Vettel’s halo starting to fade

He possesses surfer-dude looks and a cheeky-boy smile, but the innocent charm of Sebastian Vettel is starting to wear thin.

That is hardly unsurprising and perhaps was to be expected given the circumstances Vettel has been forced to endure this season.

As Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner remarked after the recent Hungarian Grand Prix, the 23-year-old has “had this black cloud following him around for most of the year”.

It would appear Vettel broke a mirror or ran over a black cat at the start of the season because lady luck has enjoyed Sundays off when the young German has been on track.

Vettel has proven himself to be Formula One’s pole king this year, the fastest driver over one lap as he has led the grid on seven occasions, including at the last four races.

But the fact he has made that position count only once is clearly starting to take its toll, as witnessed after another potential victory slipped through his fingers at the Hungaroring.

In the first two races of the season Vettel suffered at the hands of the mechanical gremlins, as first a faulty spark plug in Bahrain and then a wheel issue in Australia robbed him of success.

The weather gods had their say in China as Red Bull were simply out -thought by McLaren, and certainly no blame can be apportioned to Vettel for making it three poles in a row without a win.

On the fourth occasion, in the European Grand Prix in Valencia at the end of June, everything fell into place, the car, the weather, the man himself as he enjoyed a pole-to-flag jaunt in the Spanish sunshine.

But then at Silverstone a fortnight later, with Vettel seemingly no longer driving around with a monkey on his back, for the first time we witnessed a chink in his armour.

Qualifying had been overshadowed by the front-wing furore that saw the team remove the new component off Webber’s car and place it on that of Vettel’s after his own had broke in final practice.

The storm stoked the fires within Webber who had the measure of the younger man off the line and into the first corner where Vettel’s misfortune struck again.

Nothing more than a brush with the front wing of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren resulted in a puncture, swiftly demoting him to the rear of the field, expunging his victory hopes, despite a brave run to seventh.

But then in Germany, Vettel repeated his slow-off-the-line feat, worse still is that he foolishly attempted to cut across Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.

Vettel was swiftly dealt a one-two as Alonso was carrying too much speed to his right whilst Felipe Massa passed him from his left after the door had been opened wide.

Learning his lesson, when Vettel made it four poles in a row in Hungary, he stated he would simply “go straight” when asked how he would approach the start.

He was true to his word as there were no mistakes at the start and 14 faultless laps unfolded, by which time he had built up a gap of over 10 seconds to Alonso.

A safety car should have proven nothing more than an annoyance, but he first made a last-second call to pit for fresh tyres, which seemed to be the right idea at the time, even if he did trundle over the pit-lane kerb.

But then at the restart Vettel switched off, allowing Webber, who had not pitted, to race away from him and build up a considerable cushion.

Vettel paid the ultimate price as he was handed a drive-through penalty for allowing the gap to Webber to exceed the permissible 10 car lengths behind the safety car.

The red-mist then descended as Vettel waved his hands in fury as he made his way through the pit lane when serving his penalty.

After the race, the FIA’s mild-mannered observer Herbie Blash was given a verbal dressing down by Vettel, who blamed the safety car, the stewards and his wonky in-car radio for what had unfolded.

Throughout the post-race press conference he huffed, puffed, sighed and pouted as his exasperation built, but mercifully it fell short of exploding in all-out fury.

We had witnessed such emotion before, in Turkey after his accident with Webber, initially with the ‘you were mad’ finger-twirl around his right temple, then in the personal war of words that followed with the 33-year-old Australian.

Horner cites Vettel as a man whose emotion is what makes him the driver he is, but he is starting to tread that fine line in which he is supremely talented on one hand and a petulant prima donna on the other.

It would be fair to assume the pressure of the championship battle is playing its part, added to which will be frustration at what he will naturally feels are events conspiring against him.

This is where Vettel needs guidance, a steadying hand to ensure he retains his cool and that his cheeky-boy smile does not turn into a permanent scowl.

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