Sebastian Vettel – A true F1 ‘great’?

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.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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Vettel vs. Webber – A volcanic F1 rivalry

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber have long been intense rivals at world champions Red Bull, but now it seems Formula One’s most high-profile rivalry has erupted again after a spell of dormancy.

As with most volcanic activity there is heat, poisonous smoke, and a history of violent eruptions – a perfect metaphor for the Vettel/Webber rivalry.

The compelling Malaysian Grand Prix was the latest explosion where Vettel, who was mindful of the 25-point advantage he would gain over title rival Fernando Alonso following the Spaniard’s early retirement, overtook Webber in a gripping wheel-to-wheel contest with just over ten laps remaining.

Webber had twice been assured by the team that the win was his. This resulted after a team meeting on race day which stipulated that the driver in front after the final pit stop would pull rank over the other. Vettel seemingly ignored that discussion.

Instead he showed a hunger which threatened to destroy the team’s 1-2 position in the race to pass Webber for the victory and incur the wrath of the Australian and, on the surface at least, his team.

The fight between them has intensified in recent seasons, as reigning world champion Vettel has romped to three consecutive drivers’ titles with Red Bull claiming successive constructors’ crowns in the same period.

It is, without question, the German’s team – and how Webber detests that fact.

Red Bull veteran Webber and Vettel first clashed when the then 20-year-old German, driving for sister team Toro Rosso in his debut season in F1, smashed into the Australian under safety car conditions in the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji.

Webber had been second at the time with Red Bull (a small team back then) primed for a hugely valuable podium.

Vettel was third in his slower Toro Rosso in monsoon-like conditions, and was caught out by leader Lewis Hamilton’s erratic driving behind the safety car, embarrassingly clouting Webber from behind and ending both their races.

It prompted Webber to say in a post-race interview to ITV that, “It’s kids isn’t it, kids with not enough experience. You do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

The straight-talking Webber later criticised Hamilton, also in his debut season, for his “shit” driving behind the safety car.

Webber was hurt by the incident, and three years later those old wounds were to be opened again – in even more dramatic fashion.

Now team-mates at Red Bull, Webber and Vettel were pushing hard for a win in the 2010 Turkish GP under increasing pressure from the McLaren duo of Hamilton and Jenson Button.

With Vettel getting a tow on the long back straight he swept to the left of Webber, drew alongside and then veered across him before the braking phase into the following hairpin, causing a high-speed crash which punctured his tyre and forced Webber to stop for a new front wing.

The gleeful McLarens took a straightforward 1-2 while Webber took third with Vettel retiring from the race with irreparable damage. Team boss Christian Horner and chief designer Adrian Newey were in utter despair after that inter-team crash, but another incident was shortly in the offing.

In trying to reassure Webber that Vettel was not their favoured driver, Red Bull gave the Australian an updated front wing for the British GP later in the season.

Only one model of the front wing was built but, when Vettel damaged his old-spec wing, Red Bull took the decision to take it off Webber’s car and give it to Vettel.

It was a call that served to infuriate the Australian, but he would have the last laugh as he romped to a superb victory before relaying the infamous “not bad for a number two driver” message to his team on the cool-down lap.

The spotlight was firmly on the duo’s battle and in the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi the conspiracy theorists were again out in force.

Webber entered the race behind leader Alonso in the standings, with Vettel in fourth and also within reach of the title, but he had qualified poorly and showed a lack of race pace.

Red Bull decided to use the slow Webber as a decoy to fool Alonso’s Ferrari team into covering his every move – and after a tactical pit stop they resumed in traffic on a track with notorious overtaking difficulties.

Vettel sailed off into the distance and took the title from Alonso – and Webber.

Few could have argued that Red Bull had nailed Vettel’s colours to its mast that season, and the old war resurfaced in the 2011 British GP when Webber, eagerly chasing the German down, was told to “maintain the gap” to Vettel in second.

Webber ignored those veiled orders, in much the same way as Vettel did today, and continued to race his colleague to the final lap.

By now the Australian seemed determined to race for himself, utterly disgusted by Red Bull’s favouritism towards Vettel beneath their public affirmations of neutrality.

Vettel went on to take the title with four races remaining, and later took his third drivers’ crown at Brazil in 2012 – but with little help from Webber.

Vettel collided with Bruno Senna on the first lap and worked his way up to take sixth – a position good enough to deny Alonso the title – but later said that Webber did little to help him.

It has been alleged that the incident in Malaysia today was revenge for that perceived lack of help, but the fact remains that Webber has backed off at the team’s behest to conserve Vettel’s superior racing positions on numerous occasions over the past few seasons.

With Webber’s past obedience to such orders in mind, Vettel’s overtake will sicken Webber further.

Will the Australian enter into a similar situation with no trust of his team-mate and look for retaliation? Will their rivalry spiral into another catastrophic crash? And can Red Bull regain control and authority over their drivers?

All these questions remain unanswered, but for now the focus will be on Formula One’s most captivating rivalry and the tremors that will continue to rumble from Mt. Red Bull in the coming weeks.