Kate Battersby: The charismatic champion who is proving a big turn-off
View from the Pit Lane: Vettel may delight the diehards at Silverstone but his domination risks alienating a wider audience
Sunday 10 July 2011
At Silverstone, everything is looking conspicuously different. See what £28 million of improvements can buy. See the new pit and paddock development, complete with grass in the pitlane, for those who might think such a feature particularly worth having. See the new start-finish line between Club and Abbey, so far removed from its old site between Woodcote and Copse that it has actually switched counties from Northamptonshire to Buckinghamshire. See the newly created lake by Vale. See the jagged-roofed Silverstone Wing building, 390m long and 30m high, home to pits, garages, conference rooms and hospitality suites.
See all the changes and improvements. See how exciting it all is. And, yes, it is exciting, despite the absence of old friends such as Bridge, now rerouted out of existence. It's just that the one change which would be absolutely riveting to see at Silverstone this season is the least likely of all – a driver other than Sebastian Vettel taking the chequered flag.
The bookmaker Paddy Power even paid out on the 24-year-old German successfully defending his Formula One crown as long ago as May, only five grands prix into the season with 14 races and six months remaining on the 2011 calendar. Now, never let it be said that this particular turf accountant is unacquaintedwith publicity stunts.
But in this case, there isn't the faintest sign that they're going to be made to look silly. Not for Paddy Power, it seems, the fate which befell bookmaker Fred Done when he paid out in March 1998 on Manchester United winning the Premier League, only for Arsenal to take the title two months later. On the contrary, Paddy Power's call required no great wisdom. It is simply a matter of fact.
Vettel holds a crushing 77-point lead over nearest rivals Jenson Button and Mark Webber, with his likeliest challenger, Lewis Hamilton, a further 12 points adrift. Vettel has won six of eight races so far in 2011, finishing second in the other two. Yesterday he fell short of pole for only the second time in nine attempts, although – waddaya know? – the only car ahead of him was the other Red Bull, driven by Webber. It comes to something when you feel grateful that Red Bull did not repeat their feat of 2010 at Silverstone, by setting the fastest time in every session of the weekend.
Frankly, it's a bit... boring. Even the 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve declared this week he no longer watches the "borefest" because it "sends you to sleep". Not that such details have resulted in anything less than a complete sell-out over the three-day race weekend. Yesterday 100,000 punters turned out to see Vettel duly top qualifying yet again, and it is difficult to envisage the 120,000 spectators expected today feeling short-changed. These are permanently happy campers, literally, given the acres of rain-lashed tents cramming the soggy fields surrounding the former Second World War airfield, accommodating 28,000 diehards who cannot bear to prise themselves away from the site for one moment of the race weekend.
The problem lies with the all-important worldwide television audience, who simply won't tune in for a bi-weekly processional bore-athon, thus denying Formula One's sponsors the viewing figures they require to justify the investment.
To purists, of course, utter predictability of the current sort has its own pleasures. Back in the day when Ross Brawn was overseeing Michael Schumacher's endless domination of Formula One, I asked the British technical wizard whether the German's never-ending supremacy rendered Formula One dull. He pushed his glasses back up his nose and replied: "I like it best when it's as boring as possible that way."
Life isn't fair. It's not Vettel who is dreary. On the contrary, he's youthful, charismatic, obviously dynamic at the wheel, good value in front of a microphone, with far wider appeal than the jaw-jutting self-righteousness of Schumacher – all in all a great champion for the sport to boast as its current figurehead. It's just that his near-monopoly this year is a turn-off.
But what of Button's fabulous win in rain-soaked Montreal last month? What of his cunning (if unplanned) six-stop strategy, taking him from 21st to the chequered flag? Hands up, no argument, that was one of the most memorable victories from any season in living memory. But for one thing it was achieved in crucial part thanks to a mistake from Vettel, causing him to half-spin on the final lap and obligingly gift the triumph to Button. And for another, it was horribly fitting that Montreal was followed by one of those archetypal episodes of Formula One tedium at the European Grand Prix in Valencia two weeks later. Using your skill and judgement, take a wild guess which driver led from pole to flag.
Maybe Silverstone will come up with some fabulously surprising result to beguile us all. But there isn't too much sign of it. The start-finish line may have moved, but the only start-finish question today is which Red Bull will finish first.
Vettel versus Schumacher
Age: 24 years and 7 days
Races: 70 Championships: 1 Wins: 16 Podiums: 27 Pole Positions: 22
Michael Schumacher at 24
Races: 22 Championships: 0 Wins: 1 Podiums: 8 Pole Positions: 0
Schumacher after 70 Races
Age: 26 Championships: 2 Wins: 19 Podiums: 38 Pole Positions: 10
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