Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Sebastian Vettel: When Reality Bites

They say a week can be a long time in politics and much can change. As much for the world of Formula One and football in the UK and Europe.

Just a week ago, Liberty Media who own the rights to F1 and the governing body, the FIA, were very positive about F1 at least returning to a TV screen near you in early July. But like football in the UK and other leagues around Europe, F1, as with many sports, is beginning to realise the enormity and reality of kickstarting their respective sports. Like every facet of life impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, be it a restaurant, a football team, an F1 team.... the realities and practicalities of returning to anything that looked like 'normal' is so far removed from any kind of reality that we may all experience in our lives over the coming months.

There are already serious question marks over UEFA's wish to ignite the Champions League, and Premier League UK football getting the green light in July from their respective bodies. The argument from professional players is that if there are restrictions on training - how on earth can we be ready to resume competitive football, even if to empty stadiums? As many UK players have stated this week with new regulations passed down to them - how can we be ready to play a competitive game if we are not allowed to tackle a player in training, yet we will be allowed do it in a competitive match?

Likewise, in Formula One, the best laid plans and wishes appear to be unraveling. The plan was to commence the season with four races from the start of July, two in Austria, and two in the UK at Silverstone, home of the British Grand Prix. That would at least give F1 bosses and the FIA the ability to complete four races and reach the halfway goal of achieving eight races, thereby making an F1 2020 Championship officially viable. There is less concern about later races in the Gulf States and Asia later in the year - more than enough to string together a viable season and declare a driver and constructor as champions.

The problem? Like all sports, meeting new restricted regulations, testing and quarantine in multiple countries and making that all work to cobble together something that looks like a season or championship. This week, owners of the Silverstone circuit cooled on the idea of being able to finance two races a week apart in July without their bread and butter - crowds. The FIA and Liberty Media are both adamant that an F1 season cannot start in a staggered and unpredictable way, with long periods between races and a race schedule that is so fluid and unknown at the moment of commencement, it results in the distinct possibility that some teams or drivers may be precluded from travel with no exemptions.

And yesterday, into the F1 mix, were the words of Ferrari driver and multiple world Champion, Sebastian Vettel...

"What's been happening in these past few months has led many of us to reflect on what are our real priorities in life. One needs to use one's imagination and to adopt a new approach to a situation that has changed. I myself will take the time I need to reflect on what really matters when it comes to my future."

In essence, Vettel is taking all this with a serious rain check. Both driver and team have formally confirmed that Vettel will end his contract with Ferrari in 2020. With the next year or more so unclear with F1, and many leading drivers out of contract, including Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, I can't help repeating what I stated two years ago - that Vettel really should have retired from the sport in 2018. Like any F1 driver accepting you are staring at the final year or so of life in F1, you want to bow out on a high, and that is everything 2018 and 2019 has not been for Vettel. For two years, Vettel has been desperate for the last F1 party season hurrah, and has consistently come up short, so much so, that young pretender and team mate Charles Leclerc (an almost certain future champion for years to come) has consistently outshone the multiple F1 champion.

But if Vettel has come up short on the track over the past two years, his fortitude and comments this week reflect the 'new normal' and a distinct indicator that he does not see himself as part of that.

Whatever late hurrah and party there is in F1 for 2020, even if it ever happens, 2021 also looks like a party Vettel himself - should he wish - will once again attend empty-handed.

As the late great Nikki Lauda once said when he first retired, if you get in the cockpit and you have negative thoughts and don't want to be there, you unbuckle your seat belt and go home. He expressed his reservations to then team owner Bernie Ecclestone and Bernie, within an hour, had booked Lauda's flight ticket home to Austria. In a recent interview, Ecclestone quipped that Lauda did the right thing but he still knew Lauda had one more title in him. He proved right and Lauda returned a few years later and took his third title.

But in today's F1 world, that isn't going to happen for Vettel, no more than it did for Michael Schumacher.

For Vettel... it isn't just reality... it's the 'new normal' we all face.

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