Will Vettel regret his Aston Martin move?

Last month’s opening round of the 2021 F1 season was not the Aston Martin race debut that Sebastian Vettel, Otmar Szafnauer nor Lawrence Stroll wanted.

On the back of a brilliant end to 2020, with first and third for Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll respectively in Sakhir being the highlight, expectations were high for the newly branding British Racing Green team to solidify themselves as the third best team in Formula 1.

However, whilst Stroll slaved away for a hard-earned 10th place point in Bahrain, Vettel’s performance only raised further eyebrows off the back of his worst season in F1 last year with Ferrari. 

Where did Vettel’s Weekend go so Wrong?

Perhaps it could be considered no huge surprise that Aston Martin and Vettel suffered a turbulent opening weekend when considering their pre-season testing struggles.

Much like their senior Mercedes partners, gearbox issues cost Vettel valuable running on the second morning. Other gremlins left the German bottom of the lap charts amongst all 2021 race drivers. Especially when factoring in that Vettel was moving to a completely new power unit and chassis, undoubtedly this was far less running than the four-time champion hoped for.

Vettel’s smash into the back of Esteban Ocon’s Alpine summed up a difficult opening weekend (Motor Sport Magazine)

After a drama-free Friday at the Bahrain GP, where Vettel was able to get some more crucial running in, the next moment where his weekend was seriously hampered came in Saturday’s qualifying session.

Vettel looked set to make the improvement needed to get his Aston into Q2, until a spin for Nikita Mazepin brought out the double-yellow flags in Turn 1. This forced all drivers behind the Russian on their final runs to abandon their laps, leaving Vettel stranded in the drop zone and out in Q1.

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Things would get even worse for the German when it emerged that he had failed to abandon his lap after Mazepin’s spin, thus earning himself a five-place grid penalty and three penalty points on his superlicence. 

On the Sunday, Vettel started from P20 but, on an alternative one-stop strategy, made a strong start, reaching P14 by the end of Lap 1. Vettel moved into the points as others made their first stops but soon started suffering with high tyre wear, falling back before making his stop for hard tyres.

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The Aston struggled on the hard compound and when battling with Esteban Ocon for 12th place on Lap 44. Vettel made an error synonymous with his latter Ferrari years by locking up under braking and careening into the back of the Alpine.

Vettel was handed a ten-second penalty and two further penalty points for his troubles, leaving him in P15 by the end of the race. Whilst internally, the team were quick to play down their struggles, it’s clear that a lot more will be expected of one of the greatest drivers of all time in the coming races.

Is this just part of a growing trend?

Many people were unsurprised at Vettel’s poor opening show in Bahrain, claiming that this is just part of the German’s continued decline from the elite level of Formula 1. 

Vettel’s worrying trend of preventable collisions and incidents began to emerge in the second half of 2018. After being in control of the title battle against Lewis Hamilton, Vettel quickly fell away as Hamilton won race after race.

Vettel’s slip from the lead in Hockenheim in 2018 is seen by many as the trigger for his decline in form (Goodwood)

Whilst a half season’s worth of problems could be put down to a Hamilton 2011-style blip, Vettel’s alarming racecraft woes only continued as he came up against new teammate Charles Leclerc in 2019.

Whilst Leclerc quickly started to gather his authority on the team, Vettel’s level of spatial awareness and inability to manage the rear end of his Ferrari grabbed a multitude of headlines.

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His latest incident in Bahrain looked eerily parallel to the mistakes Vettel made in 2019 and 2020 and perhaps suggested that it wasn’t just a toxic relationship with Ferrari that was to blame for Seb’s poor performances.

If the German has any more collisions or spins in the next couple of races, the media’s daggers will be out, especially with supersub Nico Hulkenberg recently announced as Aston Martin’s new reserve and development driver.

Where does Stroll sit in all of this?

For Lance Stroll, who has had to stave off a number of “pay driver” criticisms since his arrival in F1 in 2017, despite some very credible performances, the arrival of Vettel could prove to be a massive asset in raising Stroll’s stock. 

Stroll has been self-critical throughout his career, admitting to suffering badly with confidence following his hard crash in Mugello and subsequent poor run of results. 

The manner of Stroll’s pole in Turkey raised eyebrows up and down the paddock (Sky Sports)

Thus the inevitable scrutiny of Vettel’s performances could take such much-needed weight of pressure off of the young Canadian’s shoulders. His father’s control of the team means that he will naturally get a longer leash than most, but Stroll has proven on multiple occasions that when he has the belief in himself and the car, performances like his brilliant pole in Turkey last year are possible.

If Stroll gets an early upper hand on Vettel, this could compound the German’s problems by hurting his reputation further still, whilst giving Stroll the kick boost to take his career to the next level.

And of the Original Question?

Sebastian Vettel’s F1 career is an enigma. No four-time world champion in history has had his achievements most discredited by his critics than that of the German. 

Whilst some put his four successive titles down to the genius of Adrian Newey more so than Vettel’s ability, there’s no doubt that in his prime, Vettel was unbeatable.

Sadly, those days do seem a long time ago now, with 2020 painting a sorry sight as he was comprehensively beaten by Leclerc week after week.

The Aston Martin move was supposed to be a fresh start for the German, a chance to build a fledgling team in his image, much like he was a huge factor in taking Red Bull from contenders to champions.

Vettel famously bows down to his Red Bull following his fourth successive title glory in 2013 (Red Bull)

However, if many more races like the season opener in Bahrain occur, then it could only do more to make Vettel’s critics even louder. There were several mitigating factors which contributed to those issues, however the excuses won’t hold for much longer.

Unless Vettel finds his form again soon, we could be witnessing a sorry end to a previously distinguished career. 

Grid Talk Podcast

Want more content to preview this weekend’s Emilia-Romagna GP? Ruby Price hosted panellists Alex Booth, Sam Thatcher and Owain Medford in Grid Talk’s Imola preview podcast. Audio and video versions of the show are both available below:

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