Will Vettel bounce back?


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After a thrilling and controversial Italian Grand Prix, we assembled ESPN’s panel of F1 journalists — Kate Walker, Maurice Hamilton, Nate Saunders and Laurence Edmondson — to discuss the main talking points from the race weekend.

Will Sebastian Vettel win an F1 race again?

KW: Yes. Because if I say no, he’ll go and win the next race. Seb may be going through the opposite of a purple patch — his heart certainly doesn’t seem to be in it at the moment — but he is still a four-time world champion and more than capable of being first across the line.

MH: I really don’t know. It’s Singapore next, where Vettel has produced some stunning performances. Even allowing for the Red Bull being the best car at the time, it’s hard to believe he’s simply lost that. It’s a matter of what’s going on in his head right now and how he deals with such a demoralising day on Sunday. He’s been resilient in the past. He could have been on the front row but for the mess at the end of Q3. But has this been a mistake too far? If so, then it’s all over.

NS: It’s hard to imagine it at the moment, so I’ll say no. Maybe he should have won in Canada without a penalty, but the mistake which led to that incident and the one he made on Sunday suggest to me he no longer has the mental strength needed to deliver on those occasions to beat Lewis Hamilton and the next generation of stars.

LE: I don’t think he’ll win a race this year, but if Ferrari can learn the lessons from 2019 he will be in a position to do so in 2020. Much will depend on how he finishes this season and his mental strength over the winter. Fail to win in 2020 and I can’t see him staying in F1 in 2021.

We asked last week, but have the events of Monza changed or strengthened your view on whether Charles Leclerc should be team leader at Ferrari?

KW: I still stand for Charles. If anything, the morally dubious nature of some of his defensive moves on Sunday make me think he’s even better suited to the Scuderia than I originally thought. Leclerc is both a nice guy and a tiger, and while we’ve seen his claws come out in other categories, Monza was as grey an area as we’ve seen from him in F1.

MH: If anything, it’s strengthened my view that this is now a team effort, playing the cards as they’re dealt, regardless of which driver will benefit, because the championship is gone. The last thing Ferrari needs to do is make Leclerc the definitive team leader. He deserves it, yes; but it would finish Vettel off.

NS: The Italian media dubbed Leclerc “the prince who is already a king” after his Monza win. He looks like a Maranello hero already. For all his talent, Vettel just hasn’t delivered what he promised the tifosi he would — a world title. It’s time Ferrari backed its rising star.

LE: I stand by my view from last week that Ferrari doesn’t need a team leader for the rest of this season, it simply needs to take its chances regardless of whom they fall to. But on their current trajectories, I would expect to see Ferrari support Leclerc when the points are reset to zero at the start of 2020.

Should Vettel have been disqualified for his collision with Lance Stroll?

KW: I think the combination of humiliation, penalty points and time spent running at the back of the field up to 20 seconds behind the car in front was punishment enough. Seb says he simply couldn’t see Lance, and from my limited time in a single-seater cockpit I can believe him. Being lapped by your teammate is worse than any disqualification, surely.

MH: With the high-sided cockpit and HANS device, it would have been impossible to see what was coming — but that’s no excuse for ploughing forward in the hope that the oncoming traffic will take avoiding action. The team, with their trackers, could have helped. It was a stupid move, probably prompted by the frustration of the spin. Disqualification would have been harsh. Mind you, it would have done him a favour and saved the agony of trailing round Monza at the back of the field.

NS: Yes. Ignoring the fact that Vettel has been lucky to get away with black flag offences before (Baku 2017, for example), there can’t be many things more dangerous than what he did beyond maybe driving the wrong way around the circuit.

LE: I think a stop-go penalty fitted the crime, but I’d like to see the stewards given the flexibility of handing out more than just three superlicence penalty points for such incidents. Twelve penalty points in a rolling 12-month period add up to a race ban, so under the current system a driver starting on zero points could pull that move four times before being banned. That doesn’t seem right. Vettel was already on six penalty points prior to the incident, so had he been given five extra points he would be absolutely on the limit. Instead, on Sunday night he said he wasn’t even aware of how many points he had.

Is the black-and-white flag a good way to police driver battles or a free pass for drivers to get away with dirty driving?

MH: The black-and-white flag worked well — in this instance. It’s good to have the ‘let them race’ policy (as opposed to rigidly following the rule book in Canada). But the stewards will need to keep a very close eye on this for the reason you mention; a possible invitation for a free-for-all.

KW: I like to think that the black-and-white flag will be used sensibly. We all want to see close battles and wheel-to-wheel racing, and it’s usually pretty easy to distinguish between ‘grey area’ defending and downright dangerous driving. One should be punished, and one should be a tap on the shoulder, telling you the stewards are watching. Sunday’s use was about right.

NS: It’s a good idea, but I can see it becoming a contentious issue the more it is used and the more drivers try to push the boundaries of what is acceptable.

LE: I think it works well. If a driver commits a move that is clearly worthy of a penalty, he will still be penalised by the stewards regardless of the black-and-white flag being in use. What it offers is a way of making sure marginal moves, such as Sunday’s, don’t result in penalties that ruin closely fought races. The flag exists in karting, I don’t see why it shouldn’t exist in F1.

Can Renault overhaul McLaren in the race for fourth position?

KW: Mathematically, yes. If they have another stupendous weekend while McLaren have a shocker, almost certainly. But that’s the joy of the midfield battle — with good results never a certainty, we should see the pendulum swing back and forth until the fat lady sings.

MH: The Renault performance was long overdue — but Monza suited them very well. That won’t apply everywhere during the rest of the season, and McLaren have been consistently better. It should remain orange ahead of yellow.

NS: I think it’s going to get close. Renault, to its credit, has made some good steps this year. McLaren has dropped points at the past two races through reliability issues and a pit stop mistake. The strength of Renault’s car will be tested at the coming races — until we see that play out, I am going to say McLaren keeps fourth.

LE: Much like the Ferrari, the Renault has been flattered by the layouts of the past two circuits. McLaren has actually been on target for good results at both those races but has been let down by reliability issues and a mistake in a pit stop at Monza. I think McLaren still has the better overall package and that will show at the remaining rounds.

Neck on the line time: Who will win the Singapore Grand Prix?

KW: Valtteri Bottas. He may have collected two wins so far this season, but I think Valtteri needs a win right now as much as Charles needed to break his duck in Spa. When he’s had his porridge, Bottas can deliver, and he does seem to like both night races and street circuits.

MH: Max Verstappen.

NS: I can see Verstappen back on the top step of the podium, with Red Bull’s car back on form.

LE: Singapore should be a straight fight between Mercedes and Red Bull. Hamilton has come close to winning at the past two races, and I can see him being the difference in a battle with Verstappen in Singapore.

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