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Sebastian Vettel contested his first Grand Prix for the 2022 season in Australia, but the German must be contemplating his future in Formula One following a nightmare weekend.
Vettel, who missed the opening two events after contracting COVID-19 days prior to the curtain raiser in Bahrain, endured setbacks on each day at Melbourne, culminating in an unenforced spin into the wall and retirement on race day.
The four-time champion’s Aston Martin suffered an engine failure during Friday’s opening practice, which ruled him out of the second session. Further salt was added to the German’s wounds when he was fined for commandeering a scooter back to the pit lane following his earlier misfortune.
After a crash during Saturday’s final practice left Vettel’s mechanics with a sizeable repair job, only a red flag during the first phase of qualifying enabled him to post a single lap, which wasn’t sufficient to advance to the second, consigning him to 17th on the grid.
An anonymous Sunday came to a premature end under half-race distance, when Vettel dropped his ill-handling car on the exit of the turn four, pitching him into the barrier to complete the misery.
“I tried to get the best out of the car… with hindsight maybe I was pushing too hard,” Vettel lamented on Sky Sports.
His offhand remark that “it can’t get any worse” than it did in Australia could prove a fateful portent for a long campaign ahead.
Following Williams’ Alexander Albon’s strong drive to tenth, Aston Martin remains the only team yet to open its’ points account after three events.
Having joined the outfit formerly known as Racing Point ahead of the 2021 season after six seasons at Ferrari, Vettel has to be questioning his desire to continue in the sport beyond 2022, if not sooner, if the team doesn’t uncover rapid inroads on its competition.
Vettel, who turns 35 in July, doesn’t have the luxury of time to wait for the team to develop over several seasons, having counted heavily on this year’s regulation overhaul launching Aston Martin into competitive status.
The departure of former team principal Otmar Szafnauer, influential in Vettel’s recruitment, to Alpine in the off season, coupled with the team’s fundamental performance deficit, aren’t likely to have reassured him about the prospects of an immediate turnaround.
Owner Lawrence Stroll’s reportedly hands-on, micro-managerial presence, allied with the perception that the businessman utilises the team as a plaything for his son, Vettel’s teammate, Lance, who endured his own skirmishes in Melbourne, doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.
His championship contending yet ultimately fruitless seasons at Maranello in 2017 and 2018 feel a long way off, while it’s rising on a decade since the last of his titles with Red Bull.
After enduring a forgettable final season at Ferrari in 2020, it’s a shame that his career is increasingly likely to conclude in a whimper, illustrating how quickly fortunes can change.
While it’s easy to jump to conclusions regarding Vettel’s future after a solitary race weekend, he can perhaps take solace in Fernando Alonso, who despite turning 41 in July, has indicated his desire to continue well beyond this season.
The Spaniard, who admittedly enjoys a more competitive package at Alpine, was an unlikely contender for pole position in Melbourne until suffering hydraulic failure in the final phase of qualifying, before multiple safety car interventions cruelled his chances.
Whether or not Aston Martin are capable of finding an upgrade which propels them back into the mix, which McLaren have demonstrated is possible after turning their Bahrain nightmare into fifth and sixth at Australia, we should enjoy seeing Vettel on the grid while we can.
For somebody whose dominance at times rivalled Michael Schumacher’s and Lewis Hamilton’s before and after his own, Sebastian Vettel’s career may be on the final lap – once he departs, his presence will be missed.