'I wish I'd been able to talk to Michael Schumacher about Ferrari move' - Sebastian Vettel
There is a room in Maranello, Ferrari’s hallowed headquarters, which used to accommodate Michael Schumacher during his 10 years at the illustrious Italian team. Since joining himself, Sebastian Vettel, Schumacher’s disciple, has already stayed overnight several times.
It may even have been in the very room where his hero once slept. “It did not say Michael’s room on the door,” Vettel says with a smile.
Even if the seven-time champion’s name is no longer emblazoned on the entrance, Schumacher is ever-present in Vettel’s thoughts. Along with the allure, the passion and the history of Ferrari – the 27-year-old is a great student of Formula One – Schumacher’s achievements are the principal explanation for why Vettel chose to leave Red Bull for the then unfancied scarlet car.
He is there to emulate his great idol. It is a mammoth challenge many assert he is incapable of rising to, despite his stunning drive to victory at the last race in Malaysia. His unflattering season alongside Daniel Ricciardo in 2014 did not help. But ever since he was dubbed “baby Schumi” on winning his first race at Monza, seven years ago, the comparisons have been inevitable. Maurizio Arrivabene, Ferrari’s team principal, who was around in Schumacher’s time, confesses that he often sees his driver as a “carbon copy of Schumi”.
Vettel himself speaks eloquently, and at times movingly, given Schumacher’s condition after his skiing accident more than a year ago, of peering over the fence at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track as boy, desperate to catch a glimpse.
“Some 15 or 20 years ago, I was standing in front of the gates of Maranello, and I wasn’t allowed in,” the German tells me in the Shanghai paddock; the first interview he has given to the British press since signing for Ferrari. “I was just like any other fan, trying to see Michael. Now the gates opened and I was the one driving around the track. It was something quite special.”
These emotional reminisces make it all the more tragic that, when crunch time came, Vettel was unable to ask the man he admired the most for advice. The “hardest decision of my life,” as he puts it, was made all the harder by Schumacher’s incapacity. He had sought the elder statesmen’s counsel repeatedly over the years. Since meeting Schumacher aged seven after winning a karting competition near his home town of Heppenheim – the picture from 1994, the year of Schumacher’s first championship, was swiftly beamed round the world moments after his Sepang triumph – the two had been in dialogue as Vettel rose through the junior categories to Formula One.
“Because the decision was so difficult, I would have loved to have spoken to Michael,” Vettel says. “I had spoken to him many times about it before. Sometimes it was joking, sometimes it was serious.
“I think I missed that part a lot simply because I knew he would tell me the truth of what he thinks. The honesty he had in giving me advice over the years is probably the most special bit about it. Most people expect him to tell me, for example, ‘For turn 13 in Shanghai, try and stay on the inside’, or something like this. But this is nonsense. Every driver has his own style and you have to figure that sort of thing out for yourself.
“He was always very helpful and honest about all the rest in Formula One; the business side of things, his experience, the lessons he learnt. That’s obviously the part I was missing.”
It was no surprise therefore that the message of congratulations from Sabine Kehm, Schumacher’s manager, meant more than any other. A guarded individual – he eschews Twitter, and fiercely protects the privacy of his partner, Hanna Prater, and their baby daughter, Emily – Vettel did not explicitly refer to Kehm’s message, but elaborated on its significance.
“In the end, I imagine everybody likes to do well and receive compliments. Some maybe care more than others [the implication is that he perhaps does less], but then you have the people that are close to you, your family and friends. You can imagine when you’re a child in school, and you had a test and got your results, and they were good for you, you come home and celebrate. Whereas when it was the opposite, I sometimes never mentioned I got the results. So of course, it’s very special to receive compliments from people that are very close to you.”
The story of his journey from four titles with Red Bull to Ferrari is a long one. Sources suggest a formal ‘pre-contract’ was not in place but the relationship was already built on very solid foundations. As early as 2008, Ferrari made their first approach. They made another in 2010, before Vettel secret visited Maranello after the 2012 season. Last year, with Red Bull no longer the dominant force, negotiations stepped up. Marco Mattiacci, then team principal, went to Vettel’s home in Switzerland several times. Finally a call from Kehm, and Sergio Marchionne, Ferrari’s new president, sealed the deal. It stunned F1 when it emerged in Japan last October.
The partnership has already produced a victory in just his second race. On Sunday night in Malaysia, he packed away the garage until 1am before, in his own words, getting “p-----” with the mechanics. The night went on until 6am at Cyberview, the luxury resort where the team were staying Kuala Lumpur.
Yet, despite the early success, it has not been the smoothest transition. First Christian Horner, his old team principal – who mischievously spilled the beans on Vettel’s departure weeks before Ferrari were ready to announce – said the German’s poor season had prompted him to consider quitting the sport. Vettel’s response to that allegation is brief and terse. “I don’t know who he was talking to but not to me. There was a time where I had some questions and I had answered them. The whole thing got a bit misunderstood and hyped.”
Then one of his closest allies over the years, Bernie Ecclestone, stuck the boot in for failing to promote the sport. Lewis Hamilton is the better champion, F1’s ringmaster said. Vettel was again fairly strident in his riposte. “He’s free to say what he wants so it’s fine. I’m very happy with what I have achieved so far and looking forward to what might be coming and that’s it.”
Public enemy number one through his dominant years, Vettel is at least starting to win people round, rediscovering his enthusiasm in the process.
A year ago, in the midst of his annus horribilis, Vettel told me there was nothing to love about the new F1.
“In the end the picture of last year is bad, probably worse than it should be, but that’s how it is sometimes in life. This year is a completely new story.” It is a story which has already taken him to his 40th career victory, now one shy of Ayrton Senna. But it is imitating Schumacher, who himself looked up to Senna, which really counts. If Vettel can prise the title away from Mercedes – a gargantuan task, as the Silver cars ominous pace in practice on Friday highlighted – he will be on the right path.
“You have to remember where we came from, and that there is a lot of work to do,” he says as our conversation comes to a close. “But if there is a chance for whatever reason to go for the championship, you have to take it.”