On Sunday, Sebastian Vettel wrote a new chapter in history as he emerged victorious from a rather confusing Indian Grand Prix to wrap up the 2013 Formula 1 World Driver’s Championship. It was the fourth time such an achievement had happened, moving him ahead of greats such as Jack Brabham, Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Jackie Stewart (all of whom only won 3 each) and alongside with Alain Prost. Only Juan Manuel Fangio (5) and Michael Schumacher (7) have won more titles. As well as this, Vettel is now the youngest ever four-time champion, the only the third driver to win four consecutive titles and the first to win his first four titles without another person winning in between. In shortened terms, Vettel is one extraordinary driver; but is he the best ever?
I think I can already answer this in very simple terms – it’s impossible to know. F1 is an ever-changing sport, whether it be the drivers, circuits or the rules governing the construction of the cars. In fact, it was only this year that I can remember where there haven’t been drastic rule changes from the previous season. However, the teams have had to cope with the whole Pirelli tyre fiasco so I suppose you could say that things have changed from last year – at the start of the season, in particular, teams had to be extremely careful with tyre management. In the seven races since Pirelli changed their construction back to the 2012 style, Vettel has only been beaten once and that was at Hungary, meaning he has won six races on the trot. Coincidence? I think not. Although Vettel only won five GPs last season (four of which came in succession during the latter stage of the season) he was the most consistent driver, regularly picking up podiums or strong points finishes. If it wasn’t for untimely retirements at both the European and Italian GPs (both of which he would have comfortably won) Vettel would have wrapped up the championship long before the final race in Brazil.
Although Vettel had already won four races by the time the change came in, I think it is without doubt that he has come into his own since the change. Some say this could just be because he is always stronger in the second half of the season as he prefers the tracks (just look at any of his previous seasons in F1 and you will see a strong correlation) but I don’t think you can argue that the tyre change has had something to do with it. The recent Indian Grand Prix proved that – with team-mate Mark Webber starting on the medium compound tyres (which degraded at a much lower rate than the softs that Vettel started on) many clever computer programmes all predicted that the Aussie would win by a margin of 4-5 seconds despite the fact that it was Vettel who started on pole. Although Webber retired from the race, he would have been nowhere near his team-mate come the end of the race. Vettel was in a class of his own the whole weekend (and indeed the other 5 races previously) and managed his tyres perfectly; there was never any doubt that he could utilise the strategy perfectly whilst still having plenty more speed left in reserve should it be needed.
It hasn’t always been this easy for the German though. Although he may have become the youngest ever test driver during 2006 and scored a point on his F1 debut with Sauber in 2007, making him the youngest ever points scorer in F1, Vettel’s early career was dogged by flashes of impetulance and selfishness. The first instance came when he was driving for Toro Rosso at the end of the 2007 season and crashed into Mark Webber behind the safety car, taking both drivers out of the race and costing himself a possible podium. He then started the 2008 season with four retirements (3 of which were as the result of crashes) and, aside from a wonderful 5th position at Monaco, really struggled to live up to the potential he so clearly had. However, a change in chassis from STR led to a change in form for their German driver as he finished the season extremely strongly, scoring points in 7 of the 8 races and even winning the Italian GP, meaning he had broken another record by becoming the youngest ever race winner. This strong run of form led to a call up from STR’s big sister, Red Bull – this was the best move they could have possibly made.
Vettel is an extremely intelligent man, especially when it comes to racing and setting up a car. When Red Bull signed the German for the 2009 season they were in the process of radically changing the car (as everyone was) in order to fit with the new rule changes. As well as having Adrian Newey, designer of countless title-winning cars, on board, Red Bull now also had one of the smartest racers on board. Between them they managed to design a car that was extremely efficient aerodynamically and, as a result, extremely quick. Although it was a surprise at the time to see Red Bull’s sudden transformation from a side battling for one or two points each race to one of the strongest teams out there, with hindsight it is actually not that shocking at all – they had arguably the greatest ever designer and one of the quickest men in motor racing history working for them.
However, despite having a race-winning car, Vettel’s immaturity still showed as he crashed out of the first race of that season at Australia before spinning into retirement during the next race at Malaysia (although it was very wet). However, four victories and many more podiums showed what Vettel could produce when he was his absolute best and he came second in the championship standings behind Jenson Button. He got better and better in 2010, producing many strong drives to win the championship at the final race in Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately, the childishness was evident – on hearing that he had received a drive-through penalty at the Hungarian GP Vettel proceeded to throw his toys out of the pram, making some rather rude gestures as he trundled down the pitlane. This came not long after he crashed into now team-mate Webber at Turkey whilst trying to overtake him for the lead, forcing himself into retirement, before making a sign that he thought the Aussie was… Well, not right in the head shall we say!
I think, though, that the securing of this first title really made Vettel grow up. His dominance in 2011 was Schumacher-esque, whilst the drives he produced when he really needed them in 2012 (coming from the back of the grid to 3rd in Abu Dhabi and surviving a first-lap spin in Brazil to recover to 6th and win the title) were the mark of a man, not a boy. Things have been much the same this year, aside from the extremely selfish display at Malaysia when he ignored team orders and passed Webber to take victory. His performances to the press are much more mature and when things aren’t going his way, instead of moaning, he keeps his emotions to himself and tries to think of a way around it.
This blog may seem to some that I absolutely love Vettel and, therefore, that I am a glory hunter. This couldn’t been further from the truth – I am not a Vettel fan at all (I think he is very arrogant and self-centred) and I especially dislike the way that he seems to be favoured by certain members of the Red Bull team, but I can’t help but admire what he has done over the last few years. Could he be the greatest ever? If Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg etc. get their wishes then no, but if things don’t change much then I can’t see any reason why he can’t surpass even Schumacher’s records.