A beleaguered Sebastian Vettel received support from an unexpected source on Monday after another dismal outing for Ferrari in an action-packed British Grand Prix.
Two weeks ahead of his home German Grand Prix, the under-pressure four-time world champion endured a race to forget as he slipped 100 points adrift of the victorious record-breaking Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes by finishing a distant 16th.
Another in his growing catalogue of errors, when he slammed into the rear of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull and was forced to pit for a new nose, brought him a 10-second penalty and two points on his licence.
It was also the third consecutive race in which the 32-year-old German was beaten comprehensively by his teammate Charles Leclerc, who came home third.
The 21-year-old Monegasque is now only three points behind him and many observers suggested that Ferrari will have to make him their main priority, instead of Vettel, in the title race.
Those critics, however, do not include five-time champion and long-time rival Hamilton whose record sixth Silverstone win thrilled a sold-out crowd of 141,000.
“He’s had a difficult race today, but he’s a four-time world champion,” said Hamilton. “He will recover. He will redeem himself, if he feels he needs to, and he will come back stronger in the next race – that’s what great athletes do.”
Hamilton’s opinion was not shared by many keen Ferrari-observers who have watched Vettel declining in the last year, notably since crashing out of the lead on home soil at Hockenheim, gifting Hamilton victory and the impetus in last year’s championship.
Recently married and a father of two girls, Vettel has lost his momentum at the same time that Leclerc – with four successive podiums – has gathered his to emerge alongside Verstappen, also 21, as a symbol of F1’s future.
Ironically, Vettel’s reputation was built on a precocious talent as a teenager before he became the youngest pole-sitter and race winner, aged 21, at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix, driving for the unfancied Toro Rosso team.
The second of those two records was taken from him when Verstappen, on his debut with Red Bull after moving from Toro Rosso, won the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.
This year, Vettel has struggled for consistency and experienced misfortunes with a run of stewards’ decisions, but he rejected claims that he has lost his passion for racing and is heading towards retirement.
Ferrari team chief Mattia Binotto, a faithful Vettel supporter, has continued to back him as the team’s No1 driver.
Hamilton, who misses the threat of a rampant Ferrari team, said he has to imagine he has a competitor ahead, or on his tail, as he urges his former rival to bounce back.
“I loved competing with Ferrari and I wish that our battle was with them – it’s so different when you’re racing within a team,” he explained, after finishing 25 seconds ahead of Valtteri Bottas in another Mercedes one-two. Hamilton now leads Bottas by 39 points after ten of this year’s 21 races.
“I don’t feel necessarily that he [Bottas] is the only one chasing – I am still chasing! I try to put an imaginary individual ahead of myself . . . It’s my target to improve and beat my previous performances – I always give myself a goal to chase.”