This weekend at the Grand Prix of India, Red Bull Racing prodigy Sebastian Vettel will surely become Formula 1 World Champion for the fourth straight year. Yet as far as many fans are concerned, the bloom is off the rose. Are they fed up with Vettel's repeated winning, his attitude as portrayed on TV, his deliberate ignoring of team orders in the Malaysian Grand Prix, his apparent pampering by Red Bull – or a combination of all these factors and more? Whatever the roots of the fans' disapproval, it should surely not discolor their views of Sebastian Vettel the driver, nor will it alter Seb's desire to keep accumulating trophies, says David Tremayne.
Sebastian Vettel says he was very pleased when Sir Stirling Moss once mentioned him in the same breath as the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, whose feat of four consecutive world championships the German is about to emulate. In many ways, the quadruple champion-elect is as easy to understand as the veteran Englishman, who is more famous for never having won the title. Both are consumed by their passion for the sport. But where Moss always remained a fan favorite – he even left his number in the telephone book in 1954 “because I figured that if the fans wanted to ask me why I had taken the decision to drive foreign, they had a right to ask me” – Vettel has succeeded his compatriot Michael Schumacher (the other member of their special four-in-a-row clique) as the man they love to hate.
Where Schumacher seemed to believe the sport started when he began racing, Vettel looks back and is interested in how it developed. “I'm not an expert,” he confesses, “but for sure I love racing and Formula 1. So of course I know a little bit about the cars back in the days, the teams and the drivers. That's why I'm saying that it's quite special and unique what we have achieved together, being a part of a very unique group.”
But that apparently isn't enough to make him popular. Perhaps the reason he's been jeered so much in 2013 is that irritating trademark finger signaling number one, after qualifying or a race (ABOVE). Or the fact that he wins so often in the best car. Or, more likely, it's the fallout from what he did to Red Bull teammate Mark Webber in Malaysia…
That made the “he's loco” hand gesture after their collision in Turkey back in 2010 look like a spat in a kindergarten, and was the moment when it went wrong for Vettel. Arguably the smartest and best educated of the top-ranked F1 drivers, he made a big misstep that cost him a lot of popularity. The demand to his team to “get him [Webber] out of the way,” was understandable. All the toughest drivers think like that even if it sounds arrogant to non-combatants. But there are things that you do and things that you don't, and from a sporting point of view he crossed a line that day. He apologized initially, but later compounded it all by accepting the wrong counsel – some say from Bernie Ecclestone – and trying to tough it out instead by the time the circus got to China.
Had he simply put his hands up in Sepang and declared: “I'm here to race and I'm here to win. If you want somebody who's going to obey team orders and gift other people victories, I'm not your man,” things might have turned out differently. But the ghost of the "multi 21" order that he ignored has surely come back to haunt him.
All of which is a great shame, because fundamentally Sebastian Vettel is not just a massively competitive driver but also a decent guy.
He's the one top-liner who makes genuine efforts to give interesting answers to questions in press conferences, no matter how asinine they might be. He's good with the fans, too. And as far as the actual driving is concerned, he might be the guy who doesn't prevaricate when he's slamming into a corner at 180mph with a rival – maybe even a teammate – alongside him, needing the same bit of road. But where Schumacher would often default to the sort of tactics he employed against Damon Hill in Adelaide 1994, Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez 1997 or Rubens Barrichello in Hungary 2010, Vettel's driving etiquette stays just the right side of steely toughness. Just like Fernando Alonso's or Lewis Hamilton's does. Nor does he pull the sort of stunts Ayrton Senna regularly pulled against Alain Prost. He's tough, but he's fair.
As for winning in the best car, that's his job, just like it was Mario Andretti's in 1978 after he'd helped Colin Chapman to develop the Lotus 79 and then rightly reaped the benefits. And it's clear that even without the best car, Vettel would be quick. Remember 2008 and victory in a Toro Rosso at Monza (LEFT)? Up until the Japanese GP in 2013 he had won nine races this year. Teammate Mark Webber, himself no mean driver and by consensus one of the toughest nuts to crack, hadn't won any.