Vettel: Justified Frustration, or Sour Grapes?

August 2, 2010

It didn’t take a psychiatrist to see that Sebastian Vettel was frustrated in Hungary. From his exasperated arm waving during his drive-through – not an easy task in a cramped F1 cockpit – to running into the board marking third-place in parc fermé, Vettel’s feelings were clear before he opened his mouth and removed all doubt at the press conference. After setting a dominant pace in qualifying and making a good start, Vettel couldn’t get over the feeling that tripping over a little-known rule had denied him certain victory.

It’s questionable whether that frustration is justified. Yes, the rule was an unusual one, and a sympathetic fan could forgive him for his ignorance over a small detail in the vastly complex regulations. Yet the fact that the rule has been so rarely brought into practice shows just how unusual Vettel’s behaviour under the safety car was – and not for the first time.

The young German has always taken an idiosyncratic approach to leading the field when racing has been suspended. Whether on formation laps or under the safety car, Vettel tends to lead at a crawl. The difference in Hungary is that Vettel wasn’t leading – at least, not in terms of absolute track position.

Although Vettel wasn’t in the lead of the race, he would have known that the only driver in front of him, Webber, still needed to pit. In the back of his mind, Vettel must have known Webber was out of position, and so acted under the safety car as if he were the race leader. Hence Vettel slowed to a crawl, backing up the pack, as we’ve seen him do many times while leading under the safety car. Vettel’s tendency to do this has always seemed odd. This time, it caught him out.

Vettel’s mistakes continued after the safety car went in. While Webber set about building a cushion between himself and the rest of the pack, Vettel was lapping at the same pace as Alonso. That he had pace to spare is beyond doubt: when the team instructed him to speed up in anticipation of a penalty, he immediately found 0.7 seconds a lap. Which begs the question: why wasn’t he doing that before? If Vettel had driven at that speed from the moment the safety car pitted, he would have been far enough infront of Alonso to rejoin the track in second after his penalty.

There are many reasons Vettel might have been running below the pace his car was capable of. Suggestions he was holding up Alonso to build a gap for Webber seem unfounded. Horner denied any such orders were given and, in any case, Vettel’s radio was (at best) working intermittently. Saving fuel would be another reason to back off, but Webber was able to drive flat-out for much of the race, and one imagines the two Red Bulls would be on similar fuel strategies.

Perhaps, then, Vettel simply allowed his concentration to slip, or felt there was no point in pushing when it seemed he had the win in the bag. We’ve seen before that Vettel is not a driver who pushes at 100% unless he feels he has something to gain by it. At Silverstone, when an unplanned pitstop to replace a punctured tyre placed him at the back of the grid, his pace suggested he simply couldn’t be bothered to push the car to its limits, knowing the win was beyond his grasp. Only the safety car roused him from sluggishness, as he picked up the pace when he closed up on the back of the field.

Vettel said after the race that the win should have been “a walk in the park” for him. It’s that feeling of having already won, of entitlement, that may have led his mind to wander behind the safety car – so, too, to lap seven-tenths slower than the car was capable of when, in hindsight, he needed that time most. To put it simply, it was Vettel’s feeling that he’d already won the race that may have cost him that victory.

Vettel’s claims that he should have won seem odd, considering he led only 15 of the race’s 70 laps. It suggests he feels his performance in qualifying, and strong start, entitled him to the victory. Yet races are not won on Saturday, nor on the first lap,  but only over a full race distance. If Vettel wants the victories he feels he deserves in the future, he’ll have to be willing to fight for them: not for 15 laps, but for 70.

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