Honey Badgers, Apple Carts & Je Ne Sais Quoi

Sebastian Vettel
Do you remember that time when a multiple Formula One World Champion was upset so much by the voracity and tenacity of his team mate that he sulked himself into a stupor and left the team he was essentially raised in for pastures new? Well it appears history is repeating itself, and whenever that happens [in Formula One], it needs a few words.

Sebastian Vettel hasn’t been having a great time of it lately, with errors maligning the popular German pilot left, right and centre. What seemed to start at the 2018 German Grand Prix has continued through to the present, and the spin and subsequent rejoining of the track in Monza last weekend showed a driver under pressure, under scrutiny and underwhelming his actual ability.

But rewinding time a little, about five years, and the world was revelling in the marvel that was Vettel in a Red Bull, taking his fourth consecutive title in a dominance only ever before seen by his compatriot Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari. For sure, teams and drivers have won titles on the bounce before, but none in the same vein as Messrs Schumacher and Vettel (at that time, one should add).

Back then the motorsporting world was hailing its new hero, although and of course – as we always do – moaning about the unrelenting boredom of another season of domination with little chance of some real racing and drama. But Vettel was being praised in all quarters for generally being a top-class driver, especially so given his young age and potential to match and break Schumacher’s records. As long as Red Bull and Adrian Newey kept producing the all-conquering chassis, it seemed as though the records would soon be falling.

Enter stage right Daniel Ricciardo. A young up-and-coming Red Bull-contracted Australian who, it seemed, had a penchant for upsetting apple carts.

2014 was a disaster for Vettel, so much so he hasn’t shaken it to this day. The fall from grace was spectacular and the ramifications are still being felt to this very day. Vettel’s employment at Ferrari came about because he didn’t want to remain at a team where the new boy could upstage the established order. Perhaps arrogant, perhaps conceited, but almost certainly had Ricciardo not been promoted to the big league, Vettel’s career path would have remained with Red Bull for a while longer at least.

Interestingly, and only as an aside, Ricciardo’s eventual resignation from Red Bull came about in similar circumstances, the young Max Verstappen developing his own liking for apples as well.

And so with Ferrari, Vettel sought to rebuild his reputation and win his fifth title with Formula One’s most grandest of stables. Much like Fernando Alonso before him though, he’s finding it harder than it probably should be.

Enter stage right Charles Leclerc. A young up-and-coming Ferrari-contracted Monégasque who, it seems, has a penchant for upsetting apple carts.

Leclerc’s qualifying lap in Spa must have been soul-destroying for Vettel. Although to a casual follower of motorsport a time difference of 0.748s between the two Ferraris doesn’t sound like a lot, it is actually huge. At the previous race in Hungary, the top-five qualifiers were seperated by 0.499s. The advantage of pace led to Leclerc taking his maiden win in Formula One, a victory that was overdue given his performances in previous races, only let down by his car’s reliability and his own deficit of experience.

The young charger followed this up with another win the following weekend at his team’s home grand prix. In front of the tifosi appassionato, Leclerc (vigorously) fended off the advances of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to take win number two.

It was also in the presence of the tifosi that Vettel showed his worrying trait of having silly spins and unnecessary tangles. Having spun all on his own at the Ascari chicane, Vettel (later claiming he could not see) rejoined the track in a manner that is not becoming of someone of his experience, forcing another driver to take avoiding action. That driver, Lance Stroll, then spun himself and while rejoining, forced a third driver to take to the gravel in avoidance. A comedy of errors, but no least a string of errors that started with a red car pointing the wrong way for no good reason.

The slips, spins, prangs and poor performances are adding to the picture that the once great wunderkind is perhaps not so great after all. But that surely can’t be right. That cannot be the case. You don’t win four titles on the trot without being something a little bit special.

The 2014 debacle against the Honey Badger, as he is affectionately known*, came about at a time of change for the cars and engines. The formula of Formula One changed, and it is quite possible that Vettel found himself in an uncomfortable position with the car he trusts his life with. And while the differences between 2018 and 2019 are no where near the same as five years ago, it has been well-documented that Ferrari’s design philosophy for this year’s car is notably different to others, the front wing being abstract to its nearest rival, the Mercedes W10.

Over the years, many people have commented that Sebastian Vettel won his four titles while driving a superior car. This is used to challenge his skill as a racing driver. But this in itself is unfair. For each of his titles, Vettel was partnered with Mark Webber, a driver who, if we are being brutally honest, didn’t really challenge Vettel that much. But while not consistently challenging Vettel, Webber did give an idea as to what an average Formula One driver could do with the car. And to his credit, Vettel did better.

While piloting a Ferrari, Vettel has added 13 wins to his tally while driving what most will agree was/is not the fastest car. And one should not forget Vettel’s maiden victory back in 2008, Scuderia Toro Rosso’s only victory, ever. In fact, the constructor’s only win if you consider that before Dietrich Mateschitz took over, the team was Minardi and never even made it on to the podium in twenty years of trying.

Is it that Vettel is just a very sensitive driver and needs a car under him that his totally to his liking? Not necessarily the fastest, but tuned to his way of driving.

As Vettel’s career progresses and history starts to repeat itself, one has to wonder if this is exactly the case. Because for all his victories and titles, for all his talent and skill, Vettel does sometimes look like seventeen-year old taking his first driving lesson. And if that is the truth of the matter, where does that leave him in the overall rankings of drivers-that-can-never-really-be-compared?

As I say at the very top, je ne sais quoi.

*It really is said and understood with affection, despite the animal having a reputation for being ferocious. And by the way, could you tell I realised I hadn’t explained that reference earlier in the article and somewhat bluntly added it in there? Yep, me too.

**Je ne sais quoi is a French phrase and translates to I do not know that. The phrase has been adopted into English and is used to descibe something that is special or attractive, but for reasons that are not entirely clear.