There cannot be a more polarising figure in Formula 1 today than Sebastian Vettel. He has been at the receiving end of booing fans at several races this year. But at the same time, according to Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner, Sebastian Vettel merchandise flies off the shelves like you wouldn’t believe.
By the same token, there are many people who reject the idea that Vettel’s phenomenal success might be down to talent or skill. Considering he has won three World Drivers’ Championships, and is on the verge of clinching his fourth, a surprising number of people come up with a long list of explanations why it’s all just the world’s biggest fluke.
Most of those explanations are bunk. In fact, I am seriously considering whether Sebastian Vettel might be the greatest driver the sport has ever seen.
The youngest ever champion – with three on the bounce
Sebastian Vettel’s list of achievements is so long that the fact that he is the youngest champion in F1 history is a bit of a footnote. In a way, it was merely a continuation of a trend that has seen young drivers become better prepared during their rise to F1. Vettel was the third person in six years to become the youngest ever champion, following Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton.
But what sets Vettel apart from Alonso and Hamilton is the fact that he has kept on going. Alonso won two world championships in a row. And while he has remained a strong driver, he has never yet won a third. Where we stand today, Alonso has failed to reach his potential. Meanwhile, Hamilton won his one championship, and has not truthfully ever come close to winning his second.
When Alonso and Hamilton fizzled away, Vettel just kept on going and going. And he shows no sign of stopping. Not only is he the youngest ever world champion, but by winning three in a row he placed himself among nine most successful drivers ever, at the age of just 25. If he wins a fourth championship, he will be in the top four, alongside Alain Prost, Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher.
If he wins a fourth in a row he will be only the third person in history to do so, after Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher. When Schumacher achieved that, he was 34 years old. Fangio was 46 (although it was a very different era indeed). Vettel would be 26.
Much more than Baby Schumi
People often compare Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher. This makes sense from a statistical point of view. In terms of numbers, Schumacher is the man to beat, and Vettel is the first person who has ever looked like he could beat him.
But I think Sebastian Vettel’s achievements tower far and above Schumacher’s.
“Multi 21” – no team orders
The first thing to point out is that Michael Schumacher always benefited from team orders. The only exception was 1999, when he was ruled out of title contention after suffering a broken leg in a mid-season crash. Beyond that, every single decision made in both Benetton and Ferrari revolved around the needs of Michael Schumacher.
While many suspect Red Bull Racing of favouring Sebastian Vettel, the evidence for this is pretty scant. Let us not forget that the biggest controversy of Vettel’s career – the “multi 21” scandal at this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix – came about as a result of the German defying team orders to stay behind Mark Webber.
OK, so that happened very early on in the season. But Schumacher would never have been asked to stay behind his team mate. Remember Austria 2002, which was also early in the season. Rubens Barrichello grudgingly pulled over to let Schumacher past on the final corner of the race, having had the upper hand all weekend.
Besides, we all know that Mark Webber is a free spirit. He is not the sort of person to take team orders. Indeed, a cynic might suggest that he is actively assisting Fernando Alonso this season, such is his dislike for Sebastian Vettel. Webber certainly did not make things easy for the German in the final race last year, in Brazil.
Vettel’s dominance over his team mate
Mark Webber would not really play dirty. But even if he wanted to, he would not be able to. He simply is not fast enough to do anything that would detract from Sebastian Vettel’s championship charge.
Vettel’s success is not all down to the car
If Sebastian Vettel’s speed was all down to the car, why is Mark Webber not achieving similar results? Webber is an excellent driver with a great deal of experience. But Vettel is on another planet in comparison.
In Vettel’s three championship seasons so far, Red Bull Racing has had eight one–twos. In the past 12 months there have been just two.
Compare this to the years of Ferrari dominance in the 2000s. In Michael Schumacher’s first three championships with Ferrari, the team clinched 15 one–twos, almost twice as many as Red Bull Racing.
Across all five of Schumacher’s championships with Ferrari, 27% of all the races ended in a Ferrari one–two. Red Bull Racing have only achieved the same in 13% of races since 2010.
The Red Bull is a great car. But it provides nothing like the advantage that the Ferrari gave Michael Schumacher. If Vettel’s success is all down to the car, why did Mark Webber finish only sixth in last year’s Drivers’ Championship?
Vettel does not benefit from luck
I can already hear Sebastian Vettel’s detractors saying that it’s because Mark Webber gets all the bad luck. But the statistics simply do not back that up.
An analysis of issues affecting the Red Bull drivers shows that since 2009, both drivers have suffered from 33 mechanical issues. Vettel has had eight race-ending mishaps; Webber has had only three.
It might seem as though Mark Webber suffers from more bad luck. In reality, that perception is down to confirmation bias.
Vettel won in a Toro Rosso
The people that point to Sebastian Vettel’s car advantage are rather quiet on the topic of his first grand prix victory, in a Toro Rosso. His first victory was assured and dominant in challenging wet conditions. It was a true one-off for the Toro Rosso team, which just three years earlier had been Minardi, the likeable team that perennially brought up the rear of the field.
Toro Rosso’s next best result is two fourth places, both achieved by… Sebastian Vettel. The highest any other driver has finished in a Toro Rosso is sixth.
Red Bull Junior Team support
You might not yet be convinced. You could point out that Sebastian Vettel has a vital ally in Helmut Marko. No doubt this is true. But ask yourself why Marko is an ally.
Goodness knows, Helmut Marko does not stick by a driver just for the fun of it. His Red Bull Junior Team is famously ruthless when it comes to its drivers. The organisation is not shy of summarily dumping its drivers very quickly indeed if things are not going well.
The list of former Red Bull Junior Team drivers is unbelievably long. The organisation has no patience. It has sacked the likes of Brendon Hartley, Karun Chandhok, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Jaime Alguersuari — and that is just the tip of the iceberg. OK, so none of these drivers may have been championship material. But they all deserved better. With the right nurturing they could each have achieved so much more.
This year, rumours have been swirling about the future of António Félix da Costa on the basis that he has had a difficult half a season in Formula Renault 3.5. Da Costa is the lucky one — Lewis Williamson was sacked after just three weekends of Formula Renault 3.5 last year.
Sebastian Vettel made it through this pressure cooker environment not just unscathed, but with flying colours. He has earned his support from Helmut Marko.
Vettel’s achievements come in the “wacky races” era
There is another point about the comparison with Michael Schumacher. Not didn’t just have the entire Ferrari team revolved around him. His influence extended far beyond just his team.
Nowhere was this more true than with Bridgestone, who effectively provided bespoke tyres, virtually custom-made to Schumacher’s taste. All the other teams had to lump it. Schumacher had special tyres that were designed specifically to benefit him.
Sebastian Vettel has no such luxury. Quite the opposite. Vettel has to race with Pirelli tyres that are deliberately designed to under-perform. All the teams are given the same types of tyres, they have a limited number of sets, and they are designed to degrade quickly. Plus, the teams have to use both compounds of tyre during the race.
This is an era where drivers tiptoe around the circuit in sheer fear of losing tyre performance.
Engine and gearbox saving
Not only does Vettel need to save his tyres. He also needs to make sure that his engines and gearboxes last for multiple races. Schumacher did not have to worry about that.
That Vettel could win the Singapore Grand Prix by 33 seconds after a mid-race safety car while nursing a sick gearbox (and, incidentally, brake issues) speaks volumes for just how much pace he has in his pocket.
Vettel also has to race in the DRS era. DRS is designed deliberately to disadvantage the car in front. That Vettel is able to pull so far in front that he doesn’t usually suffer from it is a testament his ability to pull out an impressive lead very quickly.
Michael Schumacher also benefited from endless testing. If his Ferrari car wasn’t working, he could pound around the circuit in Ferrari’s back garden, test and test, gather more data, improve the car, rinse and repeat.
No such luck for Vettel. Nowadays, testing is severely limited. Teams take updates to races not really knowing if they will work in real life, and the data must be gathered in Friday practice sessions at the same time as preparing for the race weekend.
Vettel races cleanly
Through it all, Sebastian Vettel is a fair and clean racer. The “multi 21” incident may have been a bit naughty. But even though he was disobeying team orders, he remained clean in the way he went about passing Mark Webber.
Vettel tends not to make contact in wheel-to-wheel situations. Michael Schumacher’s tendency to barge people off or play dirty — such as parking his car at Rascasse — completely undermined his statistical achievements.
Ayrton Senna, too, was not averse to crossing the line if he felt he needed to. Sebastian Vettel has never felt that need. He has achieved his success while being a true sports person and maintaining respect for his rivals.
Vettel’s competition is extremely strong
Another notable record of Sebastian Vettel’s is that he is the only person in history to beat five other world champions. Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Räikkönen and Michael Schumacher were and are all formidable opponents in race winning cars. Vettel beat them all to the 2012 World Drivers’ Championship on merit.
Schumacher did not have anything like that level of competition up against him. OK, Mika Häkkinen gave him a run for his money for a few years. But beyond that, who were Schumacher’s biggest title rivals?
Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve will probably go down as two of the least capable champions of all time. With all due respect to them, they both had a major car advantage the like of which does not exist today.
In the 2000s, Schumacher’s strongest rivals were David Coulthard, Juan Pablo Montoya and his own brother Ralf Schumacher. He can’t exactly have been quaking in his boots.
“But he can’t overtake. And he can only win from pole.”
Incorrect. Simply incorrect.
Besides which, the fact that Sebastian Vettel is on pole position a lot says something about how good he is. It is not as though qualifying is decided on a lottery. Pole position is earned on merit, by being the quickest driver on the track.
“Vettel won’t be a true great until he wins a championship for another team”
What the actual flip?
Here is something I have never heard anyone ever say:
Ayrton Senna was OK. But of course he can never be considered a true great because he only ever won his championships with McLaren.
If anyone ever said that about Ayrton Senna, there would probably be effigies burning. So why do people slap each other on the back when they say it about Sebastian Vettel, who achieved as many championships with as many teams when he was still three years younger than Senna was when he won his first?
Let’s not forget that Sebastian Vettel is the driver who won a race in a Toro Rosso.
Sebastian Vettel has plenty of time left in his career to win championships for another team if he chooses to do so.
Through it all, Vettel seems down to earth
Despite his enormous success, Sebastian Vettel still comes across as easily one of the most likeable drivers on the grid. Yes, the “multi 21” scenario was a bit out of order. But we expect this sort of ruthlessness from racing drivers. It’s a vital part of what can give a great driver the edge over a good driver.
But off the track, Vettel comes across as one of the funniest, most down-to-earth drivers. It is a stark contrast to the aloof Michael Schumacher, the rude Kimi Räikkönen and the intense Fernando Alonso.
That’s real mental strength for you.
Is Vettel the greatest ever?
I don’t know if Sebastian Vettel is the greatest ever. Of course, any such judgement is purely subjective. Comparing different eras is notoriously difficult.
However, I do think that Sebastian Vettel is now the best driver in the current grid. And to compare him with Michael Schumacher — the most successful driver in Formula 1 history and a contemporary of Vettel’s — I feel that Vettel has a significant edge.
Vettel looks fully capable of beating Schumacher’s statistical achievements. And he is doing so without a lot of the luxuries that Schumacher had. Most impressively of all, he is doing it without the big bag of dirty tricks that Schumacher had.
Many thanks to @EnigmaF1 for pointing out that I failed to mention that Juan Manuel Fangio also won four World Championships in a row.