“This is what the sport needs to be every single race. This is why I race, and this is what got me into racing in the beginning. To have that close battle with him, a four-time champion, is awesome.”
Vettel is also again enjoying the competition, after changes that have made the cars faster, with more downforce and grip, but have also made them harder to drive.
“I’m really having a good time, the cars are fun to drive this year again, more fun than they have been for a while,” he said in an interview. “It’s not fair to say they were boring before, but we now have this performance in the corners that gives you this kick, that adrenaline rush, this joy.
“Down the straights, we were faster than ever last year, but that’s not really a skill. You don’t need to do anything to go straight, other than hit the throttle. But in the corners, that’s when you feel alive, and where these cars more closely resemble those I remember when I started out in Formula One in 2007.”
After the last of his four successive titles with Red Bull in 2013, Vettel endured a lean three years, winning just three races over that period.
The wins were all in his first year with Ferrari in 2015, when he finished a distant third in the drivers’ standings behind Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who was with Mercedes at the time.
The unleashed potential Vettel describes has been more than three years in the making, since the arrival of the current hybrid engine era in 2014. Mercedes won 51 of the 59 races from 2014 to 2016, forcing Formula One to change some of its regulations to break the team’s dominance.
Ferrari, which has not won a championship since 2008, was viewed by many Formula One experts as a team in disarray, especially toward the end of an abysmal 2014.
Ferrari began that year with Stefano Domenicali as team principal. After a poor start to the season, he resigned in April and was replaced by Marco Mattiacci, who lasted just seven months. Mattiacci left at the end of a campaign in which the team failed to win a race for the first time since 1993.
Maurizio Arrivabene was then handed the reins by a new chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, who also heads Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owned Ferrari at the time.
Despite an upturn in 2015, yielding the three wins for Vettel, a poor start to 2016 prompted Marchionne to restructure Ferrari.
Several changes were made, notably Mattia Binotto being moved from head of the power unit department to technical director.
Lorenzo Sassi subsequently took charge of the power unit department, while Enrico Cardile was named to run the aerodynamics department and David Sanchez was made chief aerodynamicist. The result is the team is again winning races and challenging for the championship.
“Despite the fact last year was fairly up and down, and turbulent on track, behind the scenes it was quite calm, with the team aiming to put things in place for the future, not just for this year, but the longer term,” Vettel said.
“The support from our president has been there throughout, while Maurizio has done a very good job in trying to put things in place,” he said. “He has worked quietly, never coming across and saying ‘Here I am,’ and making a big scene out of it.
“There were a lot of changes we had to go through, not changes necessarily in people, saying ‘O.K., you out, you in,’ but more trying to shift people around, to make sure they were in the right place.
“That has made a massive difference. You become more efficient and you get to your goal quicker.”
Hamilton of Mercedes has seen the difference.
“These guys have done a phenomenal job, their car is awesome, and the pace that he had, it’s very close between us both,” Hamilton said, referring to Vettel and Ferrari.
Vettel, 29, grew up watching Michael Schumacher win five of his seven drivers’ titles with Ferrari from 2000 to 2004, and had long dreamed of joining the team.
Schumacher was “a hero for all the kids going karting in Germany, and the red car was an icon,” Vettel said. “They had a big influence on me.”
When Vettel joined Ferrari in 2015, after six years with Red Bull, he was “blown away by the passion” of the team, he said.
“The key has been working together,” Vettel said.
“Everybody has this idea of Ferrari the brand, and yes, it connects you to the team, but it’s more than that,” he said. “It’s about a connection at work, whether it’s in designing the car, the projects, the research.
“It’s about having these connections, besides the right people. It’s about speaking the same language, and not just English or Italian, but talking about the same things right at the beginning of a project, not halfway through it, or in trying to fix something.
“That, I feel, has been the biggest difference, and since the day I joined we’ve made phenomenal progress.”
Vettel said the team was not quite ready in 2015, and that 2016, when Ferrari again failed to win a race, was not as bad as people say. “But it did help us a lot to put things in the right place,” he said. “Hopefully we can keep this year’s trend going, but on the other hand, I still feel we’re growing, so hopefully there’s more to come.
“Particularly as the opposition, in Mercedes, is just about to peak. Despite the rule change, they have a very strong car, and we know that.”
Vettel is not just talking about winning races, but also taking his fifth drivers’ championship.
“When the guys are singing the Italian anthem, it brings back so many memories, every single time, of my first win in Formula One when I was with Toro Rosso,” he said. “It’s very addictive.”
“I’m enjoying that,” he added, “and as I’m older, I’m in a position where I can look at things differently and enjoy things a bit differently, too.”
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