Formula One drivers come and go. Some may win races but most won’t. Others shrink into obscurity after a career spent hidden in the midfield. But there are an elite few, those who are recognised as ‘greats’.
Undeniably, after clinching a fourth consecutive title following victory at the Indian GP – his third in succession – Sebastian Vettel now joins a pantheonic group of F1 drivers who are freely regarded as ‘great’.
But sadly this historic achievement, for a significant proportion of F1 fans throughout the world, is being devalued with claims that he has had it all too easy during his short but illustrious career.
True, the 26-year-old has benefitted from an Adrian Newey-inspired Red Bull car for the past four seasons.
Red Bull’s rise from midfield runners to all-conquering world champions has coincided with a change in regulations in 2009 that mixed the ‘normal’ grid up.
The struggling Honda effectively forfeited their 2008 season, concentrating on the 2009 regulations and inventing the ingenious double diffuser.
Despite knowing the potential of their cars, the Japanese giant pulled out of the sport citing high costs and sold their operation to Ross Brawn, who promptly guided the rebranded ‘Brawn GP’ to a world championship double, with Jenson Button taking the drivers’ championship.
Since then, Newey has worked his magic, developing the Red Bull cars into a force so strong they have swept away all before them. It has been a Vettel stampede across the subsequent four championships.
To undermine Vettel’s ability during this period though, is to flirt with grave ignorance.
F1 bosses had long been aware of the German’s potential ever since an astonishing performance in 2004, when driving for Mücke Motorsport in the German branch of Formula BMW.
His team was not the fastest in the championship, but that did not stop the immensely talented Vettel winning 18 out of 20 races. To underline his brilliance he finished second and third in the two races he didn’t manage to win, amassing a staggering 20 podiums.
In fact, that title remains the last drivers’ title that Mücke won, further illustrating just how special Vettel is.
These are not the achievements of a man who has zero ability, or who would later rely on a superior car to win four F1 world championships. Moreover, it was a telling sign of the domination that was to come.
After progressing to Formula Three in 2005, he drove a so-called inferior car to fifth place in the standings, before earning the F1 test driver role with BMW Sauber in 2006.
The following season, Vettel was leading the Formula Renault 3.5 Series – a platform to F1 – when BMW driver Robert Kubica suffered a huge crash at the Canadian GP, sustaining concussion and forcing BMW to promote him to a race seat in the next race.
In another sign of his talent, Vettel qualified seventh and finished eighth, scoring his maiden point in F1 at the first attempt.
Four races later he replaced Scott Speed at Toro Rosso. The Italians, Red Bull’s sister team, were perennial backmarkers but Vettel took an outstanding fourth place finish at the Chinese GP.
This convinced Red Bull enough to place him in a full race seat with Toro Rosso in 2008, where he again surpassed expectations.
Bouncing back from four retirements in the opening four races, he took the slow Toro Rosso to five points finishes before a breakthrough moment set his career on a fast upward curve.
A wet Monza qualifying session was the stage on which Vettel needed no second invitation to demonstrate his capabilities. He surged to pole position – the first of his career and, to date, the only one during Toro Rosso’s short time in F1.
On race day, his achievements rocketed even higher. Despite his lack of experience and a wet start to the Grand Prix, he showed extraordinary skill to guide his Toro Rosso to victory.
It was the type of lights-to-flag win that would become gut-wrenchingly familiar to his opponents over the next five seasons.
He went on to finish eighth in the 2008 championship, ahead of established names such as Rubens Barrichello and Jarno Trulli.
Red Bull came calling after the retirement of David Coulthard, and suddenly Vettel was winning races again.
In a season where Brawn were dominant, Vettel managed to outperform team-mate Mark Webber to take second in the championship behind Button. He took four victories in amongst a total of eight podiums.
His record since then is scary.
He has won 31 times more, taking his career race win tally to 36 – the fourth-highest ever.
With 43 pole positions, he has started over a third of the races in his career from the front.
He has also been on the podium 50 times in his four title-winning seasons, recording 59 in total.
That means that of the 117 races he has started in F1, he has been on the podium in 50.43% of them – a mind-boggling display. Additionally, over 30% of those races have been victories – hardly an example of a driver who relies solely on his car.
These are the kind of statistics that remain unchallenged in modern F1. Nobody even comes close to the achievements that Vettel has carved out.
His meticulous approach to everything F1, including a unique visit to the Pirelli tyre factory, is a trait of a winner, a champion with a fierce desire for success – and success he has grasped.
It is clear that his unpopularity this season largely stems from the ‘multi-21’ incident with Webber in Malaysia. The team had instructed the drivers to respect track position after the first pit stop, but Vettel relentlessly chased the Australian – who had dialled his engine power down – before passing him for victory.
Webber, himself a popular figure in the paddock and with fans around the world, was incensed. Nevertheless Vettel, although sheepish in victory, displayed a ruthless streak compatible only with that of a champion.
He has since been booed on the podium during victory, something which has been on the wane in recent races – particularly in India where it was perhaps non-existent and if not, inaudible.
Unfortunately, the fans have also attacked the sport because of his dominance, claiming it to be boring – whether that would be the case if ‘greats’ Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton were to have been as dominant is extremely unlikely.
His driving style may be win at all costs and some may frown upon that, but out of the cockpit he is as personable and friendly as they come. His cheeky and fun personality is always engaging and makes him a wonderful ambassador for the sport.
It is doubtful too whether the steadfast Alonso or the cocksure Hamilton would show as much humility as Vettel has done in the wake of four consecutive world championship triumphs – if they even get there.
Vettel’s record alone is worthy of the ‘greatness’ tag. Add to that his almost limitless talent and ability – displayed with crushing victories in junior and senior formulae – and you have a driver who should unquestionably be lauded as a true F1 ‘great’, joining names of the calibre of Schumacher, Fangio and Senna.
He really is that good – and the scary part for his opposition is that he is improving all the time. Are title numbers five, six, seven and eight feasible? For Vettel, anything is possible – and with the talent at his disposal, it is entirely probable.
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