Sebastian Vettel's boyish face breaks into its habitual grin as you ask him whether he is an emotional sort who cries at sappy movies, before being clouded by uncertainty. "There is one movie where I can't hold my tears: 'Life is Beautiful'. But usually I don't cry, happy or sad. So Abu Dhabi, when my engineer came on the radio... listening to that is a bit embarrassing because I'm crying and sound like a little girl..."
He starts to laugh, and you realise that despite becoming the youngest-ever winner of the world championship last year, this engaging 23-year-old from Germany's Heppenheim really has not changed despite all the pressure his success has heaped upon him. "Obviously it was a busy winter," he concedes, "especially after what happened in Abu Dhabi. A lot of requests and we did a lot of things, but we tried to manage that and we did quite well. For instance, when I came back home to Germany there were more than 10,000 people waiting and cheering. I was able to do a show run in Berlin. These things you don't get to do every day. I enjoyed them a lot. But I think there was nobody really expecting to see a different me or different behaviour."
He admits that a lot of things about being champion surprised him. "Returning to my home town and seeing how many people were waiting to give me a nice welcome was a big surprise. I think all those things were very special. It was an honour, and I was happy to do things because I was feeling good, and the people were giving me that good feeling."
Such was the maelstrom into which he was pitched after his last-race triumph that it took a while before the measure of his success really sank in.
"The Sunday night after the race I had no sleep because we had a bit of a celebration. Then the day after I went back by plane to Europe and then flew back out to Abu Dhabi for the testing, so there were a lot of things, quite tiring, with a lot of mileage. I think the first time that it really sank in was around mid-December when things calmed down a bit, after the prizegiving in Monaco where I was allowed to pick up my trophy. Seeing all these world champions' names on it, my name engraved as well... I think that was the time where it really sunk in and that I really understood what happened and what it means."
One of the turning points came after he had crashed into Jenson Button at Spa in Belgium, and then conducted an intensive self-assessment which set him up for a devastating late-season push to the top.
"The lesson was to focus on yourself, and surely there were certain things that I didn't like but at the same time I couldn't really change them. At the end of the day, I refocused and said to myself:'OK, what do you want?' And what I wanted at the time was to win the championship. But looking back it's not as if whatever happened before was a chaos or a drama. Sometimes things just go wrong and sometimes everyone can see them and sometimes no one can see them, but the most important thing is that you yourself understand what happened. Not to lie to yourself. You know you had a bad weekend, and then still blaming other things is not right. That could get you into something that is probably more difficult to get out of.
"Everyone is different and everyone has his own style. Some people like it, other people don't, but that's the way that life is, and the way I handle the situation is the way it works for me. Whatever it was, if I do a mistake I have no problem in popping my hand up and saying, 'OK, excuse me, I fucked up. I did a mistake'."
He cites the wet race at Fuji in 2007, when he crashed his Toro Rosso into Mark Webber's Red Bull behind the safety car. "I didn't do that on purpose, but it was my mistake. I was angry because first of all [it meant] I wasn't participating and it was a great chance at the time in a car that was not good enough for the position that we raced in, and I had this stupid mistake. And on top of that I took somebody else out who had nothing to do with the whole thing and cost him a good position as well, plus he was, yeah, in the sister team and we shared the same sponsor... So it was not a good thing, but, yeah, it happens. Trying to find excuses wouldn't have changed the situation."
With the first title under his belt, and time on his side, Vettel is tipped to "do a Schumacher" and win multiple crowns. But ask him what would satisfy him before he retires, and the grin returns. "My target is to win, that's why I'm here. I love driving the car and I'm very passionate about motorsport. But I need the competition, otherwise I would get bored. It's a difficult question to answer. If you are happy, it doesn't matter how many championships you won or what you have achieved, so long as you are happy. Some people are happy because they had success, other people are happy because they have a nice family and a happy life. It's the same thing if you ask, 'Does money make you happy?' I don't know... maybe you ask me in 20 years when I am not able to race cars any more!"
He has never tried to work out how many titles he could win if he races, like Schumacher, until he's 42. "Well, he had a break and now we all ask ourselves why!" he says chuckling. "I think this is a very complex sport and it takes a lot of things coming together to be, first of all, in a position to fight for the championship, and then to win it. And to have that a couple of times in a row, or seven times like Michael did, is very hard to achieve. But on the other hand, I am convinced that if you work hard and are ready to give everything that you have..."
Could he really win more than seven titles and 91 races? You wouldn't bet against it right now.
Qualifying: Hamilton heroics but Red Bull speed is Kers for concern
Even Sebastian Vettel admitted that he was surprised to take the 16th pole position of his career for Red Bull, eight-tenths of a second ahead of Lewis Hamilton's resurgent McLaren. And he didn't even use the Kers button for an extra 80bhp. The world champion emerged strongest through the three qualifying sessions, but his massive margin left rivals breathless.
Hamilton paid tribute to McLaren for massaging competitive pace from their hitherto troublesome car but admitted Vettel had produced "a staggering performance". He said: "If they didn't use Kers, that's another half-second, so 1.5sec is a huge gap. But at least we're in the fight and we can score good points. The car feels fantastic, so I can't even imagine what his [Vettel's] feels like."
Mark Webber was pushed into third by Hamilton. It wasn't a good day, the Australian admitted, but it was better than Jenson Button's fourth in the line-up, with Fernando Alonso in fifth.
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