Spinning on track, binned off track - What's gone wrong for Sebastian Vettel?

It's just no fun watching Sebastian Vettel racing any more.

The four-time world champion is a shadow of the competitor who dominated the opening part of the last decade. His 2020 seems to be unravelling dramatically, with what was once a Ferrari partnership which promised a world championship now edging closer to a bitter divorce.

Binned by Ferrari

Vettel's chance of a straightforward season ended when Ferrari announced it would not to offer him an extension to his contract in May. The decision to move on from Vettel came as a shock to everyone, not least the four-time world champion.

In public Ferrari had insisted it was committed to a new deal for Vettel and at preseason testing it was starting to seem like a matter of when, not if, he would get an extension. But behind the scenes Ferrari was in negotiations with Carlos Sainz, talks believed to have started late last year, and this process accelerated when the F1 season was put on ice by the coronavirus pandemic.

Initially the belief was that Vettel and Ferrari had simply been unable to agree to terms, but the German soon clarified that his negotiations had never got that far.

When asked ahead of the first race of the season, July's Austrian Grand Prix, what the sticking point had been, Vettel replied: "There was no sticking point.

"It was obviously a surprise to me when I got the call from [team boss] Mattia [Binotto] when he told me that there was no further intention for the team to continue. We never got into any discussions, there was never an offer on the table and therefore there was no sticking point."

While Vettel and Ferrari have been drifting apart over recent seasons, the German driver clearly expected better from the Italian team. He has yet to confirm plans for 2021, although he appears to be on the verge of a deal with Racing Point.

Nevertheless, this last month and a half has shown his current problems go far deeper than whether he will still be in F1 next year.

The art of the Seb Spin

Vettel's long list of unforced errors over the past few years with Ferrari has become something of a running joke on the internet. The topic had already become a popular meme before the 2020 season -- a picture of Binotto on the phone, a voiceover saying "Pronto Seb", and then, once Vettel has answered, "Spinalla" - the code word which then triggers the four-time world champion to spin wherever he is at that moment.

While funny at first, it's almost as if Vettel has become a parody of the parody. He has turned the unforced spin into an art form.

Daniel Ricciardo summed this up last weekend when he labelled his own unforced error "a Seb Spin", pointing out Vettel had done similar when they were racing wheel-to-wheel at the 2018 U.S Grand Prix. That year also featured the most glaring mistake of Vettel's career, when he crashed out of the lead as the rain intensified at the German Grand Prix, a moment which he has never seemed to properly recover from.

The creator of the 'Spinalla' meme, Reddit user 'Alphanova', even referred to how the parody has changed on his review of the Austrian Grand Prix -- the scene of Vettel's first Seb Spin of the year -- by including a scene from Simpsons episode 'Bart Gets Famous', where Bart's classmates urge him to "say the line, Bart!" -- Bart sighs, looks down and reluctantly says the "I didn't do it" line he has become famous for in that episode.

Further rubbing salt in the wounds for Vettel is that both his 2020 spins have been while driving alongside the man Ferrari is replacing him with next year, Carlos Sainz. In Austria he lunged optimistically into a gap which quickly closed up at Turn 3 and had to bail before contact was made, prompting the spin.

While that at least could be explained away as a clumsy, over-eager move, his spin at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix was just pathetic for a four-time world champion. While approaching the fast right-hand kink at the start of the Silverstone circuit, the car just stepped away from him and he lost control. However many times you watch it, there's no good explanation for what happened.

If that same spin had been involved the likes of Romain Grosjean, or maybe the internet's favourite ex-F1 driver, Pastor Maldonado, the reaction would have been outright ridicule. Vettel's legacy and standing in the F1 history books seems to have prevented that, at least, but it was still the most basic of rookie errors and summed up exactly where Vettel is right now.

Has Vettel just become Raikkonen?

The most eye-catching quote from Vettel's post-race media commitments on Sunday was: "I don't think it can get much worse from where I am, so it will get better."

It's certainly difficult to fathom it getting much worse than right now.

Worse than his early spin was that, over the course of two race weekends at Silverstone, Vettel simply did not have the pace Leclerc (who finished the two events in third and fourth) was able to find. He scraped through to Q3 at the opening race and spent Sunday battling with drivers outside the points. Only Valtteri Bottas' late tyre drama promoted him to 10th late on. The following week he was out in Q2, qualifying 12th. So even before his spin, there was little to suggest Vettel had a bounce-back grand prix in store.

Vettel put a brave face on things Sunday evening, suggesting he hopes to leave the worst of those problems behind at Silverstone.

"Around the lap, it seems like a fairly even loss and mostly I struggle in lower speed and medium speed corners," he said. "[It's] something that we didn't get on top of.

"We have obviously, the next race coming in a week, not here again, but somewhere else so we'll see what we can do. But hopefully we can be back to the table with normal pace."

It's worth noting, Vettel did not look particularly competitive at the three preceding races either.

But the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix seemed to perfectly sum up where Vettel and Ferrari are at the moment. While Binotto was correct in that Vettel's race was compromised by his Seb Spin on the opening lap, Vettel was also fair to criticise the team's strategy as he tried to fight back through the field to at least recover some pride from the afternoon.

His stop appeared to be timed just as Leclerc, on a one-stop strategy that would see him claim a superb fourth-place finish, was catching him on the race track. It prevented any awkward chat over the radio about one holding up the other but it also ended any chance Vettel had of points.

After his stop, Vettel opened his radio channel to criticise Ferrari's decision-makers on the pit-wall: "I'll hang in there, but you know you've messed up".

Ferrari felt the need to stress it had not "sacrificed" Vettel in the race. Clearly it was doing everything it could to maximise the race result of the one car with a chance of a strong points finish -- given Leclerc's final result, it will have felt justified in doing so.

It's quite a reversal. The sacrificial lamb role seemed to be regularly played by Kimi Raikkonen when he was Vettel's teammate between 2015 and 2018. The way Vettel's role has changed speaks volumes about how Ferrari viewed him then and how it views him now.

Rewind just 18 months and Ferrari was still committed to Vettel as its lead driver and Leclerc as the rear-gunner, saying the four-time world champion would have priority in team order discussions. Leclerc's sensational breakthrough season last year changed everything, with the Monaco native being handed a lucrative contract extension in December tying him down to the team until 2025.

Ferrari seems to operate with this mindset. When it was done with Fernando Alonso in 2014, it very quickly rallied around new signing Vettel. Alonso was a more toxic influence behind the scenes than Vettel has ever been, but both are multiple world champions who for some reason could not win the big one over a long, frustrating spell at Ferrari. It's hard to lay the blame squarely at their feet and Ferrari's mission in the 2020s will be to ensure it does not repeat these mistakes with Leclerc.

What happens next?

The idea of Vettel being dropped before the end of the season seems highly unlikely.

It would be a huge gamble for Ferrari to drop such an experienced driver when it is locked in a genuinely close midfield championship fight. Removing a driver mid-way through a season also comes with financial considerations which surely make it an impossible business proposition right now given the state of the global economy post-pandemic.

Even if Ferrari was willing to do this, Carlos Sainz joining Ferrari early would require a remarkable sequence of events which would include McLaren releasing him from his current deal, and presumably Renault doing the same with Daniel Ricciardo so he could make his own 2021 move ahead of schedule.

The talk of a move to Racing Point has gathered pace in recent weeks, fuelled further by Vettel's trip in Otmar Szafnauer's Ferrari after the British Grand Prix. The team will be rebranded as Aston Martin next year and clearly wants to mark that change with a marquee signing.

At the moment, it is Vettel's only logical option on the grid for next season. The question Racing Point bosses might start having soon is, does Vettel represent a sensible investment given his current form?