Sebastian Vettel acknowledged he must improve his driving next year after a second straight season where his Formula One title challenge crumbled under relentless pressure from Lewis Hamilton.
Vettel led Hamilton by eight points after 10 of 21 races and 4-3 in wins, only to lose by 88 points overall and 11-5 in races won.
Having shaped up as a classic season between two drivers who were both chasing a fifth F1 title, it ended as a one-horse race as Hamilton cantered home. It moved the Mercedes driver Hamilton level with Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio on five titles and two behind record-holder Michael Schumacher.
And it left Vettel feeling bitterly frustrated.
“I haven’t been at the top of my game. I need to look at myself first,” Vettel said after finishing symbolically second behind Hamilton in Sunday’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix . “It’s been a difficult, exhausting year for me.”
Just like last year, Vettel’s title bid unraveled as a series of driver and team errors swung the title momentum toward Hamilton and Mercedes. This year, however, he was even more soundly beaten considering he finished 46 points behind Hamilton in 2017.
A terrible run of form saw Vettel win only one of the last 11 races – the last success coming at the Belgian GP in late August.
“Certainly I have to review a couple of things that went wrong,” Vettel said. “I’ve never had a problem raising my hand if I did a mistake.”
As Vettel’s wins dried up, problems mounted.
After taking a super pole position at Hockenheim – his home race in Germany- Vettel crashed into the barriers while leading . He was under little pressure with Hamilton nearly 10 seconds back and, even if Hamilton had overtaken him, Vettel would still have led the championship with a second-place finish.
But the rain came down and Vettel made an error unbefitting a driver of his caliber and slid off track to gift Hamilton a win.
Then, at the next race in Hungary, Ferrari looked strong in practice only to wilt when rain fell in qualifying. This essentially handed Mercedes a 1-2 on the starting grid, with Valtteri Bottas alongside Hamilton and able to fend off the Ferraris.
During the race itself, Ferrari botched the pit stops of Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen after struggling to fit a tire quickly enough. Raikkonen also drove the whole race in sweltering heat and without fluids after his team did not properly attach his drinking bottle.
It was another unfathomable mistake from F1’s most storied team, which has not won the driver’s title since Raikkonen in 2007 and the constructors’ title in ’08.
Earlier this season, too, a mechanic’s leg was broken by Raikkonen’s car following an unsafe pit release at the Bahrain GP.
Vettel did bounce back to form with a commanding drive in Belgium, but then he was furious with his team after Raikkonen took pole ahead of him at the Italian GP in Monza. His team could have imposed team orders and told Raikkonen to let Vettel past. They did not, and Hamilton jumped from third to take the win on Ferrari’s home track.
It was a crushing humiliation, and the title race slid into freefall.
During the Singapore GP in September, Vettel hit a wall during practice and lost valuable track preparation time for qualifying.
Ferrari was being sucked into a vortex of errors, one which Vettel and team principal Maurizio Arrivabene could not prevent.
Ferrari botched Singapore qualifying when a poor strategy call put Vettel and Raikkonen on the wrong tires. Ferrari compounded that by bringing Vettel in too early for a tire change during the race, hoping to gain advantage by pre-empting Hamilton’s anticipated move.
Instead, Vettel ended up placing third and Hamilton – who had taken a brilliant pole position – won.
The meltdown was symbolic of what happened at Singapore a year earlier.
In 2017, a confident Vettel was poised to regain the championship lead from Hamilton on a track more suited to Ferrari. He took pole position in fine style but then crashed on the first corner trying to cut off Max Verstappen. Hamilton, starting from fifth on the grid, won and the title momentum shifted his way.
Ferrari needs vast improvement in 2019 to prevent a hat trick of failed title bids.
“Obviously we lost our path halfway through the year and things didn’t come together,” Vettel said. “It’s up to us to look at every single detail to make sure we come out as a stronger group.”