Sebastian Vettel is a man under pressure heading into the 2019 Formula 1 season.

Following a season littered by a number of high-profile errors that proved costly in Ferrari throwing away its best chance yet to end its decade-long wait for a championship trophy, the German needs to recover and regroup to lead a renewed challenge against Mercedes this year.

It goes to show the unrelenting pressure and high expectations at Maranello when a campaign that proved Ferrari’s most successful in years is viewed as a failure. Despite boasting arguably the fastest machinery for most of 2018 and holding a points advantage after the opening 10 rounds, Ferrari was once again beaten to both world championships by Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.

Five Storylines to look out for in F1 2019

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Back-to-back title defeats have weighed heavily on Vettel, who cut a demoralised figure short on confidence towards the latter stages of last season, following a combination of his own driving lapses - most notably crashing out while leading July’s German Grand Prix, and getting caught up in a series of spins at Suzuka and COTA - and operational failures from the team.

Come the waving of the chequered flag at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and having not tasted victory since just after the summer break in Belgium, Vettel spoke of his relief to see the back of 2018, admitting he was ready for a much-needed break following what he described as an “exhausting” campaign.

In a bid to break Mercedes’ current streak of dominance in the V6 hybrid era and protect its own all-time record of six consecutive world title triumphs, Ferrari has promoted its highly-rated protégé, Charles Leclerc, into a seat alongside the four-time world champion for 2019.

Leclerc’s graduation comes after back-to-back championship victories in GP3 and Formula 2 and an impressive rookie campaign at a revitalised Sauber squad. It marks a changing of the guard and a dawn of a new era for Ferrari, which has not put faith in such a young driver since the 1960s.

The departure of the experienced Kimi Raikkonen (who returns to Sauber) also signals Ferrari’s first change of driver line-up since Vettel joined the Italian team in 2015, setting in motion a new dynamic that will be fascinating to watch unfold.

How Vettel reacts to this new challenge of having a young charger alongside him will be one of the main storylines to follow across the new season, after perhaps growing comfortable in his previous position as clear team leader alongside a trusty companion in Raikkonen, a teammate he had the measure of more often than not during their four-year tenure together.

Inspiration or disruption for Vettel in 2019

Ferrari’s decision to promote Leclerc follows the vision its late chairman Sergio Marchionne had for the team, which will be spearheaded by technical mastermind and new chief Mattia Binotto this year following Maurizio Arrivabene’s recent exit from the role of team principal.

Leclerc’s arrival is likely to go either one of two ways for Vettel: elevate him to rediscover his unquestionable world-class ability that has heralded over 50 grand prix wins and four drivers’ titles to date; or, should Leclerc outclass his more experienced counterpart, mark a revision of how Vettel’s F1 career will be regarded and remembered.

Former Ferrari boss Ross Brawn believes Leclerc’s arrival will have a positive impact on Vettel by providing him with “added incentive”, though he has warned the 21-year-old, who has been tipped as future world champion material by several of his rivals including Hamilton, will not prove to be a walkover.

“I don’t imagine Charles Leclerc is going to be quite as accommodating as Kimi was on occasions,” Brawn said.

“Kimi is his own man, don’t get me wrong, but I think Kimi knew what the lay of the land was in the team.”

Vettel is not expecting any “bullshit” from his new teammate, but Leclerc’s arrival will likely bring back memories of losing out to Daniel Ricciardo in the Australian’s first season at Red Bull. 2014 marked a similar situation to the one Vettel now faces at Ferrari. He was the clear favourite at the Milton Keynes-squad having led the team to four successive titles, though it was Ricciardo, not Vettel, who emerged as it’s frontrunner that year.

The Toro Rosso graduate managed to accumulate three victories across the season and finished third in the standings, while Vettel failed to win a race for the first time since his debut in 2007 and ended up a sub-par fifth. Defeat at the hands of Ricciardo destabilised Vettel, and helped set the wheels in motion for his switch to Ferrari for the following season.

Question marks have been raised over Vettel’s ability to keep his emotions in check while in high-pressure scenarios, highlighted by his ‘red mist’ moment in Baku 2017, as well as the mistakes he made during his intense battle with Hamilton last year. His abilities behind the wheel of an F1 car are not doubted - the statistics alone show why he is ranked him among the all-time greats - but the mounting pressure in his current environment has taken its toll on the German. His resilience will be tested once again in 2019, particularly if Leclerc is able to outperform him.

That is not to underestimate the huge step up Leclerc faces in his move to Ferrari. It will be the biggest challenge of his career so far. Greater demands come naturally with the territory at Maranello, where Leclerc will be expected to deliver week in week out with nowhere to hide, unlike his previous, far more understanding surroundings he could reside in at Sauber. He has performed convincingly so far in F1, and the signs point towards him being an instant hit.

All will be rosy at Ferrari if Vettel delivers that elusive first world championship since 2008, but should Leclerc throw up a surprise and start taking some of the limelight away from his teammate, the Scuderia could well be tempted to start putting its backing behind the man that appears to more strongly represent its future.

 

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