By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Sebastian Vettel took the Formula One lead from Lewis Hamilton at last year’s Austrian Grand Prix but the Ferrari driver has now fallen so far behind there can be no repeat at Spielberg this weekend.
After eight races, Ferrari’s German lags his Mercedes rival by 76 points and cannot catch up until August, even if Hamilton had three retirements in a row — unlikely for a man with only one since 2016.
Vettel, who won all four of his world championships with Red Bull, has gone 16 races without a victory and made some costly errors, while Hamilton has won 14 of the last 20.
Questions have increasingly been asked about Vettel’s performance under pressure while Hamilton speeds towards a sixth championship.
Australian Mark Webber, now-retired former Red Bull team mate, feels Vettel still has what it takes but needs better support and more ammunition from the oldest and most glamorous team.
“I think he needs a couple more lieutenants, he needs to have less responsibility in the team and just more reassurance that the Monday to Friday stuff is going to be dealt with,” he told Reuters.
“Seb’s still has got it, but it’s a real challenge to stay ahead against a Mercedes-Lewis Hamilton factor week in and week out.”
Vettel is third overall, and best of the rest behind the Mercedes drivers, with team mate Charles Leclerc fifth and 24 points further adrift.
Formula One’s most successful team have not won any title since 2008.
“I don’t find the challenge now different to last year or the years before,” Vettel said in France last Sunday. “We are in a better place than maybe 2015 and 2016 so I think 2017 and ’18 have been a clear step in the right direction.
“It’s true that last year at this point we were more competitive but it is what it is now…what is important is to look back at these races and understand what we need to do better.
“I love racing, nothing has changed about that.”
TALK OF TESTING
This year’s car was the talk of pre-season testing with its straight-line pace in Barcelona but is losing time overall to Mercedes through the corners. Correcting the problems will take time.
Ferrari should still have won in Bahrain but an engine problem thwarted Leclerc while leading from pole.
In Canada, Vettel also led from pole but ended up a controversial second after a time penalty for going off and rejoining in an unsafe fashion.
The German has been wearing the red overalls since 2015, dreaming of emulating great compatriot and idol Michael Schumacher, but the magic is wearing thin even as Leclerc’s popularity grows.
The scrutiny, as ever, is intense and unsparing.
“Red Bull is like a Formula Three team compared to Ferrari. With Ferrari there’s an article every day in the Gazzetta dello Sport. It’s a religion there and being a driver is not easy,” said Webber.
“If you look at when Ferrari executed the best, we go back to when it was Ross (Brawn) and Jean (Todt),” he said, referring to the golden years at the start of the century when Ferrari won six successive constructors’ titles under foreign bosses.
“They had a big mix of culture and I think that’s still a bit of a missing link.”
So too is qualifying and single lap pace, with Vettel dangerous when starting off the front row but more vulnerable further back.
“Lewis is going to win the championship and Mercedes are going to win the constructors’ (title), it’s obvious. Mercedes are just too strong,” said Webber.
“Ferrari just have not got enough bullets. It’s like a football team, Mercedes just keep getting a result. Ferrari need everything to line up.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ian Ransom)