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A season in red - Vettel’s first year with Ferrari

08 Dec 2015

When Sebastian Vettel’s move from Red Bull to Ferrari was finally made public in November 2014, some questioned whether the four-time world champion - in the midst of a miserable campaign in which he’d been roundly beaten by less-experienced team mate Daniel Ricciardo - was the right man to lead the Scuderia back to the top. Twelve months on and those doubters have been well and truly silenced. We take a month-by-month look at Vettel’s unforgettable first year at Ferrari…
November/December 2014 - A fairy-tale beginning

Vettel enjoys what he describes as a 'magical' start to his Ferrari career as he completes a comprehensive introductory session with his new team. Wearing a white helmet bearing the slogan 'il mio Primo giorno in Ferrari' ('my first day in Ferrari'), the German racks up nearly 100 laps in a two-year old F2012 at the Scuderia’s Fiorano test track, before spending the following days undertaking simulator work and having meetings with key figures at Maranello. "There are a lot of fairy tales about Ferrari and how it feels to drive a red car,” Vettel says. “In the end I can only confirm these fairytales.” Meanwhile, Ferrari’s new team principal Maurizio Arrivabene sets the Italian squad a minimum target of at least two Grand Prix victories for 2015...

January - New horizons

Ferrari unveil their 2015 challenger, the SF15-T, with a cautious Vettel warning against expecting immediate results in his maiden season with the team: "There is a lot of change going on, new people in new positions - including myself - so it always takes a bit of time to settle in until you really start to make proper progress.” Asked if he would be happy should Ferrari score one victory over the coming season, Vettel says: "I think we would be happy - but of course we would be happier if we win more. As I said you have to be realistic. I think the most important thing is that we start getting into the groove quickly in winter testing and start to make progress. If the situation is like last year, it will be very difficult to fight for victories, but of course that is our goal. That is why we are here; we are not here to be second."

February - Promising signs

Having appeared to have lost his mojo somewhat in a difficult final season with Red Bull, Vettel fires an encouraging statement of intent by topping not one but both of the opening days of winter testing at Jerez. “It’s too soon to give a verdict on the true level of this car, especially as we can’t make a comparison with the other teams, who can be running different programmes," says the German, who ends the test with the second fastest time overall. "However, I’d say we have a good basis to work from. I think lap times are not that important in the end - it's the amount of laps [that counts]. Surely it's better to be closer to the front rather than a long way behind, but I think in terms of laps there's still a lot of improvement we can do.”

March - An unforgettable pair of races

Having ended pre-season testing with the fourth highest number of laps under his belt - and with Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene declaring that the team had met all their test objectives - a confident and content Vettel finishes an impressive third behind the Mercedes duo in his maiden race for the Prancing Horse in Australia. But if that was a dream debut, things get even better in Malaysia two weeks later as the German stunningly defeats Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in searing temperatures to seal Ferrari’s first triumph in 34 races. “I’m speechless,” says Vettel. “It’s incredible. The race was really spot on. We beat them [Mercedes] fair and square.” So much for understated pre-season predictions - Vettel, having achieved his first Ferrari win five races sooner than childhood idol Michael Schumacher managed in his first season in red in 1996, is now in the thick of the championship battle…

April - Back down to Earth

In spite of his monumental success in Sepang, Vettel heads to the next race in China knowing full well that Mercedes will be hard to beat, and sure enough he has to settle for second best behind the Silver Arrows once again as he collects his third successive podium finish. But his run of rostrums comes to a disappointing end at the next race in Bahrain, where a trip across the gravel - and subsequent pit stop to replace a damaged front wing - sees him slump to a disappointing fifth at the flag as team mate Raikkonen split the Mercedes. “I couldn’t get into a rhythm and lost positions when it mattered,” admits Vettel, who also struggles with the rear end of his SF15-T. Overall, however, his mood remains optimistic. “It’s a long way to go for the season and up to this point we can be very, very happy,” he says. “It’s still a big surprise how good we are, but there’s still a bit of a gap [to Mercedes]."

May - Another pair of podiums

As the F1 fraternity heads to Spain for the first European round of the season, Vettel reasserts his authority over team mate Raikkonen and is once more ‘best of the rest’ as Mercedes sweep to another dominant one-two. Despite finishing a long way back from the Silver Arrows, a fourth podium finish in his first five races with Ferrari makes the German the most successful newcomer in the Scuderia’s illustrious history, and he adds another at the next race in Monaco as he takes advantage of a late Mercedes error to jump into second ahead of Lewis Hamilton. 

June - A month off the rostrum

Sitting just 28 points off championship leader Lewis Hamilton heading to Canada, Vettel sees that gap grow as, despite a welcome engine upgrade, he experiences a difficult weekend in Montreal. A surprisingly early exit from qualifying - brought about by power unit issue - is compounded by a five-place grid drop for overtaking under red flags in practice, but despite these issues the four-time world champion pluckily fights his way through to P5 in the race, overcoming a lengthy first pit stop and a skirmish with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg at the chicane. And the new Ferrari star misses the podium again in Austria as further pit-stop issues and a lack of straight-line speed prevent him overhauling Williams’ Felipe Massa for third. “This is a very short lap so there’s not so much to create,” Vettel says in Spielberg. “But in the next races there are more high-speed corners and we can better show that we’re a bit closer [to Mercedes], even if today’s result doesn’t show that so well.”

July - A rollercoaster of mixed emotions

After declaring that Ferrari need to be 'more aggressive' on Saturdays and Sundays, Vettel puts that mantra to good use at Silverstone, overcoming an average grid slot and a poor start to take third behind the Mercedes in a rain-afflicted race.  “We recovered through strategy, mostly by being very aggressive,” the German says. “I was in touch with the team all the time, it was not easy to take the right decision with the weather. But we did a great call to pit just in the perfect lap, made up a lot of ground and finished on the podium. I’m sorry for the people that got wet, but the rain helped us today!” Vettel needs no such assistance at the next race in Hungary, jumping into the lead from third on the grid before driving serenely to his and Ferrari’s second victory of the season. “I don’t know how to put this in words,” says the emotional German, who earlier in the week had joined fellow drivers at fallen comrade Jules Bianchi’s funeral. “Today is for Jules and his family. I think that’s bigger than everything else. But certainly for us, for the team, for myself, it was an amazing day… I think if you take the last couple of days, the ups and downs, both emotionally and in terms of performance, I think it's difficult to beat, but obviously it’s great to come out on top.”

August - A bitter blow(out)

After a summer break in which he learns that Kimi Raikkonen will stay on as his team mate in 2016, Vettel arrives in Belgium still buzzing from victory in Hungary - not least because Mercedes’ misfortunes in Budapest have thrust him back into the world championship picture. But the Prancing Horse pilot’s 150th Grand Prix weekend is destined to end in acrimony and bad feeling as an aggressive one-stop run from eighth on the grid to third is derailed in spectacular fashion when his right-rear tyre lets go on the penultimate lap of the race. “We deserved to finish on the podium but that’s racing; a different thing though is not to finish the race because of what happened,” fumes Vettel afterwards. “I think this is not easy to accept for a driver - even if it’s not as bad as in Silverstone few years ago, we still need to talk to each other as it can’t happen without prior notice.” Tyre suppliers Pirelli are unequivocal in their response, reiterating their belief that the number of laps a driver can run on one set of tyres should be set out in the rules, rather than being left to individual teams to decide. But Vettel isn’t about to lie down, taking the unusual step of issuing a statement on his personal website to say "Our strategy [which included doing 28 laps on the medium tyre] was never risky, at any point.” The furore would rumble on until Italy…

September - Sparkling successes

After lengthy discussions and a full investigation into what happened at Spa, Pirelli and Vettel settle their differences at Monza, with attention swiftly shifting to the German’s first race on Ferrari’s home soil - an occasion he describes as 'more than special'. On the Italian power circuit, Ferrari are no match for Mercedes, but Vettel is in the perfect position to capitalise when Nico Rosberg has a late engine failure, going on to capture what he’d later describe as 'the best second place I have ever had' behind Lewis Hamilton. “It was an incredible weekend,” Vettel gushes. “It is just unbelievable how much support Ferrari gets here. It makes you feel like you have some kind of ‘super powers’”.  Two weeks later, Vettel puts those new-found super powers to excellent use on the streets of Singapore, taking full advantage of Mercedes’ sudden and unexpected dip in form to capture his first pole and third win of the season, and in the process surpassing the great Ayrton Senna’s tally of 41 victories. “Today we are in paradise, but we know we still have a long way to go,” says the German, who is joined on the podium for the first time by team mate Kimi Raikkonen. “It has been a surprise that Mercedes haven’t been on the pace this weekend. We don’t know why, but to be honest we don’t really care...” Unfortunately for Ferrari, Mercedes are back to their dominant best at Suzuka a week later, but Vettel - a four-time winner at the Japanese venue - takes third once more to keep his slim championship aspirations alive.  “It's not done 'til it's done,” he says, now 59 points adrift of Hamilton. “What kind of racing driver would I be if I stopped believing?”

October - A pair of battling drives

Vettel’s harassment of the Silver Arrows continues apace in Sochi as he finishes just 5.9s down on race winner Hamilton after another battling performance. “Once again, as I said many times before, I was impressed by Seb’s skills,” coos Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene as Vettel takes advantage of Rosberg’s early retirement to move into P2 in the drivers’ standings. “He shows at every race what a great driver he is. He drives a very good car, that’s for sure, but he can add that little extra that is a champion’s trademark.” But two weeks later Vettel is on the back foot again in the United States thanks to a routine engine change, for which he receives the mandatory 10-place grid penalty. As usual, the German delivers a typically bullish performance in the race, rising from 13th to third, but failing to do enough to prevent Hamilton sealing his second consecutive drivers’ crown. “The whole team here feels similar to me today,” explains Vettel afterwards. “It’s great to know that we had a fantastic recovery and another strong race, but equally it’s not so nice if you lose out on the championship. So the target is definitely to come back stronger next year and just to keep making progress. I think that’s the best medicine that we need to prescribe to us.”

November - Highs and lows

Vettel declares that he will put everything on the line to fend off Nico Rosberg in their fight for second place in the drivers' championship, but sadly for the four-time champion experiences something of a personal nightmare at the next round in Mexico. Starting fourth, three places back from Rosberg, Vettel makes contact with former team mate Daniel Ricciardo at the first corner, sustaining a puncture that drops him to dead last. Trying to climb back up the order he subsequently spins, before eventually ending his day in uncharacteristic style by crashing into the barriers.  “I did a **** job today,” he admits over team radio as he falls 21 points back from race-winner Rosberg, who goes on to seal second in the standings two weeks later as Vettel comes home a distant third behind the Silver Arrows. He is on the podium again a week later, only this time at the Race of Champions in London, where he sees off 19 of the world best racers to win the multi-discipline competition for the first time. It proves to be his final rostrum of the year, as a miscalculation in qualifying in the Abu Dhabi season finale consigns him to 15th on the grid and another evening of battling his way up the order. He eventually finishes fourth, but has very few complaints. “If you think about where we were only one year ago, this has been a miracle season. I can’t think of any other team which improved so much over a year.”

December - Rounding off the year in style

Vettel caps a brilliant first year with Ferrari - one in which he broke a Scuderia rookie record by scoring 13 podiums - by attending the FIA’s glitzy Prize Giving Gala in Paris.  “It’s not the size that I was looking for,” says a black-tied Vettel, clasping the slightly diminutive gong he picks up for finishing third in the drivers’ standings. “[But] it was a very good start for myself, for my first season with Ferrari, coming away with three wins and a lot of highlights. I think we’re all set for more next year.”