Standing on the grid at Hockenheim ahead of last year’s German Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel would have sensed he was on the verge of a big opportunity.

Not only was he starting on pole for his home grand prix at a track where he was yet to win, but with Formula 1 title rival Lewis Hamilton starting way down in P14, Vettel had a prime chance to extend his eight-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship and continue the momentum he had built with his victory at Silverstone.

Even 17 laps from home, Vettel looked in control despite a rain shower hitting the circuit on and off. He was on course to extend his championship lead to over 20 points, and with Ferrari in imperious form, he was surely the favourite for the title.

But then came the error that not only changed the course of the title race, but also started a year of strife for Vettel that looms large in the memory upon the F1 paddock’s return to Hockenheim this weekend.

Vettel’s slow slide off the track at Sachs-Kurve paved the way for Hamilton to snatch an unlikely victory, snapping Mercedes’ five-race run without a win and lighting the blue-touch paper for his march to the title. Post-Hockenheim, Hamilton won seven races and finished off the podium just once; Vettel won just once, ultimately losing the title with two races to spare.

The mistake at Hockenheim failed to go down as a one-off for Vettel, either. Errors at Monza, Singapore (in qualifying), Suzuka and the Circuit of The Americas dealt further blows to his title aspirations, costing him more and more ground to Hamilton. Entering 2019, there was a need for Vettel to hit the reset button and iron out such errors if he wanted to claim his coveted fifth world title.

But the baggage of last year still appears to be carried with Vettel. Ferrari’s start to the season fell far below expectations that had been inflated by an impressive winter testing showing, but Vettel himself had not helped matters.

His spin in a wheel-to-wheel fight with Hamilton in Bahrain meant Ferrari had no safety net when Charles Leclerc’s engine failed. His moment of misjudgement when soaking up pressure from Hamilton in the fight for victory in Canada landed him a penalty. And just two weeks ago at Silverstone, his punt into the rear of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull blew a chance for a fortuitous podium on a weekend Vettel had looked like the slowest driver in the front three teams.

Coming to Hockenheim, mention was made of the need to “make up for last year” in Vettel’s preview quotes for Ferrari. He’s not looking to shy away from what happened – but in truth, he has nowhere at all to hide.

The outright speed and raw ability that saw Vettel to four F1 world titles still remains. We saw that most clearly in Canada, when he dominated the weekend and kept Hamilton at arm’s length for the majority of the race – right up until his error and run across the grass at the first chicane. There is still world champion material there, but the mistakes need to be ironed out.

And all the while, Charles Leclerc is on the rise. His fourth consecutive podium finish at Silverstone earlier this month drew him to within three points of Vettel in the drivers’ championship with almost half the season gone, proving the balance between the four-time champion and the F1 sophomore is more even than expected. Leclerc was able to fight for 25 laps with Verstappen and not make a single error despite pushing to the very limit; Vettel couldn’t even make it a few corners.

This is an important weekend for Vettel. Not only does he find himself again facing questions about his ability to cope under pressure, but it also represents potentially the final chance for him to take victory at what is considered to be his home circuit. Vettel does have one German Grand Prix victory to his name, but this came at the Nürburgring. His best finish at Hockenheim – just 35 minutes from his hometown of Heppenheim – came at the infamous 2010 race when he finished third behind the two Ferrari drivers. Given the bleak outlook for the future of the race at this circuit, this could be his final chance.

Is it likely? The current heatwave in Europe could play into Ferrari’s hands considering Mercedes’ cooling struggles that left it third-fastest in Austria last month, with some rain also on the cards later in the weekend. There could yet be an opportunity for Vettel to end his winless spell short of the one-year mark at the end of August.

This weekend is a significant one for Vettel as he looks to banish the ghosts of Hockenheim past. There may not realistically be a title to still win this year, yet it nevertheless marks an important chance for him to silence his critics, settle his own nerves, and, most importantly, find some closure.



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