A tribute to man-machine integration

The champion driver and those who drove him... Red Bull's technical chief Adrian Newey, Sebastian Vettel and Team Principal Christian Horner.-Pics. AP

Simply put, Vettel in a Red Bull car is irresistible. His superb drive in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where he finished third after starting from the pit-lane, and the manner in which he paced himself in the Brazilian Grand Prix after being knocked over in the first lap lends handsomely to the romance of the world champion and his record-breaking feat, writes G. Raghunath.

By the time the Formula One party had arrived at the Buddh International Circuit (Greater Noida) for the inaugural Indian Grand Prix in 2011, Sebastian Vettel (24 years 99 days) had already sewed up his second successive world title to become the youngest back-to-back world champion, displacing Fernando Alonso (25 years 86 days). When one of the journalists at a press conference addressed by Alonso referred to Vettel’s feat, the Spaniard remarked that he was focussing on becoming the youngest triple world champion. He also threw down the gauntlet to his rival as to who among them would win the race to that mark of distinction.

It’s perhaps the best possible advertisement for the sport that these two exemplary drivers should actually battle it out for that honour in 2012, with the contest tantalisingly going down to the final race of the season in Brazil. To a large section of F1 buffs, it wasn’t about Ferrari versus Red Bull, but a colossal showdown between two of the finest drivers on the circuit they admired most — the men who baulked at nothing, the ones who truly believed that the title race wasn’t over until it was actually over and gave it their all. Much as the fans wished for a Vettel victory, they just didn’t have the heart to witness an Alonso failure. While Vettel inspired awe among the fans with a resurgent drive in the second half of the championship, Alonso commanded respect from a legion of F1 enthusiasts for driving a recalcitrant Ferrari almost to the doorstep of championship victory. If only the rules of the sport had permitted, they would have loved to see both crowned world champions.

Disappointed Alonso was, but bitter he was not. He rated 2012 as the best season of his career. “I’m so proud and I’m so happy to fight until the last lap with the package we have in our hands. That is the best thing for me, to feel proud of myself. It was by far the best season of my career and I will remember this 2012 like some dream season,” said the Ferrari driver after the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Vettel becoming the youngest triple world champion, a record hitherto held by the legendary driver from Brazil, Ayrton Senna, should hasten the Red Bull driver’s anointment as one of the greats in the sport, whatever the arguments the critics may have against him. His achievement, after all, puts him in the exalted company of Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as the only drivers to have landed three successive world titles.

Last year, experts such as the former F1 driver, Gerhard Berger, hinted at the dawn of what he called ‘The Vettel era’. Going by the German’s run so far, one can’t be faulted for suspecting that we are already into it.

Since the time he got into an F1 car as test driver for BMW-Sauber (see box), Vettel has been doing things he is very good at: breaking records and proving the naysayer wrong.

I'm, so proud and I’m so happy to fight until the last lap with the package we have in our hands. That is the best thing for me, to feel proud of myself. It was by far the best season of my career and I will remember this 2012 like some dream season. -- Fernando Alonso-

Some simply refuse to hand it to Vettel, arguing that he isn’t exactly the champion that he is perceived to be and that it would have been a completely different story had the German not been in a car as powerful and dominant as the Red Bull. And the way he drove the far from competitive car of one of the back-marking teams, Scuderia Toro Rosso, to his maiden victory (it was also the Italian team’s first victory) in the 2008 Italian Grand Prix hardly seemed to influence their judgement.

The pivotal role played by Adrian Newey, popularly known as ‘The Genius’ in the circuit, in Red Bull’s success cannot be disputed. The chief technical officer’s upgrades and aerodynamic packaging have been matchless. For instance, the refurbished rear suspension set-up of the RB8 and its smartened-up ‘Double DRS’ system were a masterstroke by the man, who has the credit of designing championship-winning cars for three different teams (Williams, McLaren and Red Bull). The updates galvanised Red Bull after the summer break as Vettel came back roaring with four successive victories, beginning with the Singapore Grand Prix.

But to undermine Vettel’s role in his team’s success would be very unfair. As the Red Bull principal, Christian Horner, told The Guardian, “It is very simplistic to say it is all about Adrian Newey. Yes, it’s Adrian’s team but you have to have all of the elements doing their bit. I liken it to a conductor — you can have the greatest conductor in the world but if you haven’t got the right string instruments or wind instruments, the music will be rubbish.”

Simply put, Vettel in a Red Bull car is irresistible. His superb drive in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where he finished third after starting from the pit-lane, and the manner in which he paced himself in the Brazilian Grand Prix after being knocked over in the first lap lends handsomely to the romance of the world champion and his record-breaking feat.

Some of the former greats are reluctant to assign Vettel the legendary status, saying he managed to win only because he was with a top team that offered him a top-class car. The three-time world champion, Jackie Stewart, is among them. “To really show you’re one of the greatest, you have to deliver when you haven’t got the best machinery. I have the highest respect for Sebastian, but he could not have achieved what he has without the (Red Bull design chief) Adrian Newey factor,” BBC quoted the ‘Flying Scot’ as saying.

But that is one of the few foibles of being associated with a front-running team. It happened to Michael Schumacher in the past (critics maintain he would never have had that dominant run between 2000 and 2004 had he not been with a team as powerful as Ferrari). Now it’s happening to Vettel. This is something the youngest winner of three successive world titles has to accept like a curse.

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ESSENTIAL VETTEL

2006 Turkish Grand Prix: At 19 years 53 days, he is the youngest driver at a Grand Prix. Incidentally, on his debut run as a test driver for BMW-Sauber, the German sets the fastest time in Friday’s Free Practice. A fortnight later, he would set the fastest times in FP 1 and 2 in the run-up to the Italian Grand Prix.

2007 United States Grand Prix: At 19 years 349 days he becomes the youngest driver in Formula One to score points. Driving for BMW-Sauber, he finishes eighth to score one point.

2008 Italian Grand Prix: Driving for Scuderia Toro Rosso, at 21 years 72 days, he becomes the youngest driver to win pole position. His victory in the race makes him the youngest Grand Prix winner at 21 years 73 days.

2009 British Grand Prix: At 21 years 353 days, he becomes the youngest driver to score a triple — pole position, race victory and fastest lap.

2010: At 23 years 135 days, he becomes the youngest Formula One world champion.

2011 Japanese Grand Prix: At 24 years 99 days, he becomes the youngest back-to-back world champion.

2011 Indian Grand Prix: At 24 years 119 days, he becomes the youngest driver to score a Grand Chelem — pole position, race win, fastest lap and lead every lap.

2012: At 25 years 145 days, he becomes the youngest triple world champion.