As the 2013 Formula 1 season drew to a close, Sebastian Vettel's rise to greatness seemed almost unstoppable. The German secured his fourth world title in crushing fashion, winning a record nine consecutive races to close out the campaign. Still only 26 – an age at which most champions get their first title – he was re-writing the record books. It appeared that Seb would overhaul his hero Michael Schumacher's record of seven F1 titles with relative ease.
Following the eighth of those nine wins, which came at Circuit of the Americas, the German spoke to his Red Bull team over the radio: "We have to remember these days," said Vettel, indulging in some post-race doughnuts. "There's no guarantee they will last forever. Enjoy them as long as they last."
Those were mature words for a 26-year-old sportsman. It would soon transpire that they were prophetic, too.
Over the winter of 2013/14, sweeping changes to Formula 1's engine regulations saw the Red Bull-Renault partnership left behind, with Mercedes stealing a huge march on the opposition. Having won 13 races in 2013 alone, the team have taken just five victories since – and none of those came courtesy of Vettel.
2014 was Vettel's annus horribilis. In his defence, even a great champion is entitled to this kind of blip, particularly given the exhaustion of winning four successive titles. Still, it must have hurt to be out-performed by his new, younger teammate Daniel Ricciardo. For the first time, we saw a change in Vettel's mood. Up to this point, Seb always seemed to be smiling. He joked, he clowned around, he went on Top Gear and wowed the most middle-England TV show in the world with his sense of humour.
In his 2010-13 heyday, Vettel had been the champion F1 needed – and the one Bernie Ecclestone quite openly advocated for. But in 2014, with his car underperforming and a hungry young Ricciardo getting the better of him on-track, Vettel's personality seemed to change. The smile dropped, and there wasn't much cause for jokes. Bernie didn't seem as fussed any more, either. Lewis Hamilton – "the best world champion we've had" and "a super promoter for the sport" – was the boss' new favourite.
Ricciardo won three grands prix to Seb's zero in 2014, beating his four-time world champion teammate by 71 points and two positions in the standings. Multiple world champions don't often take that kind of hammering, at least not in their professional prime.
Late in the season, Vettel announced that he was leaving Red Bull for Ferrari. The move had been coming for some time: there had long been suggestions that he'd wear the red overalls, particularly given that he spent his youth watching Schumacher dominate for the Scuderia. It was his destiny; his extremely lucrative destiny.
The move took on a new dimension in light of Schumacher's health. In December 2013, the seven-time champion suffered a skiing accident that would leave him clinging to life and, almost three years on, still at an unknown stage of recovery. Some seemed to suggest that Vettel was going to Maranello to rebuild the flagging team in Schumacher's honour. There was almost certainly nothing in this, given that Vettel had spoken to Ferrari before Schumacher's accident, but it was a nice narrative. What's more, Seb's mood seemed to lift after the switch was announced.
His first year with the team went extremely well. Though he was nowhere near the title battle, Vettel was the clear best-of-the-rest, winning three grands prix (the only non-Mercedes driver to stand on top of the podium) and enhancing his reputation as an elite grand prix driver. In 2015, Vettel did what all true greats must to secure their status: he took a decent car and, on occasion, made it look great. His wins in Malaysia and Hungary were well deserved and confirmed the wisdom of his switch to Maranello. But what really stood out was his drive in Singapore. At the most physically draining race of the year, Vettel took pole by more than half a second and beat Ricciardo to the win after more than two hours of racing. It was perhaps his best drive in a grand prix car.
And, after a year of being shown the way home by his teammate, Seb was the big dog once again, trouncing Kimi Raikkonen in qualifying – where it was 15-4 to Vettel and the gap was on average 0.5s – and in the championship, outscoring the Finn by 128 points.
The icing on the cake was Red Bull's drop in performance. This isn't to suggest that Vettel revelled in seeing his old employers struggle – he doubtless has plenty of mates at the team. But he would not be a world champion if he didn't consider himself to be one of the most important aspects of their success, and watching them fall back would have confirmed this.
With all this came an improvement in mood. Vettel seemed like his old self again, smiling, joking, and spending much of 2015 winding up the Mercedes drivers in press conferences.
2016 was supposed to be the season Ferrari got back to challenging for titles. Mercedes were entering the third year of their run at the front and, historically, it is very difficult to be so dominant for three successive seasons. Ferrari and Vettel were the best placed to take it to the Silver Arrows this season.
But it hasn't happened. It would be simplistic to say that Vettel has had a truly bad year. There have been some impressive drives, mega laps, and days on which he has seemed like the old Seb.
But it would also be very difficult to argue that he's performing at the level one would expect of a four-time world champion who, at 29, should be at the very peak of his powers. Over the second half of the season Vettel has secured only one podium – which, fortunately for him, was in Italy. He recorded five in the first half of the campaign but, as his car has dropped off, Seb's performances also seemed to suffer, with mistakes and on-track collisions creeping in.
The comparison with his teammate is particularly worrying. Something of a shadow last year, Raikkonen has looked better in 2016. Sort of. Though he's not the Kimi of old, he's definitely been considerably closer to Seb. Heading into the final two races, Vettel leads Kimi 10-9 in qualifying, a far more even split on Saturday afternoons. Amid Vettel's dip in form, his team boss, Maurizio Arrivabene, said: "It is only right that anyone, no matter who it is, earns their place and their salary." Given that Vettel's salary is reported to be $50 million per season, that seems reasonable, albeit not an ideal way to show that the team is united.
To make matters worse, Red Bull have recovered in marked fashion. Two wins – one apiece for Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, a man who Vettel doesn't get on very well with – have seen them move well clear of Ferrari in the constructors' standings. There is no denying that the Anglo-Austrian squad are the chief rivals to Mercedes this term and are best-placed to take the challenge to them in 2017.
Vettel's mood has dropped accordingly. In fact, it seems to have hit new lows in 2016.
Seb's radio messages of "blue flag" every time he happens upon a backmarker have grown pretty tedious this season. Over and over he says it, often followed by an exasperated: "Come on!"
Vettel is an intelligent operator and, like other drivers, uses his radio messages to broadcast his opinions to the world. If he wanted to say things privately, he'd do so in the Ferrari motorhome, or in race director Charlie Whiting's office. There is certainly an element of strategy in these, particularly in intimidating the (young and inexperienced) tail-end drivers.
But the frustration he displayed during last month's Mexican Grand Prix suggested less of a calculated plan to make his thoughts heard, and more a driver whose frustrations had got the better of him. Vettel began by calling Fernando Alonso an "idiot" after being held up by the Spaniard in FP2. Alonso was his predecessor at Ferrari and, while very fond of a whinge himself, does tend to pump in world-class performances regardless of the machinery he's given. While he can undeniably be a pain in the arse at times, on-track Alonso is not an idiot.
The Spaniard was more amused than anything by the incident: Vettel, he suggested, was "living a very frustrating period for himself and for Ferrari." The implication was that Seb is rattled.
And then, of course, came the race, in which he vented repeatedly about the Red Bull drivers. Vettel had every right to be frustrated by the situation he found himself in during the closing laps, with Verstappen seeming to hold on to third position illegally, then backing Vettel into teammate Ricciardo, who Vettel was subsequently judged to have kept behind illegally.
But the frustration he expressed on the radio during these exchanges was something else. Don't get me wrong: it was entertaining and, in fact, quite refreshing to hear a driver in a sport that can be painfully corporate and bland lose his shit like this.
But it doesn't speak well to Vettel's state of mind. His message to Charlie Whiting – a "fuck off" that sounded as if it was delivered with a considerable amount of froth – also hinted that the blue flag calls were not merely a ploy. He was genuinely frustrated with the officials, of whom Whiting is the figurehead, to the point that he wanted to tell him to fuck off. And he so did – twice. This didn't sound like a smart driver sending a message to the sport's higher powers – it sounded like a deeply frustrated man unable to control his anger.
Quite naturally, his rivals have seized on Vettel's outburst as a sign of weakness. "He's obviously a bit frustrated with how the season's gone," suggested Ricciardo. "He probably thought that maybe [Ferrari] had a chance to fight Mercedes, but it hasn't worked like that." Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, and the Austrian outfit's motorsport advisor Helmut Marko were also quick to question Vettel's behaviour.
And all of this has made Vettel's 2016 travails into a story, one that can be talked about on TV, or written about in print or online. That does neither Vettel nor his team good – Ferrari are simply not built to cope with internal strife.
Vettel is by no means alone in becoming sullen when things aren't going his way. That's what champions do. Was Lewis Hamilton sweetness and light during his sub-par 2011 season? Far from it. What's Fernando Alonso like after a Mercedes-powered car cruises past his McLaren-Honda? Even worse. Winners find anything other than winning intolerable. They can stomach the path towards victory – hence Vettel's demeanour in 2015 being so positive – but if that slips, they become almost irrationally angry.
So this is not to write Vettel off. Far from it – he's a four-time champion and looked very good last year. He does seem to be doing everything he can to lift Ferrari from the (relative) doldrums, to the extent that some feel he is doing too much, including his own boss. The fact remains that, given a good car, Vettel will be at the front again. But with a switch to a more aero-reliant formula next season, it's easy to see the Italian squad slipping back still further and Seb growing even more frustrated.
At this stage, it feels as though Vettel needs someone who commands his complete respect to talk things over with. Not to be told what to do, necessarily, but to bounce ideas off and compare notes with. It is another sad aspect of Schumacher's condition that he is not able to support Vettel in his new challenge at Ferrari. The man who won five titles in the red cars could probably teach the new star a thing or two.