Here’s a no-spoiler warning. In this post about where Sebastian Vettel fits into the pantheon of great F1 champs, I am not going to tell you where I think Sebastian Vettel fits into the pantheon of great F1 champs.
Because I don’t know. No one knows.
But I am going to tell you that, however you might feel about the extraordinary overachieving young man — and especially if you are still carrying a proxy grudge on Mark Webber’s behalf — you need to get over it, because Sebastian Vettel is one of the very best. If not (read this next bit sotto voce…) THE very best.
Statistics don’t come in to it, however impressive Vettel’s might be. Statistics don’t allow an appropriate appreciation of the talent of Jim Clark or Ayrton Senna or Jochen Rindt. Their ruthlessness barely acknowledges Stefan Bellof or Francois Cevert.
There’s no statistical formula in the world that can draw any equivalence between the Lancia-Ferrari in which Juan Fangio won his fourth title and Vettel’s Red Bull RB9 (nor, for that matter, the Ferrari F2001 in which Michael Schumacher won his).
And the very rate Vettel is racking up his championships (four now, in case you really did mess up putting your clock back), race wins (36), pole positions (43) and fastest laps (21) since his race debut in 2007 almost renders statistical comparisons invalid in itself. There’s clearly something special happening here. But what?
You might argue that the ‘something special’ is the increasingly adorable geekiness of Adrian Newey, but if you insist on attributing success to Newey’s French curves then you must necessarily dismiss championships from Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and, rather more significantly, Alain Prost and Mika Häkkinen.
Häkkinen, you may recall, was the only other driver Michael Schumacher ever really acknowledged as being close to his own level. Interestingly, in interviews over the weekend, Schumacher now seems to recognise Vettel not just as his eventual, but also his rightful, heir.
He is, after all, only 26. He has at least six more years at the top of his game and, according to Christian Horner this weekend, Vettel might continue to get better over at least three of those seasons. Imagine, then, Vettel at the age of 30 (two years younger than Fernando Alonso is now) at the height of his powers, with five, six or seven titles under his belt, and able to pick whichever car he wishes to drive. Realistically Schumacher’s records don’t stand a chance.
But we’ve said already it’s not those stats that mark him out. I was accused yesterday of being something of a rookie. Not quite. I have been watching F1 since 1976. I saw the end of Lauda’s career and the start of Prost’s. I was there at Silverstone the day Gilles Villeneuve raced an F1 car for the first time. I sat open-jawed at Senna in Monte Carlo in 1984, having watched him race first-hand in British F3. I saw how fast Piquet could be, how ballsy Mansell was and I’ve sat through both of Michael Schumacher’s careers, not just the second.
And I have always maintained that, extremely early in their F1 careers, the real greats do something that grabs everyone’s attention. Every driver I mentioned in the paragraph above did that. Did something someone so new should not be able to do in the unfamiliar and ruthless environment of F1 and an F1 car. Sebastian Vettel did that on his debut in the Sauber BMW in 2007, and a year later in the Minardi (aka Toro Rosso) when he won his first race. He’s not stopped since.
In fact, I would go as far as saying everything he’s done in F1 is part of this pattern. It’s the brass neck of youth still rubbing up the establishment the wrong way. That’s why you will find many — myself included — struggling sometimes to warm to Vettel.
But underestimate him at peril to your own reputation. He’s still growing. He’s getting better and better and better. I think there is every chance, maybe a decade from now, it will be Schumacher who will consider himself honoured to be mentioned in the same sentence as Vettel, and the name of Senna even will no longer be regarded as the mark against which F1 champs will measure their greatness.