Vettel's telling surge

Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany plays with a Formula One simulator at the Monaco racetrack. Vettel is well beyond simulators and shows a healthy interest to all aspects of the F1 show.-AP

Sebastian Vettel, who at 23 years and 134 days became the youngest world champion last year, has launched an offensive of the intensity of Michael Schumacher in 2004, in the defence of his crown, finishing on the podium in all the seven races run so far. He has won five of them and finished second in the rest. Which, in effect, means a whopping 161 points out of a possible 175 for the Red Bull Racing (RBR) driver, and a distended lead of 60 points over the second-placed Button. Over to G. Raghunath.

In 2004 Michael Schumacher of Ferrari, in one of his most compelling performances, subverted a distinguished field that included three drivers of undeniable talent — Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, who would each go on to claim the world championship in the succeeding years — to win 12 of the first 13 races and sew up what would be his fifth successive world title and a record seventh overall (Schumacher won a total of 13 out of 18 races that season).

Seven years later, another German of prodigious talent, Sebastian Vettel, who at 23 years and 134 days became the youngest world champion last year, has launched an offensive of similar intensity in the defence of his crown, finishing on the podium in all the seven races run so far. He has won five of them and finished second in the rest. Which, in effect, means a whopping 161 points out of a possible 175 for the Red Bull Racing (RBR) driver, and a distended lead of 60 points over the second-placed Button. It's an advantage that would take some really painstaking efforts from the rivals to cancel out, even if it means there are still 12 races to go and 300 points (for the first place) to be had.

Vettel was unfortunate to have finished second behind a resurgent Button at the rain-drenched Canadian Grand Prix, just as he was unlucky a couple of months ago at the Chinese Grand Prix where his team's gamble of running on a two-stop strategy ended in agony as Lewis Hamilton, making three pit stops and riding on fresh tyres, sped through to the chequered flag.

But then, Vettel wouldn't be complaining about the second-place finishes considering the nerve-wracking circumstances in which the races were run.

About the same time last year, Vettel's was a completely different story: beleaguered by reliability issues, he was extremely unlucky in Bahrain and Melbourne in the first half of the season. (Ill-fortune would continue to dog him in the second half too. In Singapore, despite his car having the potential to overhaul the big guns, Vettel lost the race to Alonso on a crucial pit stop. And in South Korea, Vettel blew his engine in the closing stages of the race when he was leading.)

But throwing away races he should have won even driving at half his pace was quite baffling. In Istanbul (Turkish Grand Prix), the German gutted a potential Red Bull 1-2 finish by running straight into team-mate Mark Webber. A few races later, at Spa Francorchamps (Belgian Grand Prix), Vettel, driving like one who has been gripped by a mood to self-destruct, arrowed into Button, sending the McLaren driver out then and there. The RBR driver earned a drive-through penalty for the incident; he also earned the nickname, ‘Crash Kid' – courtesy Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren CEO, who said, “Sebastian is getting into a bad habit. He is a crash kid.”

The moniker stuck until the last race of 2010, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where Vettel posted a famous victory to be crowned the world champion. Even those who refused to give the German his due, saying he was rather fortuitous to win at the Yas Marina Circuit — and thereby the world championship — as Ferrari had botched Alonso's pit stop, accepted that he had turned the corner as far as driving was concerned.

From ‘Crash Kid' to world champion — that was some transformation. And helping him every step of the way was RBR, which, the driver proclaimed, after hoisting the world title last year, felt like his “real home.” So it isn't surprising that Vettel has developed a healthy work ethic at RBR.

The way he has begun the defence of his title this season, Vettel seems to be in some kind of urgency to authenticate his status as the world champion. He is now a competitor with a different mind-set, and he has shown a maturity far beyond his years. For instance, his handling of the Pirelli ‘options' (super-soft and soft tyres), which have been abrading as easily and quickly as a block of cheese against a grater, has been commendable. It all springs from a confidence that is normally associated with a thoroughbred racer.

Adrian Newey, the chief designer of Red Bull, is a true admirer of Vettel. Speaking to ‘The Telegraph' of the UK, he said: “Vettel is a very bright lad who thinks a lot about what he is doing, and tries to learn from everything he does. Like some of the other greats, he will sit down in the evening and go through everything he has done that day, making notes, looking at it from every angle and trying to see how he can adapt things to suit his driving style.”

The chief technical officer of Team Lotus, Mike Gascoyne, went even further in praise of the young German. “It was very clear to me, early on, that Sebastian could cope. Fernando Alonso was exactly the same, and Michael Schumacher. It's not all about driving quickly. So many guys can drive quickly but they can't do all the other things. They can't work with the engineers, they can't think about what's going on when they're in the cockpit because they're too busy driving,” he told ‘The Guardian'.

“The really good ones, the great ones, have time. They have the capacity to think of other things while they're driving flat out. That's what makes the champions.”

So, he would like to believe that the world championship this year is Vettel's to lose. “If I had any money, I wouldn't be betting on anyone else,” Gascoyne said.

Newey himself has played a vital role in the success of Vettel and RBR. It's around this designer from the old school — he still prefers pencils and set-squares to sketch designs of RBR cars on a paper — that the team has been built. His upgrades and aerodynamic packaging have proved to be a cinch.

For the record, Newey, called ‘The Genius' in the Formula One circuit, has designed cars that have won 121 races (up to the Canadian Grand Prix of 2011), six drivers' championships and seven manufacturers' titles. Besides, he is the only one to have designed championship-winning cars for three different teams — Williams, McLaren and RBR.

It's quite atypical that the giants of the game, Ferrari and McLaren, have been reduced to playing the bridesmaid in a season of blue and red wash. While Ferrari is still grappling with issues pertaining to tyres, McLaren's problem appears to be a lot more complex as a reported machine failure at its factory in Woking (Surrey), England, has delayed upgrades to its cars.

However, as Hamilton proved in Shanghai (Chinese Grand Prix) — he almost missed the race after a loose fuel line flooded his engine; he then went on to win the race after starting third — and Button in Montreal (Canadian Grand Prix), McLaren is still capable of putting up a stiff challenge if not completely stopping Vettel in his tracks. For that matter, even Alonso showed in Monaco recently what a perfectly loaded Ferrari is capable of.

McLaren's greatest threat, though, could be from within. More specifically, Lewis Hamilton's impulsiveness, a glimpse of which one had in Montreal. With the track conditions rendered treacherous by sharp showers, and visibility very poor, wheel-to-wheel racing was simply out of place. Yet, Hamilton threw caution to the winds, and paid the penalty.

Impetuosity in sport is like crime — it never pays.