Is the pressure getting to Sebastian Vettel?

MARINA BAY, Singapore — In a championship battle that could easily be decided by small mistakes, Sebastian Vettel made another on Friday night in Singapore. As he rounded the penultimate corner towards the end of a quick lap, he clipped the barrier on the exit with his right rear wheel. The car returned to the pits leaking hydraulic fluid, and with it his session was over.

In the grand scheme of things it was pretty small error — the sort that comes with the territory during a practice session on a street circuit — but given his season so far, it was another unnecessary concession to his title rival Lewis Hamilton. The early exit from Friday night’s practice session meant he was unable to get a feel for Pirelli’s tyres on heavy fuel and he will therefore have to rely on the data of his teammate Kimi Raikkonen to build his race strategy with his engineers.

But if Vettel is feeling the pressure, he didn’t show it. As ever, his comments to the media after second practice in Singapore were calm and collected.

“The bad bit, obviously, was the touch with the wall which made the session come to an end,” he said. “We lost some time, not ideal, but nevertheless I think the feel that I had for the car was alright. I think we can improve from where we are so it should be fine tomorrow.”

Vettel rarely shows weaknesses outside the cockpit, but when he’s been inside it this year they have often been clear to see. Five incidents stand out as avoidable mistakes this season (see sidebar) and combined they have cost him more than 60 points. The most costly — in terms of points and from a psychological point of view — was at Hockenheim and, judging by his comments during a media session on Thursday, the mistake still has roots in the back of his mind.

“I think it is normal that you do a lot of races and some you feel you could have done better or should have done better for different reasons,” he said. “I think there were also other races where we shouldn’t have done so well and we did. But for sure the worst one was Germany.

“I think most important is that I know what happened and I can explain it, and then everyone is free to have their own views on what happened. I would have loved to win in Germany, for sure, but I’m not too bothered and I’m generally looking forward and not focusing on what we all could have done differently to avoid what happened.”

Despite the errors, the year’s championship situation is still recoverable. Vettel has a 30-point deficit to Hamilton, but he’s no stranger to playing catch up. In 2010 he came back from a 31-point gap with six races remaining to win the championship and in 2012 he recovered a 39-point deficit in the space of seven rounds.

The good news for Vettel is that, as in 2010 and 2012, he has the fastest car on the grid this year. Back then it was the Red Bull, but right now it is his Ferrari. Hamilton’s wins against the odds in Hungary, Germany and Italy muddy the championship picture slightly, but in reality Ferrari has held a performance advantage over Mercedes since the British Grand Prix in July.

Vettel is aware of his advantage, and on Thursday made a statement that could be construed as either subtle confidence or lingering self-doubt. Asked if he couldn’t afford to lose any more points, the four-time world champion admitted the biggest threat to his championship challenge was himself.

“I think the biggest enemy is me,” he said. “I think we have a great car, I have something to play with and we have all the chances to do it in our way. Obviously he is the leader at the moment, he’s the one ahead and he is the one to beat, but I think we have all the chances and how much they could be better by now and so on is a different question.

“We still have a very good chance, and as I said, we will be our first enemy and not him as a person or them as a team. I think we need to look after ourselves and if we do that we have a good chance to do well and win races and things look good.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton has barely put a wheel off line this season. His performance at a handful of races at the start of the year left a little to be desired, but in terms of race-changing mistakes none stand out. And Hamilton’s consistency puts an even brighter spotlight on Vettel.

Combine that with the internal pressure at Ferrari to win its first drivers’ championship in over ten years and the weight of expectation is colossal. Realising the mounting pressure on his driver, team principal Maurizio Arrivabene did his best to shoulder some of that pressure in a press conference on Friday.

“You call it mistakes but if you look in Formula One everybody is making mistakes,” the Ferrari boss said. “Bigger or smaller. If we are a team, we fail and we win together so I don’t want to point my finger at Sebastian. I mean, nobody was happy after Monza but think about the rest of the team.

“If in Monza I was pointing my finger at Sebastian, think about a problem on aero, a problem on the pitstop, a problem on the engine. The guys, they are responsible for the different areas, they could think ‘OK, if he’s pointing the finger at Sebastian, next time it’s my turn.’ It’s not what I want.

“The only mistake you see in front of you is me. I’m responsible for the team. When the result is not coming, it’s my responsibility. Not the responsibility of Sebastian or the engineer or the responsibility of the mechanics. It’s my responsibility. If you want somebody to blame, he’s in front of you.”

But words will only go so far. A win in Singapore is what Vettel needs to close the chapter on his accident-riddled European season and start narrowing the gap to Hamilton over the remaining seven races. Given the latent performance in his Ferrari, and his form at this circuit over the years, it is entirely achievable regardless of the mistake on Friday night. But make another error and his championship challenge could come tumbling down.

No pressure, Sebastian…