It’s difficult to know exactly when Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari dream started to come off the rails.
It may have been as he sat sobbing in the cockpit after the silliest of self-inflicted accidents in front of his own fans at Hockenheim in the summer of 2018.
“Sorry guys,” came across the radio in strangled sobs.
What should have been the season that produced Vettel’s fifth title – and a glorious first with Ferrari – became a textbook example of Maranello’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
TTo most, Monday’s announcement of the German’s departure wasn’t a surprise in anything but timing. But it was sad, desperately sad.
Barring a miracle in these tough times, F1’s cherished dream – to win a championship with the Prancing Horse – is over for a modern-day great.
It would be too easy to blame Vettel’s decline on Maranello’s lightning fast, new, poster boy, Charles Leclerc.
But his speed certainly played a significant part. What started with so much promise dissolved into bungling of epic proportions: strategy debacles, radio rows, tears, rants, crashes and apologies.
Banging on the steering wheel or gesticulating from the cockpit become a regular part of the show.
As long as he has sat in racing cars Vettel dreamt of being at Ferrari. So what went wrong?
Could it be the ascent to the boiling cauldron of intrigue at F1’s biggest operation was the step too far that led to the unravelling of one of the most successful careers in F1 history?
I remember Eddie Irvine climbing off the podium in Suzuka 1999. Michael Schumacher’s Silverstone crash injury had gifted the Ulsterman top dog status at Ferrari six months earlier.
That elevation came with massive expectation, pressure and microscopic worldwide examination of every move he made.
Irvine took third place on the podium in Japan, behind Schumacher and winner Mika Hakkinen.
That day, I had expected Irvine to be devastated in defeat. Instead my abiding memory is the sense of relief he exuded. Relief that whatever the result, however painful, at least it was all finally over.
Vettel, in turn, was clearly, often overwhelmed.
The early signs of fragmentation came in his second season with an inexplicable radio rant at Race Director Charlie Whiting as he raged at Max Verstappen’s tactics.
The following year Vettel inexplicably rammed Lewis Hamilton in Azerbaijan, waving his hands in fury from the cockpit in the belief he had been dangerously brake-tested.
“You can’t have passion without emotion,“ noted Vettel later after a fruitless 2017.
By the start of 2018, it was clear the Ferrari dream was not the only thing at stake. Vettel’s place in history was being rewritten by Hamilton just as Ayrton Senna had done for Alain Prost.
The “lifelong dream” had become a living nightmare, all the more because, in his mind, he was surely working towards the day when he could stand at his fallen idol’s bedside and tell Michael Schumacher he had restored his beloved Ferrari to glory.
The cinematic ending was just too much for reality. This was not a story of resurrection but one of decline and fall.
In hindsight 2018 was probably Vettel’s best chance. But he threw it away in Germany, spun in Monza, crashed with Verstappen in Japan and Ricciardo in Texas. Car problems often blighted the times when it all did come together.
Top drivers make a handful of mistakes in a lifetime. Vettel and Ferrari’s were almost weekly.
The arrival of Leclerc for 2019 appeared to signal renewed team faith in their champion – at least until Leclerc’s speed became apparent.
A below par Bahrain for Vettel was followed by a team orders debacle of rare quality in China to which Vettel contributed personally.
In Canada there were more mistakes and petulance, at Silverstone he caused an accident and then screamed at Verstappen. Another rant followed by another apology.
Mid-season it was clear Ferrari were being forced to choose between two alpha drivers and were inclined to favour a promising future over the unpredictable present.
In Russia, Vettel had clearly had enough and twice ignored clear team instructions to cede his position to Leclerc. His car broke down anyway.
A juvenile accident followed in Brazil when he edged right, triggering an avoidable and embarrassing 180mph smash with his own teammate and another double DNR.
The German finished a devastating year beaten on every score by a driver who had been in F1 just two years.
While speculation continues he could join Mercedes, Renault or McLaren – or even quit the sport altogether - it will be a good while before Vettel can look back at his Ferrari years without a real sense of a golden opportunity missed.