The serial champion in silver, the rising star in scarlet, or a 2019 car that doesn't handle as he would like? Just what is it that has got under Sebastian Vettel's skin in these last 15 error-prone months?
Once the all-conquering young gun of F1, Sebastian Vettel has become accustomed to watching others triumph over the past six seasons. He's been stuck on four world titles since 2013, and on a possibly unlucky 13 race wins for Ferrari for more than a calendar year now, since Belgium last season. His great rival and contemporary Lewis Hamilton has won 14 Grands Prix since that race, more than Vettel's entire haul with the Scuderia.
But the last two race weekends, in Belgium and then at Ferrari's home race at Monza, were different. Vettel has watched the arrival of a new force at Ferrari, a teammate 10 years his junior. Aged just 21, Charles Leclerc was prince of surely the most special podium on the entire F1 calendar, basking in the adulation of the Tifosi as a winning Ferrari driver.
Vettel won his first ever race, against all the odds, at Monza, but he's never enjoyed a podium ceremony like this in his years at Ferrari
After the muted celebrations for the Monegasque driver's debut win in Spa-Francorchamps a week earlier, overshadowed by the death of Leclerc's friend Anthoine Hubert in F2, a party atmosphere reigned in northern Italy. Not least because Ferrari hadn't won at home since 2010.
Leclerc joined a list of Ferrari royalty who have won at Monza in scarlet: Alberto Ascari, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ludovico Scarfiotti, Clay Regazzoni, Jody Scheckter, Gerhard Berger, Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello, Fernando Alonso. But not Sebastian Vettel.
Another 'unforced error' in Monza
At least in Belgium, Vettel was able to play the good wingman, helping Leclerc and Ferrari to a first win of the season.
In Italy, Vettel finished out of the points and a lap down. He committed an unforced error early in the race, spinning at the Ascari curve while running fourth and chasing the two Mercedes. It was just one of a string of similar spins and incidents in a poor run of form dating back to his home Grand Prix last year at Hockenheim, when he crashed out of the lead, ultimately handing the momentum in the 2018 title race to Lewis Hamilton.
Theories on the 32-year-old's poor form abound, but perhaps Nico Rosberg put it best on Sky Sports F1 when he said: "Vettel is unexplainable for me — I can't explain it. He is a a four-time world champion, he is one of the best guys out there. And to make a mistake like that, on your own, just spinning the car like that in a corner, is so strange."
Former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, a friend of Vettel's, told German car magazine Auto, Motor und Sport this week that the 5-second time penalty that cost Vettel victory in Canada this season might be to blame.
"He seems to have lost something," Ecclestone said. "The penalty in Montreal was the worst thing that could have happened to him. The penalty was totally wrong, and it seems to have damaged Sebastian's faith in the sport."
Team leader status the issue?
Ross Brawn, meanwhile, who never worked with Vettel but has run teams competing directly against him a great deal down the years, told the Formula 1 website that he believed Ferrari needed to do more to show their continued support for the man from Heppenheim. Austrian journalist Christian Nimmervoll from specialist website motorsport-total.com has heard similar whispers in the paddock, suggesting Vettel truly thrives when he feels he has his team's undivided attention.
"I talked to [Red Bull's driver development guru of many years] Dr. Helmut Marko about Sebastian as well, and he said that Seb really needs to feel supported," Nimmervoll tells DW. "I actually thought, back in the winter, when Ferrari's Mattia Binotto made these comments about Seb being 'our champion,' that they were really trying to support him full time and show they're all 100 per cent behind Sebastian. But the problem, I think, is that Leclerc has just been too good."
Former colleagues and bosses like Helmut Marko have noted that Vettel performs at his best when he feels he has his team's total support
Loose rears and young chargers
Nimmervoll also notes the characteristics of Ferrari's 2019 car. It has what racers call a loose rear, meaning that the car is more prone to oversteer than to understeer. This suits Leclerc's driving style but is not to Vettel's taste, something the German has also mentioned this season. And when you consider how many of Vettel's recent errors have come when applying the throttle on corner exit, when the risk of oversteer is at its highest, this becomes highly relevant.
"Put the two guys in a different car, with different characteristics, and the story might be really different. I think it would be interesting, though I don't know if we will ever get to see this," Nimmervoll says.
Bahrain, Canada, at Monza last race, and even Monza 2018: Many of Vettel's recent spins and errors were caused when the back end of his car stepped out
One reason we may never get to see this is Vettel's short-lived runs with F1 teammates who are younger than him. Prior to Leclerc, Vettel only ever had one younger F1 teammate: Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull in 2014, the year when Vettel penned his move to Ferrari and left the team that had made him.
"There is pressure on Sebastian and I don't know... In 2014 he ran away from Ricciardo — and that was such a similar situation. I don't know what he's going to do," Nimmervoll says. "But the bit that really bothers and really baffles me is that, in spite of everything that's going on, on the outside he still seems super-calm. In the past, he would have been mega-pissed, but he isn't at the moment."
Racing in disarray, life looking up
Another baffling aspect of the dip in form is that it has come at what seems a very happy time for probably the most private driver on the grid. Unlike the superstar Hamilton or the social media-savvy youngsters of the new generation like Leclerc and Max Verstappen, Vettel doesn't maintain a public profile away from the track.
Nevertheless, news of him marrying his childhood sweetheart, and the mother of his daughters, Hanna Prater was revealed after Vettel's disappointment in Canada this year. Their girls, Emilie and Matilda, will be nearing school entry age soon at their family home on the tax-friendly side of the German-Swiss border near Konstanz.
At first, F1 journalist Nimmervoll is sympathetic to the idea that Vettel might now feel he has accomplished enough and is ready for a wealthy retirement at home with his kids and his car collection. It would explain how calm the veteran has remained in the face of some pretty dire form. However, he quickly stops himself.
"But that Ferrari championship is still missing," Nimmervoll says, referring to Vettel's failure thus far to emulate Michael Schumacher and win championships in a scarlet car later in his career. "If you just think how clued-up on F1 history Vettel is, how he looked up to Michael and what he did with Ferrari as a kid, then I think it would bother him to retire without that Ferrari title, or with only the four titles — as ridiculous as the word 'only' sounds when describing such an achievement!"
With Leclerc and Vettel's driving styles differing, Ferrari's engineers may be forced to pick a favorite when working on 2020's car
Ever since Vettel's move to Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes juggernaut seemed like an almost insurmountable hurdle standing in the way of that goal. But now time is also working against Ferrari's number 5, still F1's youngest ever champion. Even if Ferrari were to provide Vettel with a title-winning car for 2020, and even if he could take the fight to Hamilton, the next generation of Leclerc and Max Verstappen at Red Bull will be blocking the road as well.