Insatiable appetite for titles

Sebastian Vettel.. sky is the limit.-Pics: RAJEEV BHATT

Michael Schumacher’s 13 victories in a season and Alberto Ascari’s nine successive victories in a season, are within the grasp of Sebastian Vettel, who has scored 10 wins so far this year, six of them in succession. Given Vettel’s irresistible form, and with three more races to go, there is every reason to believe the two marks will be matched. Will that be enough then to qualify Vettel as one of the legends of Formula One, asks G. Raghunath.

So, it all seemed very easy in the end, Sebastian Vettel winning his fourth successive World Drivers’ Championship, with three Grands Prix still to be completed. (It is not the first time though that the Red Bull driver has sealed the World Championship even before the season had run out — he did it in 2011 with four races remaining.) However, when you thoroughly analyse Vettel’s fourth triumphant season, the intensity of the challenges and the enervating pressures he has had to face and the adversities in which Red Bull Racing had to work to build him a car that is every team’s envy comes through clearly.

The 26-year-old German would be booed at several Grands Prix; some, including a former world champion, would disparagingly term his victories as boring; his rivals would even suspect him of benefiting from illegal driver aids during his run of victories that began at the Belgium Grand Prix after the summer break. Now, that isn’t exactly a pleasant situation to be in, especially when one is a multiple world champion with an insatiable appetite for titles.

But Vettel kept a stiff upper lip and summarily dismissed the heckling, the origin of which can be traced to the Malaysian Grand Prix earlier in the season where the Red Bull driver refused to obey his team’s command to hold station and overtook team-mate Mark Webber to win the race, as envious reactions to his success. “Some people like what we do, some people don’t. If they boo, it’s a compliment — that’s the way I take it, they are jealous because I win. As long as they keep booing we’re doing a very good job, that’s the way I see it,” he said after yet another crowd eruption at the Singapore Grand Prix.

That wasn’t all. The rumblings in the paddock — which threatened to touch such high decibel levels as to even drown the roars of the engines — at the end of the Singapore Grand Prix, where Vettel scored a fluent victory, very nearly took the sheen off the German’s stupefying second-half performance this season. A few drivers and even some ‘experts’ suspected that Vettel was being boosted by traction control that had been outlawed since 2009.

Traction control inhibits rear wheel-spin, especially on the curves, even as the car cruises at high speeds. And here was Vettel negotiating the turns with aplomb and at staggering speeds, a reason enough for his detractors to suspect foul play.

Fernando Alonso, who had pursued Vettel persistently in a majority of the races but without any realistic chance of overhauling him, came to his rival’s rescue though. “They are using something different compared to the other teams, but something that is completely okay. Red Bull Racing pass all the checks every race, so it is up to us to do a better job,” the Ferrari driver said. That was indeed a significant point scored for Vettel in his defence.

Not many teams have faced such examinations and a slew of enquires as Red Bull has ever since it started turning the F1 grid upside-down. That is the price a team or a driver has to pay for success in the dog eat dog world of F1.

Vettel is among a rare breed of drivers with amazing skills. His ability to close throttle later than his rivals and step on the gas pedal earlier than them while entering and exiting a corner, combined with the marvellous aero designs of Adrian Newey (his ingenious method of blowing the exhaust to parts where maximum downforce can be achieved is still a mystery to others) have made Red Bull the team that it is — a front-runner and the one to beat.

For Vettel the last four seasons, strangely, have been essentially about disproving fastidious critics, who weren’t willing to acknowledge his skills and excellence as one of the finest drivers of the modern era. He was thought of as a driver who could only win from the front row. However, his breath-taking manoeuvre against Fernando Alonso in the Italian Grand Prix of 2011 and his plucky fight from the back of the grid following a collision with Bruno Senna in the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, where he finished sixth to beat Alonso to the title, served as perfect answers to the German’s hecklers. And the manner in which he nursed the highly degrading tyres, race after race, to win the 2011 title was proof of Vettel’s precocious talent.

Some might suggest it is easy to drive for a top team like Red Bull, which has won four World Constructors’ Titles on the trot. It can’t get any more cynical than this. If this postulation holds any truth, then Webber should have won at least half the number of races that Vettel has, if not more.

Sebastian Vettel celebrates with the Red Bull chief design engineer Adrian Newey on the podium after winning the Indian Grand Prix.-

Just as Michael Schumacher had rallied the entire Ferrari team around him and created the right kind of atmosphere in the paddock that saw the Prancing Horse rule the circuit like no other team had done before, Vettel has helped build a dominant car at Red Bull with his dedication and determination to win each time he went out on the track.

“A driver’s interest at the end of the day is in himself; he has to have a large element of selfishness, ruthlessness. All the top sportsmen and women in all the major sports have that quality. Whether it is Roger Federer, whether it’s Valentino Rossi, they all have that desire, burning ambition within them, that propels them to achieve the things that they are doing and Sebastian is absolutely no different to that,” said the Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, of the champion driver.

If it is necessary that the numbers should supplement skill and talent in defining a true champion, Vettel has nearly all of them (see box). In addition, his victory in the Indian Grand Prix recently put Vettel in the exalted company of drivers who have won more than four world titles — Schumacher (7), Juan Manuel Fangio (5) and Alain Prost (4). He is only the third driver in history after Fangio and Schumacher (he won five in succession) to win four world titles in succession; and he is also the youngest to do so.

Two other records, Schumacher’s 13 victories in a season and Alberto Ascari’s nine successive victories in a season, are within the grasp of Vettel, who has scored 10 wins so far this year, six of them in succession. Given Vettel’s irresistible form, and with three more races to go, there is every reason to believe the two marks will be matched.

Will that be enough then to qualify Vettel as one of the legends of Formula One?

* * * RECORD-BREAKER Most podium finishes in a season: 17 (2011) Most pole positions in a season: 15 (2011)

Most consecutive Grand Chelems: 2 (2013 Singapore Grand Prix & 2013 Korean Grand Prix)

Youngest driver to drive in a Grand Prix: 19 years, 53 days (August 25, 2006 — Turkish Grand Prix)

Youngest driver to score points in Formula One: 19 years, 349 days (June 17, 2007 — United States Grand Prix)

Youngest driver to win pole position in a Grand Prix: 21 years, 72 days (September 13, 2008 — Italian Grand Prix)

Youngest driver to win a Grand Prix: 21 years, 73 days (September 14, 2008 — Italian Grand Prix)

Youngest driver to score a double (pole position and race win): 21 years, 73 days (September 14, 2008 — Italian Grand Prix)

Youngest driver to score a triple (pole position, race win and fastest lap): 21 years, 353 days (June 21, 2009 — British Grand Prix)

Youngest driver to score a Grand Chelem (pole position, win, fastest lap and lead every lap): 24 years, 119 days (October 30, 2011 — Indian Grand Prix)

Youngest driver to win the World Drivers’ Championship: 23 years, 135 days (2010 season)

Youngest driver to win back-to-back world drivers’ title: 24 years

Youngest driver to win three world titles: 25 years

Youngest driver to win four world titles: 26 years