With 10 wins from the first 16 Formula 1 races of the 2011 season – and 12 pole positions in the same span – the few remaining doubters of Sebastian Vettel's mastery of the driver's art are on the defensive. But what has made him such a complete grand prix driver in such a short stretch of time since his debut in 2007? Here are six of the prime ingredients to his success.
If there is a secret weapon to Vettel's speed, it's his ability to live with rear instability on corner entry, enabling him to carry a lot of speed in. His in-car Valencia pole lap was a case study in this: turn in, catch, gather it up well before the apex and then get back on the gas hard and early. Like Lewis Hamilton, Vettel doesn't need to lean on one end or the other; he's quite relaxed about simply
reacting to whatever it does.
Other drivers – such as Jenson Button or Robert Kubica – derive their speed by leaning very hard on the front of the car into the corner. They need a strong front and a predictable rear, and if the rear displays any instability, it affects their confidence in being able to carry speed into the corner.
Vettel, like Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen before him, seems not much to mind what the car is going to throw at him and just rides the wave. In some cases he will even use a spike of oversteer to hasten the direction change. He's not quite as audacious in this as Hamilton but can operate at a high level over the full range of handling traits – even if that's sometimes within the same corner.
Like all the really top guys, Vettel has a fantastic ability to anticipate how quickly the downforce is bleeding off as he brakes and to modulate the pedal pressure accordingly, so he is always close to maximizing the available braking potential.
The downforce reduces by the square of the speed – i.e., dramatically – so there is huge braking grip available when you first hit the pedal at the end of a long straight. It's pretty much a case of initially standing on it as hard as possible, but that big braking force (4.5g-plus) obviously reduces the speed at a huge rate – and the downforce reduction is a square even of that!
So it's a dramatic reduction and the driver has to be able to feel at what rate he must release that force to prevent him locking up, but still to be on the edge of the car's capability. Vettel does this exceptionally well and, into a slow corner, you'll frequently see his inside front just reaching the point of under-rotation as he arrives at the apex. Ideal.
The introduction of the delicate control Pirellis has played perfectly into Vettel's hands. The softer compounds tend to overheat – particularly on the downforce-heavy Red Bull RB7 – through long-duration corners. The key to countering this as far as possible is to minimize the time they are under lateral load.
Vettel's way of getting quick direction change early in the corner – by being relaxed with sudden oversteer spikes – does exactly what's needed. This relieves the front tires of having to build up the cornering forces over a longer period. He also has the feel and throttle control to minimize wheelspin, thereby protecting the rears. These traits have been core to his increased advantage over teammate Mark Webber this year compared to last.
Vettel's at his most impressive when presented with a tough, specific task. Think back to qualifying for the 2009 Chinese Grand Prix, when a driveshaft grease leak meant he could afford only one run in Q2 and Q3, and blitzed to pole regardless. This year's format has made the tasks very clear, but difficult: secure pole, pull out of DRS range of the following car before lap three, pull out of range of the undercut before the first stops, measure out the tires' performance very frugally, using them hard only for these specific tasks.
This was pretty much a template for the first half of his 2011 season. The first to fully understand the new requirements, he then simply set about meeting them…flawlessly. The same focus enables him to build the jigsaw through the practices of what will be required to take pole, even to the extent of sometimes pushing over the limit (as in Turkey and Canada), so that it's precisely keyed in by Saturday afternoon.
IMPROVISATION AND MULTI-TASKING
The guy is highly intelligent and carries that with him into the car. It allows him not only to uncouple separate aspects of the demands – like pulling out of undercut range yet using the tires sparingly – but also to recognize and respond to new demands as they arise. For most of the races in the season's first half, he would have to alternately switch his KERS on and off through different stages of the race because of the system's tendency to overheat. This involves also adjusting the brake bias and driving style – yet these changes were effortlessly smoothed over, with no betrayal of vulnerability for the opposition. Every trait of his performance suggests he has much spare mental capacity.
The outside world only rarely sees the intense greed for success that fuels Vettel's performances. But the crew sure gets to see it when something goes wrong. He has an almost animalistic fury, particularly when he feels he's allowed something achievable out of his grasp. It's a trait of most of the top sporting athletes throughout history. It's a stark contrast to his normally sunny demeanor, but there's no conflict in that fact; it's merely a betrayal of the force that drives him forward. It's used and directed by that keen intellect and together with his physical skills it makes him a totally formidable competitor.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the November 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.