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Sebastian Vettel and his second job

  1. Five days before we meet, Sebastian Vettel won his fourth F1 world championship. On… the… trot. His mood, at the risk of stating the obvious, is good. He mucks about a bit. Not enough to waste his unbelievably precious contractually obliged sponsor time, but just enough to soften the brittle atmosphere permeating the retinues that surround him. Even allowing for the factor that people are more likely to laugh at your jokes when you’re a four-time world champion, Vettel is funny and good company and in no way intimidating.

    But beneath the relaxed sunniness lurks a slight bewilderment. He’s just 26, which means in his early grands prix he was racing against his boyhood heroes in their later careers. And now he’s beaten almost all their achievements. The paradox frets away at him: his logical mind knows he can now be counted among the all-time greats, and yet he just doesn’t feel that way. Part of him just feels like a kid, a lucky newcomer. Perhaps he wants to stay like that, just to avoid the crushing weight of expectation. Schumacher won seven championships to Vettel’s four, and while no one is betting against his overtaking that tally, Vettel himself would far rather avoid the issue by politely claiming to be living in the moment. Anyway, it’s all arid territory for interviews, because pretty well any and all questions about his motor racing have been asked a million times before.

    No bother. I’m not here to ask him about the day job. It’s his moonlighting for Infiniti that interests us today. The business card, if he actually had one, would read “Infiniti Director of Performance”. The job spec is to drive Infinitis during their development and suggest how they might be made better for the driver.

    Photography: Mark Bramley

    This feature was originally published in the 2013 Awards issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Which sounds like PR cobblers. Racing drivers do a lot of messaging for their sponsors. Vettel could never credibly express what brand of shoes, jeans or wee-coloured energy drink he preferred, because his shirt is a billboard for the corporations who bankroll his sporting endeavours. So it’s pointless to ask whether he thinks Infiniti’s cars are worth driving. But quite aside from all that, sorting a semi-luxury compact saloon is surely poles apart from sorting a racecar. And anyway, how can he find the time for a more than symbolic stab at it?

    Even though this is supposed to be a quiet day for him, there are seven or eight TV crews following his every move. To escape, we jump in the Q50 V6 for the interview. It’s got five video cameras suckered to the glass, recording his every move and word. Even so, two PRs - his own and one from Infiniti - install themselves in the back seat, each of them also recording the conversation. Such is life when you’re him. “There are too many people in the car,” he grins. It’ll mess up the car’s weight distribution. “See, I’ve got my excuses lined up already.”

    OK, but why be defensive of the Q50? How much did he really do? “You have to understand I didn’t have hundreds of days developing the car and giving feedback. But I drove the car once in Japan, getting to know it, and there were some things I didn’t like. I told the engineers, and they weren’t too happy about it. But they changed it afterwards.” The changes were confirmed by Infiniti Red Bull F1 reserve driver Sébastien Buemi. “He was working on the Nordschleife. The final product is in my opinion better than what I drove in Japan.”

  3. OK, so what needed changing?

    “I wasn’t happy with the brake pedal or the steering feel. A couple of things.” Surely, as a demonstrably extraordinary driver, he wants different things from a car than I do? “When I talk about brakes or steering, I work with them in Formula One, and they’re things that make me feel safe. Those two things give you direct feedback, and I thought the way they responded didn’t make you feel safe, and that’s the most important thing. If you feel confident, you can go quick - without going bananas - you feel in control, which feels safer.” So maybe he is looking for what we civilians want. Maybe the car is better than it was.

    But the Vettel definition of “going bananas” is probably different from yours or mine. Certainly feels that way as he hammers the Q50 around, his conversation as relaxed as if we were in the pub. But he talks a realistic game. “This is not a Porsche 911 or Nissan GT-R. Not an ultimate driving machine. It’s a normal car. But if you want to have some fun, you can change the settings and that actually does something. It’s a decent car; it behaves nicely.”

    Within the limits of the genre: “I’m not trying to make it an F1 car. I don’t want this car set up in the way that I’d prefer. It would be way too nervous. Maybe quicker round the track, but of course you have to keep some understeer - like you see here.” The tyres beneath us howl in the torture of it all. “It’s hard for me to make this car oversteer. The diff doesn’t lock properly, and it’s set up for understeer.”

  4. Things move even further from Formula One with the next big Infiniti road-car project, the Q30 front-drive diesel hatch. “It’s still early days, but we did some testing after Monaco. I’m happy if I can help a bit.” Timescales aren’t F1-like, either. “A road car takes a long time to develop. In Formula One, if I ask for a change, it happens straightaway, or you finish second. And [on road cars] the engineers don’t do everything I want. One thing for sure is cost. Otherwise, it would explode the budget. And I’d love to have a race seat in every car, but that would make getting in and out a nightmare, so there’s all sorts of reasons. You need to meet the average, not just my taste - you want everybody to be happy.”

    Even so, it must be an impossible leap for a man of Vettel’s one-in-a-million-million talent to climb inside the minds and skills of normal drivers. Even if most F1 racers don’t even like driving on the road, he says he does: “I prefer driving over a train or plane. If it’s a nice car, I enjoy it. Hand on heart, I don’t obey all speed limits all the time, but I’m fairly relaxed. You don’t go flat out all the time. So I tell the Infiniti guys I’m a normal customer, a normal 26-year-old. People assume an F1 driver has a Porsche or Ferrari. Well, I’ve got a high-performance machine on the weekend. Everything else you can buy, honestly, is… s**t.”

    Even the mighty Top Gear Suzuki Liana? “Yes, but I need to come back because Lewis went quicker, Mark went quicker.” Good grief, is there no limit to these guys’ competitiveness? “Of course, I’m competitive. We’re just kids with bigger toys.”

  5. If he hasn’t bought Porsches or Ferraris, examining his road-car history might at least give us some clue to his tastes, what characteristics he’s looking for. Sadly not. He’s never had to buy a car, because as soon as he was old enough for a driving licence, he was being showered with them by the manufacturers in whose racecars he was winning championships. “I was spoiled. I got a company car when I was 18, a BMW X3. The car I bought was a BMW bus.” Oh. Explain that. “It’s practical. Just for putting the bike in the back and so on. It’s freedom. Anyway, I can keep it, because Infiniti don’t make a competitor.”

    Still, he genuinely does seem to enjoy putting in his two penn’orth. “It’s nice to meet the people, get to know the brand.” A day with those earnest Infiniti road engineers must, after all, be a nice escape from his round of perma-polite sponsor days? “Yes, for sure. Talking about cars is always better than ‘How do you like the shoes?’”

    So does he really drink Red Bull? “Yes.” The grin widens a little more. A shrug. “What do you expect me to say? I do. But at the end of last week, it was mixed with other things.”

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