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.
Team boss Christian Horner is quick to defend his team leader.
“What a lot of people don't realize is just how good Seb is,” Horner says, “and how much effort he puts in. Sure, when he came to Red Bull from Toro Rosso he was raw, and actually it took him a while to learn about F1, even with the BMW Sauber outing in 2007 and then his first drives with Toro Rosso. But he improved with them during '08, and again with us in '09 when he curbed his impetuous streak. By 2010 he was becoming more rounded and today he is a very technical driver who really understands the car and just how to get the best out of it. Yes, we have a very good car, but the McLaren was a better one last year yet Seb was able to beat them for the championship. He should never be underestimated.”
Martin Brundle, the former grand prix racer and World Sports Car champion, says he has become a firm Vettel fan.
“I happen to think that Mark Webber is pretty handy, but he's usually been around 30 percent down on the points that Sebastian has scored each year. Seb gets the quali lap in, he gets the start nailed and he builds the gap, and he's brilliant at managing the tires. The more I talk to the other drivers, the more I realize how hard that is. But he doesn't lock the fronts, he doesn't spin the rears, he manages all these things, and you can't fail to be impressed by that.
“I used to rave about such things with Michael and Fernando, and now about Seb. And people say he hasn't won in another type of car, but he won from pole at Monza in 2008 in a Toro Rosso when that wasn't a winning car, so as far as I'm concerned, he's checked that box. With all of the great drivers, most of the work is done outside the car so that the work that needs to be done inside it is easier. That's part of the skill, collecting and motivating the right people around you. The great drivers attract the great designers and engineers because it's inevitable that they'll want to work with them. That's not something to boo people for.
“Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher have all wanted around them the fastest but most subservient teammates who are fast enough to help them but not fast enough to cause them any grief. And you aren't looking for people to be mates with down at the bar. The nicest guy is not going to be a four-time world champion by the age of 26.”
And then Brundle adds something shocking, almost heretical, that really makes you think. “Vettel is turning into the complete driver. And if you had him and Fernando Alonso in a Red Bull, I honestly don't know who would win.”
Vettel is happy to explain his driver's creed. "You need passion to succeed,” he insists. “Yes, being a racing driver is a special job but, generally, if you don't like what you do then you're not going to be very good. You will face a point inside you where you think: 'Is this the right thing? Why am I doing this?' If you go to work every morning just because you need a check at the end of the month, it's not great. Money can be a motivation but it will never make you happy. Obviously, racing in F1, all of us are very fortunate because we're doing something we loved as a child and now it's our job – and we earn good money. So for us, as drivers, it's great. And when you're successful it becomes even better.
"What Stirling Moss said is very special. I was pretty surprised by it. But I've met him a couple of times and he's one of the first heroes of F1. So it's a very big honor he mentions me in the same sentence as Fangio. Obviously I've heard about how special Fangio was. What Stirling saw back then with Fangio was pretty incredible and so, for me, it's a great compliment."
But here's perhaps the best judgment of Vettel. What means more to him: going down in history with the likes of Fangio and Schumacher, or standing atop every podium?
“I think I prefer the second thing!” he laughs, completely unable to suppress the racer's instinct. “What's happened over the last couple of years is amazing but nothing has changed in the way that I still love racing. I love the challenge, I'm still nervous when I wake up on Sunday. We leave the hotel, we get great respect from the fans, they're cheering, they're shouting our names. That's what I'm looking forward to most, and obviously trying to do it again. I love trophies so I don't mind collecting a few!”