Sebastian Vettel turns 30 this season and, while it’s a milestone age traditionally of little significance in Formula One, for the German it only seeks to highlight he stands at something of a crossroads in his career.
Two barren years at Ferrari have bore him just three race victories – all in 2014 – and his current run of one win in 27 races is the longest drought of his career.
Having transferred from the dominant force in F1 to one of the dominated at Ferrari, he and the Prancing Horse have been plagued by unreliability.
For one of the coolest and most composed of drivers on the grid, it’s been two years of unfulfilment and uncharacteristic frustration which, for all the millions he must earn, can surely only go on for so long.
Vettel is a winner – the fourth most in history, in terms of GPs, as it goes – and needs a winners’ car. Coasting home each race somewhere between 4-6, with the occasional podium is simply not up to a driver of his calibre’s standards.
However, amid all this in a new season where new technical regulations are set to shake up the grid, this could be the year when the 29-year-old proves he still has the determination, grit and commitment to challenge for glory.
If pre-season testing acts as an indicator – with Vettel second overall – then Ferrari could be finally in with a real chance of running Mercedes, at least close, for this year.
Of course, we have heard this year on year, especially at the start of 2016 when there was high hopes for Ferrari to end their drought.
Vettel took the lead after the first lap in Australia but poor decision making under red flag conditions derailed his chances, while Mercedes’ use of a harder compound tyre proved more fruitful, resulting in a one-two finish.
Further opportunities to win in Spain and Canada evaporated and soon the Silver Arrows were out of sight, Vettel ending the year winless and fourth in the Drivers’ Championship.
The car is the most important piece to any driver’s puzzle and after a strong pre-season, Vettel is surely gathering some of the old magic again with a new car that boasts more power, better braking and effective grip from the tyres.
Vettel’s single lap times looked promising, an area of weakness for the Scuderia for many years, and this should give him a major advantage if he can qualify ahead of his rivals, on fast tracks where race strategy is likely to be one stop, such as Monza and Mexico.
Sport is about confidence and with no Nico Rosberg to compete for a podium place, Vettel needs to believe he can finally be back in the mix again and threaten Hamilton at the front of the grid.
He has the ability and intelligence to get a near-perfect lap every time he’s on the track, the mental characteristics to handle pressure and is equally adept at overcoming the oversteer. F1 needs its most recognisable teams and faces pushing the envelope in each race.
Of course, it’s nice to see different drivers finish on the podium, but to have Vettel going wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton or Max Verstappen for that top spot more regularly will make the sport more captivating.
The German has endured three poor seasons but the forthcoming campaign is a real litmus test to determine where he stands in the list of great drivers.