Monday 2 December 2013

Sebastian Vettel 2013 World Champion: The sign of the four

Twelve months ago Sebastian Vettel swept up world drivers' title number three for himself, merely the latest of his increasingly haughty collection of achievements. And with it all somewhere at the back of minds was the nagging thought that whatever his skills and statistical marks then, at the age of just 25 Vettel - some seven or eight years shy of when the F1 pilot usually peaks - was only going to get better. One year on and you know what? He did get better.

Sebastian Vettel in familiar pose
Photo: Octane Photography
In 2013 Sebastian Vettel was devastating; a notch or two beyond the already formidable figure we had before. Before long in this campaign he'd established himself as they guy to beat, and was edging clear almost inexorably even though his package wasn't at that stage always the class of the field in qualifying or in races. Then the second half of the year - aided by a change to the tyre spec - became a series of Clark-like demonstrations. Only major setbacks would have deprived him wins, and they never came. Minor setbacks seemed the most minor inconvenience. Seb time after time closed in on victories like a heat seeking missile. Of course, he was mathematically champion well before the season end. He was effectively so long before even that.

And the haughty records speak for themselves. Title number four and on the bounce, which can only otherwise be boasted by Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher; equalling Schumi's all-time mark of 13 wins in a season, which also vaults him up to fourth place in the all-time winners' list and does so with a better strike rate than those ahead (Seb has close to one win from every three Grand Prix starts); and then ending the season matching Alberto Ascari's long-entrenched record of nine Grand Prix wins in a row, a record long since considered so imperious as to have an untouchable, almost mythical, air. Vettel in his campaign of triumph took them all.

But yet even with the towering numbers, all achieved by the age of 26, doubts remain. And not just doubts but also hostility. For all that Vettel has near-universal popularity among those who deal with him directly, his campaign was also on occasion a boos cruise, with booing of him from gathered spectators audible on the podiums at Montreal, Monza and Singapore, as well as that in Silverstone when a gearbox failure stopped him late on - his only non-finish of the year - it just about brought the house down, such was the unconstrained glee expressed from the gallery.

Vettel spent much of 2013 clear of his rivals
Photo: Octane Photography
The big question that remains unresolved is 'why?' Is it to do with Malaysia and all that, wherein Seb's competitive instincts got the better of him and he won after defying team orders by passing stable mate Mark Webber who, everything turned down, assumed they were cruising to the flag (probably Seb's only black mark of the year)? Is it not so much that than that he changed his line of defence subsequently: all contrition after the Malaysia race, but by contrast unrepentant three weeks later in China? Is it that his youthful, almost innocent, insouciance out of the car while mostly attractive on occasion veers into the territory of insensitivity (the 'balls in the pool' comment after the Singapore win perhaps being a case in point)? Is it his finger-jabbing into TV cameras after poles and wins - that some consider rather ostentatious? Is it in fact much simpler than this and all merely reflects a base desire to see someone else win? Is Seb right that it's simpler still and is merely the work of tribal Ferrari fans?

In fact it most likely reflects a combination of some or all of these. And with one more perhaps arcing over them. There are those that say he's undeserving of his success, due in part to them reckoning that there is at least one better driver out there, as well as that they believe Seb's had it easy - or even been rather carried to wins - what with his access to a number of admittedly highly effective Red Bulls. Perhaps this is not helped by his and team's arriviste status - that Johnny-Come-Latelies winning everything there is to win puts a few noses out of joint, and results in a few seeking to discredit it. Whatever is the case more than for most Seb's statistical record however vast comes with an asterisk, at least in the minds of those watching on.

Fernando Alonso made the 'let's wait and see what he does in an under-performing car' point in Brazil recently, and his sentiment has since been echoed by F1 Racing's Editor Anthony Rowlinson: 'The key thing with Seb is that he hasn't had to face true adversity in a sporting sense yet' said Rowlinson, 'and he's only driven for one team and all his wins have been while that team have provided him with fantastic equipment. So I think to really judge Seb we need to see him in four or five years' time when he's done a couple of years in a dodgy Ferrari or a dodgy McLaren...if for some reason they (Red Bull) fumble next year and Vettel's suddenly mid-grid, how hard will he charge? How well will he be able to deal with not being the winner? Not being the front guy?'

Does Vettel need to 'prove himself' away from Red Bull?
Photo: Octane Photography
To a certain extent they have a point, as one of the beauties of F1 - wherein teams design and build their own cars - is that it does frequently let us see great drivers struggle heroically against those with superior equipment, and it's doing this that we often view as the irrefutable mark of greatness. For example with Stirling Moss it's often his 1961 wins against more advanced and powerful Ferraris that are referred to when his legend is framed. It's similar with Senna and Schumacher, that when we reminisce about their greatness it tends not to be their cantering to titles that are talked about, instead it's the eras in which they did all they could to personally make up the difference to much more potent cars than their own (in Senna's case 1992-1993; in Schumi's 1996-1998). In F1, more than in most activities, it seems protagonists are expected to suffer for their art.

Yet by the same token there is no evidence that Vettel wouldn't excel in that situation and much evidence that he would. The rare occasions during his career when he has not been in a standard-bearing car, particularly in his early days in a Toro Rosso, his considerable talent could still be seen as he regularly got into high places that his machine didn't have a right to be (and even won a race for the Faenza squad, lest we forget). And as a certain Michael Schumacher noted, even with access to a fine series of Red Bulls Vettel stacks up rather well against his one direct - as intra-team - yardstick: 'Look at his team-mate. That's your reference point that you've got to take. He won all those races - 13 this year. Mark Webber won none in the end. That's pretty shocking...'

Indeed, analysing Seb's approach and attributes reveals far more than a nothing special driver being carried to victory by a fine car, rather one who has the characteristics of those among the very greatest drivers from the sport's historical expanse; one that surely even now deserves to be ranked firmly with these giants.

So, what does Seb personally bring to the party? Comparisons between him and his mentor and countryman Schumacher (and their respective teams where they got most of their glory) always seem rather trite, but there exists more than one parallel. And the two pairings share probably their most impressive characteristic of all, in that even after the habitual, long-term, achievement, no outward display of complacency or relent is shown. Each success, rather than the latest of many that it is, is treated like the very first, with child-like, instinctive joy maintained. And for their rivals the foot remains firmly planted on the throat.

Vettel's instinctive joy at victory remains undiminished
Photo: Octane Photography
And if you needed this underlined in thick black lines you'd need only to look at the conclusion of this year's Abu Dhabi qualifying session. Seb by this stage long had the latest championship as mathematically all his, and of course he already had plenty of pole positions to his name (43, to be precise). And yet when his final effort that day was good for only second place, shy of his team mate Mark Webber, thanks in part to a small (and rare) error at the first turn Seb's head movements as he crossed the line and saw his placing spoke a thousand words - even though the modern F1 pilot can hardly be seen when at work, hidden under an helmet and ensconced in bodywork. His sheer disappointment was lost on nobody. And retaining such motivation after all of his success is extraordinary. 'I always want to be first, and to be better than the rest, no matter what I do, even the silly stuff' has said the the man himself.

And while doubtlessly he has had the best car for the most part just as doubtlessly he also gets the most out of it. This a watching on John Surtees has noted: 'Sebastian is very special...he's a driver that can produce that extra effort when required, dig deep and do that 101% performance rather than the 99s which is the common thing'. And whatever the technical advantage he has had it's not to be compared with Schumi's for example - he doesn't get bespoke Bridgestone tyres, he can't circulate a private test track endlessly, his cast of contemporaries seems much stronger too.

For Vettel, undertaking a qualifying lap at the limit or a similarly hectic opening spell of a race it's a lot like flicking a switch: his sheer speed and precision, his ability to nail it first time of asking, is there almost every time. Seeing him snatch pole as if by right, or to be well upwards of a second clear of the rest at the end of lap one, has become routine. This continues to be the case even when he has to improvise, such as after safety car periods or - quintessentially - in Brazil's qualifying session this campaign, wherein it had been wet all weekend and in the final, vital, throes of the qualifying hour when grip remained uncertain on a drying track Seb blitzed everyone with a lap time six tenths under the best of the rest, as well as more than a second under the what his team mate could manage. It requires a lot of determination to conclude that is purely the work of a chauffeur benefiting from access to an other-worldly car.

And despite almost always pushing, almost always fighting at the front, from Vettel there also were almost no mistakes this year. Listing them requires a serious carping exercise and even so only underlines their rarity: in the Canada race he tagged a wall as well as later ran across the grass; in Hungary he slightly damaged his front wing in a rather optimistic dive up the inside of Jenson Button; in Japan his early part of the race was a little on the scrappy side. Elsewhere he never missed a beat. And even in each case wherein he erred again redolent of Schumi he carried on unimpeded; you now have to go back more than three-and-a-half years for the last time a Grand Prix of his was ended early by an accident. Pinpointing instances in 2013 wherein Seb could credibly have scored more points than he did is near to a completely unrewarding exercise.

Use of brainpower is a vital part of Vettel's armoury
Photo: Octane Photography
Another vital part of the Vettel armoury is his mighty brainpower and mental rigidity, which without hyperbole ranks alongside any in the history of F1 drivers. His ability to manage a race from the cramped and blinkered confines of his cockpit, to always be mentally prepared and to be apparently impervious to pressure and attempts at needle, all are close to flawless. Jackie Stewart, one of the sport's greatest proponents and practitioners of 'mind management' is not for nothing a fan of Seb's: 'I think without doubt he's the most mature 26 year-old I've ever seen in F1' said JYS recently.

Similarly, Adrian Newey - a man with more brainpower than most, as well as one who has had worked with many of the sport's contemporary giants (Senna, Prost, Mansell, Hakkinen, Raikkonen...) - when asked to rate Seb instinctively refers to the potency and capacity of his cerebral faculties: 'What is a real mark of Sebastian is his rate of learning. He's a bright guy who has that mental capacity to be able to drive the car and at the same time think about what he's doing; he can understand and read a race, he can look at the diamond vision as he's going past to see what position he's in all that sort of stuff so that when he gets out of the car he can then almost replay what he's experienced.'

Surtees concurs on this being one of the secrets of Seb's approach, and adds that his technical understanding and development is strong also: 'He also got a very good technical awareness which allows him to work so closely with Adrian Newey and the Red Bull team to get the very best out of the car. I'm sure that he doesn't just drive it but he actually relates to it, which is the all-important thing'. What we've seen is recent times is a driver at the top of his game and at one with his machine. Seb's cerebral approach has even drawn admiring comment from The Professor himself, Alain Prost.

And even among the greats it's hard to cite with confidence many drivers that have taken more of a holistic approach to getting the job done than Seb; to have left less to chance. Maurice Hamilton takes up the story: 'They've (F1's all-time greats) all got the one thing and that is they look at every aspect of what they do, not just driving the car but how they deal with the engineers and technicians out of it even to how they deal with the media, what can they learn from the engine people, what can they learn from the tyre people all the rest of it. And he (Vettel) doesn't stop thinking; he's this smiley happy-go-lucky kid in the paddock, but all the time he's thinking...and he's learnt how to drive that car, with Adrian Newey and Renault how to use it, because it was counter intuitive what you had to do in a corner. That's why a guy that's longer in the tooth like Mark Webber couldn't really do that but Vettel could.'

Vettel always is polite and charming
with the media
Photo: Octane Photography
Seb leaves no stone unturned, from his close and productive relationship with his team - to the point that you cannot see the join, to usually being the first in and last out in the garages of any driver during a Grand Prix weekend, sometimes helping with handiwork on the RB9, to having an amiable relationship with Bernie Ecclestone, to being unstintingly polite and affable with the media and others he has to deal with in his duties, it all filters down to the bottom line of getting the results.

And this is no new thing. Those at Red Bull can recall back in 2005 getting an unexpected visitor to the Red Bull factory, a cherubic 18 year-old who was a member of the company's junior driver programme, who'd just passed his driving test and had thought to hop in a car to drive to Milton Keynes, to see if there was any chance of a look around the factory. That kid was Sebastian Vettel. And let's not forget who the only F1 driver was who went to the Pirelli factory after that company entered the sport at the start of 2011 to check out the rubber being developed. Yes, that's who.

Again like Schumi, Vettel seems perfect for his era, almost to embody it. Few can be said to have mastered the blown floor like he has, few either appear to get as much out of the limited-resource Pirelli tyres. Those who analyse his telemetry note that his tyre slippage is close to non-existent, while he aided by his use of the blown floor keeps tight corner speed high and the strain of the tyres low by his skills in keeping the car's rotation in as short a distance as possible: pitching the car in what would ordinarily be an oversteery style but using blasts on the throttle and by extension of the blown diffuser to control the sliding rear. Not for nothing Webber has commented that it is in the slow corners and in Seb's ability to get pace out of older tyres where he really loses out to his team mate. Does this reflect the luck of being in the right place at the right time for Seb, or does it reflect his ability to quickly understand and implement just what is required to prevail? Well given everything else we know I'd say the latter is much more likely. Plus, let's not forget, the first of Vettel's titles was achieved on the as-nature-intended Bridgestones.

Looking for weaknesses in Seb's approach these days isn't the work of a moment. In line with his team he's grown from the 2009-2010 era, from being fast but vulnerable and easily got at, to being still fast but also formidable and good at pretty much everything. The belief that Seb can't race in the pack really should have been been given a dignified burial long ago, with his two rocket-like rises through the field in Abu Dhabi and Brazil late last year administering the final tramping down of the dirt. Such has been Seb's near-permanent preponderance this year he didn't get many opportunities to further demonstrate these skills. But they were still there: just about every time that Seb's plan of victory required him to make quick, decisive passes in 2013 - be it at the start of the race or after pitstops - he did (crucial as the afore-mentioned Pirellis tended to overheat if they ran in turbulent air for too long). And never was it more vital than in Bahrain.

It seems a long time ago now, but as all were poised for that race start - the fourth of the season - things then weren't going swimmingly for Seb. He topped the drivers' table, but many reckoned Alonso and Raikkonen looked better race day bets. The recriminations over Malaysia and all that still reverberated. Nico Rosberg had claimed a surprise pole, but Alonso starting third was the favourite to win for most. Few - least of all the man himself it seemed - expected much from Vettel lining up in second. Alonso did clear Vettel off the line as scripted, but the script reckoned without Vettel's fighting spirit. He sat it out with Alonso on the outside of the first run to turn four, and Seb then undercut him into five to get momentum on him, putting Alonso into a position wherein he had no choice but to yield. Two laps later Seb pulled the same move on Rosberg, and that was the last anyone else saw of him that day. Arguably the momentum towards him in 2013 was set right here, and never averted.

The sweet taste of success was
a common one for Vettel this year
Photo: Octane Photography
While all of Seb's traits are backed up by the virtuous circle of the reinforcement and assurance that habitual success brings. This is never better demonstrated than in Vettel's routine bagging of fastest laps on the final laps of races, when it's all over bar the shouting. For most of us, including for most of his rivals, you'd imagine there would be a safety first approach, for fear of copious amounts of egg-on-face from binning it when the win is assured. Such hang-ups do not appear to perturb Seb one bit. The sheer confidence that he displays these days is akin to that of Mohammed Ali in his sky-high pomp.

So, what lays next? As noted at the outset Seb remains well short of where we'd ordinarily expect his driving peak to be in terms of age, and therefore all bets seem to be off in terms of what he can achieve. Yet as Vettel himself noted after his Austin victory, no one knows how long this success will last for; it is the way of motor racing that all things must pass, and inevitably there will come a day that his Red Bull isn't the car to have anymore. Next year, with everyone returning to a technical base camp and there likely to be very different driving styles required, seems to contain a few risks on that front to the team as well as to Seb himself. Plus Seb more than most seems conscious of his place in history (see the conscious record-gathering) so he may therefore start to be tempted to answer the 'what if he wasn't in a Red Bull?' questions personally by moving elsewhere. Ferrari rumours linger, as did Mercedes ones in the pre-Lewis days.

And to take one more Schumi parallel, after he in 2004 followed up a title won at the last with a dominant one as part of a run of championships that no one thought would end, just as Seb has just done, for him afterwards there was in fact no more titles. Indeed, the following year - via some rule changes - his Ferrari machine dropped off the pace disastrously and he could only achieve a single victory won in highly peculiar circumstances. Yet perhaps the parallels only have limited value; you wouldn't bet a great deal on similar befalling Vettel. Not quite yet anyway. Given everything, it's hard to imagine that for as long as he's on an F1 grid Seb will ever be down for too long.


  1. It was a really nice read. Thanks for the effort to put all things so neatly together.

    Possibly 'he may therefore start to be tempted to answer the 'what if he wasn't in a Red Bull?' questions personally by moving elsewhere.' this is the only part that I clearly disagree with. I'm not saying Vettel will stay at Red Bull forever, just think when the inevitable move happens there will be other reasons for that.

    And as a regular follower... white letters on the dark background is very harsh on the eyes. I have to either read on my RSS reader page or copy and paste the text to notepad. I think dark background is good for a photo gallery but not the best for a text dominant webpage. My mere suggestion though. :-)

    1. Thanks very much for your kind words, glad you enjoyed reading it. Thanks also for being a regular reader :)

      I make no claim to have inside track on what Vettel's thinking! But still, I wonder if desire for a new challenge or similar may start to enter his thinking (as well as the thinking of others at Red Bull, indeed we're already seeing one or two engineers leave). It often is the way of these things.

      On the colours point, one person commented on that too a little while ago. I might therefore look at alternative colour schemes.

    2. Looks nice! Thanks for being attentive to an odd guest's request. :)

    3. No problem. You were absolutely right if the feedback I've got on the colour scheme change so far is a guide. I also was directed towards this article that also backs up your point: