Sebastian Vettel in F1 crisis? Reading between the lines of latest Arrivabene statements
It's been a tough week for Sebastian Vettel.
It's been a tough week for Sebastian Vettel. The four times world champion was penalised for the startline collision in Malaysia, which eliminated him and sent Nico Rosberg down to 21st place. He has been panned in the Italian media for being 'in crisis' and now, on the face of it, his team boss has said he has to 'earn his seat'.
Here's what Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said on Sky Sports Italia on Friday:
"Sebastian now has a contract with us. We work together this year and again next year. Then during the next season we'll see.
"Each of us has goals, I have them, the team has them, Sebastian has them, we all have them. So it is only right that anyone, no matter who it is, earns their place and their salary."
So what is behind this, what's the context and what's the meaning of Maurizio Arrivabene's statements?
Context and balance
As with many stories, which look explosive based on a single quote, some context is required.
Arrivabene's comments came as part of a 30 minute interview on SKY Italia. The tone was not confrontational, but nor did Arrivabene get trapped into saying something he didn't mean to say. It is no secret that a two year extension to Vettel's existing deal, which expires at the end of 2017, has been prepared, but not signed.
However there is a lot of pressure inside Ferrari that is building as the team slides towards an unsatisfactory end of the season. Red Bull is now well ahead of them both on pace and championship points and the victory, that Sergio Marchionne has demanded, has not come. Marchionne called the 2016 season a failure in his press call at Monza and things have not improved since.
Worse, Vettel has scored only one podium since Baku in June. In that same period Kimi Raikkonen, who was well beaten by Alonso in their time together and by Vettel last season, has scored 79 points to Vettel's 57. Has Raikkonen improved or has Vettel slid?
Several things have happened: first Vettel has tried to make things happen from the cockpit and the start in Malaysia is an example of that. His battle with Verstappen into Turn 1 would have been fine had it been for the lead, but he failed to account for the car of Rosberg ahead, who had no chance to see him. That's why he was docked the three grid positions for Suzuka.
Secondly he appears to have realised that the difference between the way Schumacher tackled the project and his own effort is that Schumacher was shrewd enough to surround himself from 1997 onwards with long-time allies Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne. Not only were they the Lennon and McCartney of F1 car design and operation, they were also very strong men and leaders. Above them was Jean Todt, who protected the team from bullets from the outside media and plenty from Luca di Montezemolo above.
The result was six straight constructors' championships which Mercedes, for all their dominance, are still only half way towards.
Vettel arrived alone.
Today's Ferrari F1 team is run by Arrivabene, with Mattia Binotto promoted to technical chief and Simone Resta in charge of designing the car. Binotto worked under the Brawn regime on Schumacher's engines and knows how that chemistry worked. But he's not Vettel's man, they must forge that relationship.
One of the problems with Marchionne's approach is that he speaks directly to the senior technical figures and replaced James Allison with Binotto. So does Binotto report to Arrivabene now or to Marchionne and whose orders does he take?
Arrivabene also comments that Vettel should not seek to micro-manage the various elements of the team outside the car, but should focus on driving,
"Sebastian just needs to focus on the car," said Arrivabene. "He is a person who gives so much, and sometimes this means he is interested in a bit of everything - so sometimes you have to re-focus him, remind him to be focused on the main job."
The SKY interviewer, the experienced Carlo Vanzini, raised the question of a contract renewal with Vettel, as Ferrari did at a difficult moment with Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, in the past.
Arrivabene's answer, on the face of it, is not confrontational towards Vettel. The problem is that it is not supportive either. After the week Vettel has had, he does not need headlines which speak of the team putting pressure on him to perform and to raise his game to secure his future.
At another stage in the interview, Vanzini put a fan's question to the Ferrari boss, asking whether Vettel had now become a 'problem'. Arrivabene's answer was that he's not a problem, but nor is he the solution.
He went on to say that the solution can only come from the team, but that sub-clause will be lost in the journalistic process. Again tactically an odd thing to say at this point when the team and driver both need reassurance.
Vettel's own comments to the Italian media on Friday were more upbeat and forward looking:
"We didn't have the season we wanted for various reasons and now we must look ahead to the next races. Notwithstanding the lack of success, however, I think it's been a good season in the process behind the scenes. Obviously you don't see that yet on the track, but it's important for getting the future right. I have high expectations and I've had a season of highs and lows. But the work inside the team has undoubtably improved."
Going forward: What does success look like for Ferrari?
The scenario which will really cause trouble next season is if McLaren Honda move ahead of Ferrari in competitiveness and championship position, demoting the scarlet cars down to fourth.
That will put Fernando Alonso back ahead of Ferrari; the team he has been building will eclipse the performance of the team he left. It will confirm Ferrari's slide and raise a panic about where that slide may end?
Looking at the respective trend curves and the fact that the 2017 cars will be much more reliant on aerodynamics than today's cars, a perennial Ferrari weakness, few in the F1 paddock would bet against that happening.
It is not by accident that Vettel is now in his longest-ever run without a front row start at 22 races, since Singapore last year. The more revealing statistic is that the Singapore 2015 pole was the first for Ferrari since 2012. That speaks of a technical team that simply cannot build a fast enough car and is always playing catch up.
Vettel will be keeping a close eye on the progress of McLaren, not only as a competitor, but also as a potential life raft should be feel that moving on from Ferrari at the end of 2017 is the right move. Fernando Alonso is likely to want to stay on for 2018 if that long dreamed-of third world championship looks within reach. Vettel and Alonso earn roughly the same amount, around US$40m, but it certainly creates a marketplace.
That said, the signs are that Vettel still believes in the dream he has of Ferrari.
When Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool Football Club, another iconic sports team that plays in red, the German said he wanted to turn the "doubters into believers". He's well on the way to achieving that. Ferrari needs something similar, but history shows it can only happen with strong leadership.
Sources with close knowledge of the situation say it's the moment for Arrivabene to show that, otherwise he may find that the support he enjoys from the echelons in Turin even above Marchionne himself, might evaporate.What do you think? Leave your comment below
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