My opinion: Sebastian Vettel

Sebastian Vettel was presented with a Laureus World Sports Award yesterday – something he has proclaimed to be ‘one of the most special trophies’ he has ever received. Many of my followers have contacted me, requesting my opinion.

Let’s start with the basic & obvious; his significant achievements. Sebastian Vettel is one of only 4 drivers to have achieved World Champion status 4 or more times. He is also the youngest World Champion in Formula 1 history – taking his maiden title in 2010, aged 23.

Since moving to the Red Bull team in 2009, Vettel is yet to experience any occasion in which the team has failed to provide him with a superior and reliable car for any significant period of time. Despite his cars’ superiority being far from a secret, it may come as a surprise to many F1 fans that Vettel’s current tally of 39 wins is quickly approaching equalling Ayrton Senna’s 41 highly regarded triumphs. Would, or indeed should we therefore consider Sebastian Vettel to be of a comparable caliber?

Of Vettel’s 39 wins, 27 have been achieved from the front grid slot. A testament to his blisteringly quick one lap pace? Perhaps. But perhaps just as likely evidence of the fact he lacks racecraft and often struggles in wheel to wheel situations.

There is no doubting Vettel’s speed, no. I would not hesitate in placing him second or third when ranking the grid in accordance to sheer pace – behind Lewis Hamilton. My main gripe with Seb is however the fact that he is yet to be truly tested. There are two scenarios in which Sebastian Vettel can answer there questions and be ‘tested’ – the first method would be to battle face to face with a top team mate (just like we could, perhaps should have seen this year with Kimi Raikkonen at Red Bull – which Vettel vetoed…) whilst the second option would be to labour away in a poor car (much like Fernando Alonso in 2012-13) and carry that car to victories and put it on podiums it frankly should not be on. I think too many people make a big deal of the fact he won’t move teams. I mean, the team has given him 4 titles in 5 years – can you blame him? I would certainly be reluctant to leave. In my eyes, it doesn’t matter which team produce a poor car for him. If he wins in a slow Red Bull, it would be just as eye opening and career defining as doing the same job in a Mercedes, Ferrari or McLaren. What does matter is that he does do it.

Why? Because 1 world title won against the odds, in a head to head battle with someone who perhaps has better machinery than you, is worth far, far more kudos and respect than 4 or 5 or 6 world championships in cars that frankly would be insulted if their pilot finished anywhere else.

Yes, I understand that to a certain extent Vettel’s first title in 2010 was won under similar circumstances to those mentioned above; Ferrari & McLaren both had their moments that season, and even Mercedes looked good at times, but Sebastian Vettel was not the star of the Red Bull show that year, or at least not for the right reasons. Vettel trailed his team mate for the entire season – only taking the title lead in the final race. Mark Webber was universally recognised as Red Bull’s title contender that year. Yet the team seemed intent on changing that and aiding Vettel. In Turkey, when Webber took pole over Vettel and was leading – the two collided, bringing their races to an end. The team did not choose to back the driver in front, instead defending the clumsy 23 year old. Both were read the riot act by team boss Christian Horner, but Vettel no doubt was tweaked behind the ear afterwards, rather than the daggers through Webber’s back thereafter. Similarly, when Vettel’s front wing collapsed at the British Grand Prix, the team chose to punish the innocent Webber and gift his version of the upgrade to Vettel – giving him pole by the smallest of margins.

Ultimately the title did go to Vettel. In all honesty, I would say he took it deservedly. Throughout the entire season, he chipped away at Webber’s advantage (both points and performance wise) until by the end of the season there was a clear marked difference in quality between the two. This would mark the last time Vettel would be a championship underdog.

What about Vettel’s two most emphatic championship victories? 2011 and 2013 were a precession. The RB7 and RB9 clearly and comfortably exceeded Red Bull’s competitors. Of the 25 wins the two Bulls took, 24 belonged to Vettel, with Webber’s sole victory owing to Vettel nursing a gearbox fault whilst leading in Brazil.
Vettel dominated both seasons in similar style to his idol – Michael Schumacher. I am reluctant to compare the two, mostly because I hold Schumacher in such high regard. Nonetheless, Schumacher’s team mate was of comparable quality to Vettel’s, yet he was able to steal a couple of victories if his superior team mate happened to be off form. This simply is not the case with Vettel and Webber.

There have been questionable moments in Vettel’s career; his tantrums during Abu Dabhi 2012, Multi 21 antics and team mate collisions – the former being of the most interest to me. Small cracks seem to appear in Vettel’s otherwise silky smooth veneer of perfection when he is placed in a position or scenario in which he is under pressure, perhaps pressed by a rival. Perhaps this means he therefore lacks the ice cool demeanour of even more successful greats like Schumacher and Prost. If Vettel does therefore find himself in one of the positions we long to see him in (poor car, challenging team mate or other controversy) he may not prove strong enough to overcome the odds.

Sometimes Vettel’s attitude disgusts me, if I’m honest. In Formula 1, you take victories with your team, and accept failures with your team too; you are in it together – a concept Vettel appears to fail to grasp on occasion. At this year’s season opener in Melbourne, Vettel appeared agitated by the RB10’s lack of pace – and in my eyes had given up before the car had. There are also stories of temper tantrums and refusal to drive the car during testing. Rather than congratulate Ricciardo, Vettel instead distanced himself, visibly miffed, described the car as ‘poor’ and ‘unstable’ – if his nose is this easily put out of joint by someone of Ricciardo’s stature, how on earth can we expect him to win a head to head mental battle with someone as bulletproof as Alonso, Hamilton or Kimi?

I guess at the moment (and for as long as Red Bull continue to provide a premier level car and fail to partner ‘Seb’ with a big, bad team mate) it doesn’t matter – because Vettel is still taking poles, still standing on podiums, and still dominating championships.

To put it simply, Sebastian Vettel is a flawed champion, but a successful one. But we must remember he is only 26 years old. When Michael Schumacher was that age (1994/95) he was also a flawed champion – at that age they both demonstrate(d) blisteringly quick pace, natural winning nature and ruthless aggression, but both had a lot to learn. Vettel has a long way to go in his career. He could still be in F1 a decade from now. Is he the one of the greatest? No. Is he the best on the grid? Probably not. But I absolutely believe he has the capacity to be. Vettel was a better driver at the end of 2013 than he was in 2012 , and will be a better driver at the end of 2014 than he was in 2013 – he is still learning and improving.

To conclude, on his day Sebastian Vettel is brilliant. He might not be able to beat Hamilton to pole, or race the wheels off of a shopping trolley like Alonso – but he can and will win amazingly, in an amazing car, and at the moment that is all we can judge him on.

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