When Tommi Pärmäkoski, Sebastian Vettel’s trainer, announced his shock departure at the end of last year, little was made of the situation by the F1 media. Pärmäkoski — a former ice hockey player — had spent the past several seasons with the German, and it is fair to say they’d struck up a very important relationship.
Sebastian and Tommi would see each other on 300 days a year, which is almost the entirety of their awake lives. In Tommi, Sebastian had not only a trainer, but a friend and someone that would keep his feet on the ground. With a few years on Sebastian, Tommi had that extra life experience and wisdom that was integral to Vettel’s confidence in him.
“He was the one not allowing me at any stage this year to lose the grip, start to fly, or think about things that are not in our control.” Vettel remarked after he sealed his second championship in Suzuka.
Fast-forward to the start of the 2012 season, and Vettel has a new trainer in Heikki Huovinen. Recommended to him by his former trainer, Sebastian didn’t have to think twice before signing Heikki — but the question on seemingly nobody’s lips remained unasked; how would Sebastian Vettel cope after going from the almost perfect trainer for him to somebody completely different?
Even if they were to clash horribly, Sebastian hardly has the time to shop around for a replacement, and the only person that truly knows what Sebastian wants is obviously going to be Sebastian. The best person to perhaps make that decision for him would be his close friend and former trainer Pärmäkoski — hence Vettel’s willingness to take on Huovinen.
But how exactly have all of these changes affected, if at all, Sebastian’s state of mind and indeed, his on-track form? Two races into the season, it is difficult to accurately and definitively say that Sebastian is having a bad season; a second-place finish in the first race is hardly a poor start to his title defence. But events during the Malaysia Grand Prix weekend brought Vettel’s mentality to the world’s attention once more, and caused many to ask the question; is Sebastian in trouble?
One of the most telling yet least talked about moments of the weekend came in the red flag period. A tiny on-camera moment, which may have meant nothing at all, caught the eyes of a few keen observers.
Standing in the pits during the lengthy stoppage, Huovinen was holding an umbrella over Sebastian, doing his job of keeping his driver focused and preventing him from becoming distracted. When Vettel moved to assist Huovinen in repositioning the umbrella to block the water more effectively, his trainer gave him the umbrella to control for himself. After a brief moment of confusion, Sebastian handed the umbrella back before walking closer to the pit building to seek shelter beneath the structure, rather than relying on his trainer to keep him dry.
It may sound over-the-top to suggest a driver can’t hold an umbrella for himself, but it was that moment that made people wonder if there’s that level of understanding that Tommi and Sebastian had enjoyed between the two.
The pair were shown on several occasions in the red flag period, and Huovinen seemed ill at ease. Constantly watching his driver’s eyes and trying read what he is thinking was something Pärmäkoski simply didn’t have to do. Heikki, however, looked like he was trying too hard, and quite possibly failing.
Having been outqualified by his team-mate in the first two races, and having a car not looking capable at this stage of challenging for pole on Saturday, Sebastian is under pressure from within himself to get the results he needs to secure a third world championship. And of course, when things are going bad, they tend to get worse for Sebastian. When he’s enjoying a good run of form, it is almost impossible for anyone to keep him in check on the race track. But when he starts to feel something is askew, things have in the past proven to go downhill rapidly.
The race in Sepang was, at best, highly frustrating for Vettel. Starting behind his team-mate for the second consecutive race, Sebastian was immediately involved in an inter-team battle during the opening rain-affected laps — which of course Webber emerged the victor from. After strategy catapulted Alonso and Perez to the front, Sebastian found himself chasing Hamilton for third when he came into contact with Narain Karthikeyan’s lapped HRT. Justifiably furious with yet another blow, Vettel made gestures towards the Indian that highlighted just how frustrating his season was becoming. His post-race remarks told the real story, however.
Gesticulating towards other drivers is nothing new in F1, and little was made of the animated showing of emotion at the time. But it was when Sebastian launched into a mini-tirade after the race that everyone became aware of the fact that Vettel was obviously feeling the pressure. A normally calm and collected driver labelling his fellow competitor as an “idiot” and a “cucumber” was grossly out of character for the German, and indicative of his state of mind.
So is Sebastian Vettel in trouble? Could this be a brief blip in form? Is it simply a spate of bad luck? Or is he indeed letting the pressure of a difficult start to his 2012 campaign get to him? It is when the world seems against you that little things irk you more than they normally would, and you have to wonder if Tommi would be handling Sebastian’s situation better. Time will tell if the double world champion continues to suffer.
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The reigning World Champion finds himself in 6th place overall as the F1 circus heads to Shanghai.