Former Ferrari race engineer Rob Smedley believes 2019 was Sebastian Vettel “best year” in Formula 1.

Vettel won just one race last season and was outperformed in every department compared to teammate Charles Leclerc, who claimed two victories on his way to beating the German in the championship.

But Smedley reckons that 2019 was a year which defined Vettel as a “true champion” due to the way he recovered from a tough start to the campaign.

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The four-time world champion’s future in F1 remains uncertain. Vettel is leaving Ferrari when his contract expires at the end of the year and has little hope of landing a competitive seat for 2021, leading to suggestions he may well walk away from the sport altogether.

Asked if Vettel retiring at the end of 2020 would be a loss for F1 during an appearance on the F1 Nation podcast, Smedley replied: “I think it would be, because I think we’ve got a really good driver there, a really wonderful driver.

“And do you know what I think his best year in Formula 1 is – and I’m going to get hammered for this – his best year in Formula 1 was last year, it was 2019.

“I think he faced the biggest challenge of his career that year, and everybody kind of wrote him off because it was the easy thing to do, that Charles is just going to get better and better and it’s the end of Sebastian, if you like.

“I think we saw the real Sebastian Vettel towards the end of the year, [which] Sebastian had a little bit lost.

“I’m sure he’d freely admit that, that he wasn’t where he wanted to be, both within the team and with his team mate at the start of the year – but then he actually got his head down, and that’s the sign of a true champion, he came back.

“Sebastian had all the pressure, there’s no doubt about it,” he added. “I think that’s the most pressure he’s probably ever had in his career.

“He’s been against good drivers, he’s been against world champions. He dominated Kimi [Raikkonen], with Mark [Webber] at Red Bull – who’s absolutely no slouch, Mark’s a really fast driver – and [Vettel] managed to always come out on top.

“But I’m just not sure that he’s ever had the challenge that he had in 2019, so for him to cope with that, and to come back and kind of stamp his authority after a shaky start, I personally think we saw something special.”

Smedley pointed towards last year’s Russian Grand Prix - where Vettel beat Leclerc on the run to Turn 1 and disobeyed instructions to give his position back to his teammate - as an example of Vettel rediscovering his former edge and inner strength.

“I’m sure Mattia [Binotto, Ferrari Team Principal] will disagree with me on this particular point, but Russia was a case in point,” he explained.

“He got out in front – however he did it, whatever the machinations were of him getting in front at that point were, he kind of made that decision inside his own head and helmet that he was staying there, and he wasn’t going to let him back past.

“And I think that the sign of a true great is that they’re relentless in their pursuit of winning.”