he had received an immediate apology from the German after the race.
“I guess he misjudged the braking in there, but he apologised to me straight out of the car and that’s it,” Verstappen said. “It’s disappointing, but you can’t change it now.”
Although Vettel had cried out “what was he doing?” at the time of the contact, he subsequently accepted that he was to blame.
“I thought the inside line would open up, but it didn’t,” he said. “It looked for a second as if he was pulling to the middle of the track, but then he stayed left, I was too close, and I couldn’t avoid the crash.”
Asked for his view on the penalty, Vettel said: “It’s fine, it was my mistake.” The collision was a severe one, spinning Verstappen’s car around and launching it off the sausage kerb on the inside of the corner. In the circumstances, it was remarkable that he nursed his car to finish fifth.
“It was a bit of a surprise I didn’t retire on the spot,” he said. “The power steering more or less failed, so it was quite a hard workout for me out there. The seat popped up, it was moving around a lot. The diffuser was broken, the floor was broken, and underneath I could see parts falling off.
“The car was definitely not what it should have been, so I’m just happy to have finished where I did.”
Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, who last week speculated that Verstappen could beat even Lewis Hamilton on present form if they were both given the same machinery, was effusive in praise of his driver. “For Max to keep the car going with the damage he had was quite incredible,” he said.
“At least he could get some points out of it. It is frustrating, because clearly he made a great pass, and I can only imagine that it was a complete misjudgement by Sebastian to have hit him in the way he did.”
Vettel, sad to relate, is making such miscalculations all too often. Perhaps it is all just an uncharacteristic dip. But the impression is that we are seeing a driver who has fundamentally lost his way.