No charisma, got the best car, just lucky... Vettel splits the field
As the German heads for his third straight title, opinion is divided on where he rates among the greats
According to German sources, Bernie Ecclestone thinks he lacks the charisma of the likes of James Hunt, Ayrton Senna and Niki Lauda.
Others believe he lucks in too often, and that the image the world has of him is skewed because he always has the best car in the Adrian Newey-generated Red Bull that has taken him to the past two world titles and seems set to earn him a third at Fernando Alonso's expense this afternoon. Alonso, and Lewis Hamilton, widely regarded as the two best pedallers in the business, are seen to have lost out to him owing to his superior equipment.
It's not that Sebastian Vettel has suddenly become the man they love to hate, but there is a little bit of a backlash in some quarters against his seemingly inevitable success which, frankly, takes a little bit of understanding.
Michael Schumacher's arrogance has been legendary on and off the track. The schoolboyish Vettel is a very different character, even though there is a clear difference between Seb the winner and Seb the loser, as we heard over the team radio when Hamilton overtook him last week in Austin.
Ecclestone made his remarks to the German newspaper Bild Zeitung in a general broadside against the pampered nature of the current generation of F1 stars and the way in which the sport's governing body, FIA, seek to muzzle them. Not that that stopped Vettel from swearing on the podium in Abu Dhabi, for which he copped plenty of flak.
"It's a difficult question," Vettel muses about the F1 ringmaster's comments. "I don't know exactly what he said but maybe he was just taking the piss out of..." He corrects himself immediately after the sideways slide back into the vernacular. "Sorry, maybe he was just taking the mickey out of the newspaper, which is very possible with Bernie. But given what you just said that he said, I think generally it's difficult.
"Hopefully I have a little bit left in the sport so I can make up a little bit, but also I think these days are very different to the previous days in terms of the freedom that we have.
"To give you an example," Vettel adds, "imagine that you find all of us sitting here on Saturday night having a beer. Even if it's just one beer, it would be a massive scene on Sunday.
"Yeah, unfortunately it's not [as] easy as maybe it used to be in the past. The last race, we were in Austin, in Texas. The last winner in Texas was Keke Rosberg in Dallas in 1984, and he was having a smoke on the podium. I'm not sure whether people would be too happy with that today when they already get excited when sometimes the language is not appropriate after we have just got out of the car."
It's a savvy answer, which is what one expects from Vettel. Of all the drivers, he is arguably the most intellectual and the one who most goes out of his way to provide decent answers to the questions he is bombarded with in media conferences. Sure, there is the petulant side when things don't go his way, but generally he is urbane and considered in his thinking, and most times you sense he speaks from the heart.
For sure, luck smiles on him. But in this game you make your own luck too, and he hasn't won 26 grands prix and two titles in his five-and-a-bit years in the big league just because the gods are always smiling on him. Jim Clark and Alain Prost also had decent cars and used to make it look easy, and nobody suggested that they lucked in.
So how does Vettel feel when he doesn't necessarily get the credit that he deserves for what he does in the cockpit? "Well, I think if you look back there was never people, you know, who were really, really successful in a really bad car. I think it's a natural thing to happen that one day you have strong drivers in a strong team so you end up with a strong combination, and then obviously that is difficult to beat.
"I think it's natural to start in a weaker car, I think we have all been in that situation. Michael started in a Jordan which wasn't competitive but he set some highlights. Fernando started in a Minardi, set some highlights. Obviously in my case I started with the BMW Sauber, replacing Robert [Kubica] for one race, which was a great chance, and then afterwards I got the seat in Toro Rosso, which at the time was not a very competitive car but I think we did a very good job and even won a race. After that, to step up to Red Bull Racing and 2009 was a great and fantastic season for myself, for the team, for the first time to be competitive, finishing on the podiums, winning races, so I think it was a fairly normal way that I went."
After he helped develop the ground-effect Lotuses in the late Seventies and won the World Championship in 1978, Mario Andretti never felt he had lucked in, getting his backside into the best car and then driving it fast.
"That's what every driver aims for," he said dryly. "Why would you apologise for that? And you still have to make use of what you've got, no matter how good it is."
Vettel has demonstrated pretty conclusively that he is a master of that. If he is crowned again this afternoon, it won't be through luck.
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