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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The Age of Pay Drivers in Formula 1

Timo Glock’s departure from Marussia yesterday confirmed that “pay drivers” have taken control of over a third of the Formula 1 grid in 2013.

Currently there are three seats available for 2013, at Force India, Caterham and now Marussia, and they are all expected to be filled by drivers with vast financial backing.

A total of 8 pay drivers will therefore race amongst a field of 22, with Mexican youngster Sergio Perez the most high-profile.

The newly-signed McLaren driver, hastily appointed as successor to Lewis Hamilton after his move to rivals Mercedes, has backing from Carlos Slim – the richest man in the world.

Arguably, Perez has fully earned his seat at McLaren after a string of impressive drives in 2012 which included two podiums. Had he not ran wide in pursuit of Fernando Alonso in Malaysia, he may well have notched a maiden victory in just his second season in the sport.

His ability to look after the sensitive Pirelli tyres more carefully than any other driver on the grid (while still lapping as quickly as the leaders) is a highly-coveted trait that McLaren deemed irresistible – a point highlighted by the speed with which they swooped for the 22-year-old.

While his talent is obvious to see, his alarming drop in form once he signed with the Woking-based team led some to accuse McLaren of being too hasty in the signing of Hamilton’s replacement.

Another high-profile driver, Pastor Maldonado, has huge backing from Venezuela – his homeland – but has proved to be as reckless as he is quick.

A maiden victory in Spain last season gave him no shortage of confidence, yet it is this confidence (at times unshakable) that continues to undermine his ability.

Maldonado has a history of deliberately colliding with other drivers – notably with Hamilton at Spa in 2011, and with Perez at Monaco in 2012 – and his aggressive driving style also led to a crash in Valencia last season which led to Hamilton’s dramatic retirement from the race.

Perez and Maldonado graduated from GP2, Maldonado impressively so after winning the title, but they have yet to follow Hamilton’s lead and take their driving onto the next level – and this is causing an increasing number of problems in the sport.

Pay drivers are replacing more experienced drivers in the smaller teams towards the back of the grid – and the sport is seeing more accidents as a result.

Take Romain Grosjean for example. The Franco-Swiss driver was involved in seven first-lap incidents in 2012 having won the GP2 title in 2011, and, although he was not signed by Lotus for his cash, he has failed to translate his speed into error-free racing.

It seems also that long-term contracts are no longer honoured as the sport becomes increasingly costly for smaller teams.

Glock’s departure is a case in point. The German’s multi-year contract with Marussia was mutually terminated as the Russian-owned team look for more money to sustain their existence.

Similarly, in early 2012, Italian veteran Jarno Trulli was ousted from his seat at Caterham, despite having driven in the first test at Jerez, and replaced by Russian driver Vitaly Petrov.

Heikki Kovalainen, his team-mate and a highly-valued driver, was thought to be safe after three superb seasons with the minnows, yet Caterham disagreed and a lack of funding has seen his F1 career dissolve with heartless rapidity.

Kovalainen had enjoyed a distinguished career, competing in two seasons for McLaren in 2008 and 2009 (winning one Grand Prix), but his unwillingness to secure financial backing – instead arguing that his talent should be enough to keep his drive – ultimately led to his exit.

At Sauber, a similar story befell the exciting Kamui Kobayashi.

Kobayashi, noted for his daring overtaking manoeuvres, was an extremely popular figure in Formula 1, but again a lack of funding led to his seat being filled by Mexican 22-year-old Esteban Gutierrez, a driver who also enjoys backing from Carlos Slim.

Even a podium in the Japanese Grand Prix, his home race, and a subsequent fundraising campaign by the Japanese public (still recovering from the devastating effects of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami) which raised €8 million to try and keep him in the sport, was not enough.

It is only a matter of time before pay drivers infiltrate the very top teams such as Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.

Perez is the first man with significant financial backing to take a seat in one of the top three teams, and with expensive new regulations coming into the sport in 2014, he won’t be the last.

Genuine proven talents are being dismissed from the sport as the costs needed to remain on the grid continue to escalate. Sadly, pay drivers are being fast-tracked to the midfield and tailend teams and their inexperience will continue to hinder a sport which once nurtured the brightest talents from the slower teams to the front (think Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, both Minardi graduates).

Until the cost of Formula 1 is seriously addressed, the age of pay drivers, no matter how able, will endure ever longer.

Think of pay drivers as a toxin and Formula 1 as your body. Would you honestly allow these toxins to circulate around your body, poisoning you until your death? Thought not. So why should Formula 1 be any different?