Formula one: Sebastian Vettel on cusp of greatness

Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing in his car during the first practice session for the United States Formula One Grand Prix. Picture: Getty
Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing in his car during the first practice session for the United States Formula One Grand Prix. Picture: Getty
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SHOULD the results converge in Sebastian Vettel’s favour in Austin this afternoon, and the young German win the Formula One Drivers’ Championship from Fernando Alonso in only his 100th Grand Prix, there will only be one question on commentators’ and drivers’ lips. Is Vettel the greatest F1 driver of all time?

In a sport that is so heavily dependent upon machinery, it’s impossible to be as objective as you could be with more conventional sports such as athletics, golf, tennis or football. Indeed, there are many on the grid who – notwithstanding what happens at the US Grand Prix today, the penultimate race of the championship – firmly believe that Alonso is still the better or the two drivers. Not least among them is former world champion Jacques Villeneuve, who yesterday launched a verbal assault on Vettel, accusing the German of buckling under pressure as if he was some sort of recidivist choker. Even Lewis Hamilton has weighed in, calling him “the luckiest driver in Formula One”.

Yet even his most ardent detractors are beginning to be less vocal about the Red Bull driver’s perceived shortcomings. That’s perhaps because the list of Vettel’s achievements is beginning to stack up, with experts like David Coulthard arguing that Vettel is now clearly on his way to establishing himself as the best that there has ever been.

Although Alonso is just ten points behind Vettel and remains bullish, there are plenty of good reasons to believe that Vettel can finish things off in Austin today.

After a major upgrade to his car at the end of September, the German has won four of the last five races and finished third in Abu Dhabi despite having started from the pitlane.

If Vettel can wrap up this year’s championship, he will become just the third driver to win three back-to-back championships, joining Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher. He will, however, have done it in double quick time. It took Schumacher 12 years to get his hat-trick, and Fangio did it after eight – Vettel, 25, will have achieved it in five.

Yet there is much more to Vettel’s remarkable array of achievements. After all, he replaced Lewis Hamilton as the youngest driver to win a championship in 2010 after announcing his prodigious talent by winning at Monza as a callow 21-year-old in a Toro Rosso, an achievement akin to winning Le Mans in an Austin Allegro.

Vettel is the youngest driver to have taken part in an official practice session of a Grand Prix, to score championship points, to lead a race, to secure pole position, and to win a race.

Were it not for the presence of Schumacher, the seven-times champion who bestrides the record books like a Teutonic colossus, securing a third straight championship would undoubtedly see Vettel already being talked about as the best of all time. But, while it’s easy to see why Schumacher – who won five titles in a row between 2000 and 2004 – is held in such esteem, there are many ways in which Vettel’s achievements compare favourably. For a start, Vettel has triumphed at a time when some of the greatest drivers of all time are competing. While Vettel has to deal with former champions like Alonso, Hamilton, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen, Schumacher didn’t face anywhere near such intense competition. Nor was the rivalry between teams as keen in Schumacher’s day: not only does Vettel operate in a team with a strong team-mate in Mark Webber, but big-spending Ferrari and McLaren are constantly snapping at Red Bull’s heels for raw speed. Contrast that to Schumacher’s Ferrari, which had a limitless budget, where Schumacher’s car rarely broke down and where there was no effective challenger.

For Vettel to win more than a quarter of his races, be on the podium in almost half and start over a third on pole (Schumacher won 91 of 305 starts and secured 155 podiums) is made all the more remarkable by the changes in regulations. Back in Schumacher’s day, the regulations meant that there was so little overtaking that races were effectively over by the last pit stop around the 40th lap. Vettel has had to race in an era when the regulations are designed to produce close racing, to encourage overtaking and to force the need for pit-stop strategy.

His detractors will say that he has had the fastest car for the past three years, but Vettel has still managed to comprehensively outqualify the highly-rated Webber. In practice in Texas on Friday, Vettel and Webber were the first and second fastest in both sessions, but Vettel was an incredible 1.4secs and then 0.757secs ahead of his team-mate.

Indeed, Vettel’s remarkable ability to get on to pole and then to win from there has been rivalled only by Jim Clark and Alberto Ascari. It was this ability which led him to utterly dominate last season, when he won six of the first eight races and won the title by 122 points from Button. This season he has been slower but far more consistent.

Were Vettel to leap to the head of F1’s pantheon of greatness today, there would be a neat symmetry. Five years ago he made his F1 debut in the US GP (in Indianapolis) where he qualified seventh and finished seventh. It was a stunning rookie performance which hinted at greatness. Today he has a chance to confirm that he has indeed become great. Few would bet against it.