Is he the next Schumacher? That's what everyone really wants to know about Germany's rising Formula One star, Sebastian Vettel. And the man himself couldn't care less. All he is interested in is taking his burgeoning career a step at a time and maintaining the forward momentum that has placed him alongside Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing and made him the upcoming driver everyone wants to talk about. About finding the fractions of a second in every lap that will, ultimately, take him to his goal of the world championship.
Think impish schoolboy exterior cloaking a steely inner determination to stamp his own authority on his career, and you won't go far wrong. Sure, he's the first to laugh at the characters Matt Lucas and David Walliams made famous in Little Britain, but you won't see him laughing when things aren't going the way he wants them to within the garage.
Two things strike you most about Vettel, the poster boy for German motor sport. He can deliver, as he proved conclusively when he won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last year.
And he is lucky. Not in the manner of one who lucks into what he does not deserve, for Monza surely proved that he does deserve to be exactly where he is. No, he has largely made his own luck through sheer persistence and application. But he is lucky in the sense that fortune has flowed for him and with him. He has found that magic seventh wave that surfers so often find elusive, and he is riding it for all it's worth.
So great is the momentum behind Vettel that within the Formula One paddock few remember that, when he was paired with that forgotten racer, Tonio Liuzzi, at Toro Rosso late in 2007, after the American Scott Speed had unceremoniously been dumped, the Italian was often quicker and better placed in races until misfortune struck – such as the team giving him a worn set of wet tyres by mistake in the rains of Fuji. Each time, Vettel got the result and began to look like a genuine star. As his career headed for the stratosphere, the unlucky Liuzzi slumped to his current position as Force India's largely unemployed test and reserve driver. Such are the vagaries of fate, especially within Formula One, where your face and character have to be seen to fit.
What really sealed Vettel's reputation was the way he handled himself and his Toro Rosso at Monza last year. It was his moment of truth. Lady Luck flirted with him that weekend, and he swept her off her feet. The STR3 was a good car – how could anything designed by the legendary Adrian Newey not be? – and its Ferrari engine at that time was much more potent than the Renault V8s in Red Bull's sister cars. Vettel made the most of all the good chances he was presented with to put the car on pole position and then, against the expectations of those who thought Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa and Robert Kubica would make good after messing up their qualifying, headed into the distance in a tricky wet/dry race. That performance alone marked Vettel out as Formula One's coming man, a guy who really could deliver when the chips were down. It was a great drive that made him the youngest man ever to have won a grand prix.
"It was a fantastic race, a fantastic weekend with pole position and a fantastic strategy this afternoon," the young uberstar beamed after the surprise of the year. "The podium ceremony was unbelievable, and this is the best day of my life. I will never forget the feeling. It is unbelievable, it is better than I ever expected!"
Inevitably, Vettel's growing success has drawn comparisons with Michael Schumacher. The multiple champion always had a reputation for aloofness following his remarkable debut for the Jordan team in Belgium in 1991, whereas Vettel has that refreshing air of the naughty schoolboy. His sense of humour is very British, and he is a devotee of comedy shows such as Little Britain, The League of Gentlemen and Monty Python.
Vettel also appears to have a humility that escaped Schumacher. When he inadvertently took out Red Bull's Mark Webber in the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix in Fuji, as they followed leader Lewis Hamilton in the rain behind the safety car, he took it on the chin. "I apologise to Mark because maybe he would have won if I had kept my eyes open!" Now they are team-mates at Red Bull Racing, and Webber knows the alliance will make or break his own reputation.
But, under the skin, he and Schumacher both have the DNA of winners. So just how good is Vettel? Should we believe the hype?
He has impressive credentials, for sure. When he started racing he was the Formula BMW series Rookie of the Year in 2003 with five victories, and in 2004 he annihilated his rivals in the German series. He is the most successful Formula BMW driver of all time with 23 victories, 32 podium places and 20 pole positions, and the first to have won a grand prix.
When he took part in the Friday practice session for the Turkish GP in 2006 he became the youngest Formula One driver to have run a grand prix meeting, at the age of 19 years and 53 days. More records followed. When he briefly headed the 2007 Japanese GP, he became the youngest driver to have led a grand prix. On his race debut at Indianapolis earlier that year, with BMW Sauber as substitute for Kubica, who had crashed very heavily in Canada the previous week, he scored a point for eighth place.
"To be honest, records are not really important to me," he says. "I think there was a youngest before, and at some point there will be a younger after me. I don't really care about statistics."
Helmut Marko is the man in charge of Red Bull's young driver development programme, and while he might have been one of those who should bear responsibility for letting Liuzzi fall between the cracks, he is a shrewd cookie. Marko would have been a star himself but for the eye injury he sustained when fighting with hotshoes Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson in the 1972 French GP. He understands what makes great drivers, and is renowned as a hard taskmaster.
He told Autosport magazine earlier this year that he thinks Vettel is "a pain in the ass", because he is so finicky, and coming from Marko that makes you pay attention.
"He is not easy to work with because he is so demanding," Marko continued. "He knows how he wants things and he makes sure he gets them how he wants. Because, as far as he is concerned, these are steps towards his goal of winning the world championship. He is not interested in making friends, he's interested in progressing towards his goal – and he's become even more demanding as he has tasted success." So now it starts to become clear how he really resembles Schumacher.
Marko is savvy enough to appreciate that there are many fast drivers around, but says one thing that marks Vettel out is how he applies himself, how he makes it his business to know everything that could directly affect his own performance. It was a trait Vettel developed when his parents, who ran a roofing business, drove him all over Germany in his early karting days.
Marko concedes Liuzzi had "a lot of pure speed," and thus was not a good guy for Vettel to be paired with at Toro Rosso, but claims Vettel was the harder worker, more insistent on finding those fractions. Not everyone agrees with the Austrian's assessment of the Italian, nor that he is correct about Vettel, but that is just one of the things that makes the German so interesting. Is he going to make it? Or is he overrated?
The auguries for the former are good. Speaking of Monza, Vettel's set piece thus far, Marko said: "There are few drivers who could have done that. That was his one chance, a situation he had not been in before, but in which he delivered. He did the whole race flat out. On his first opportunity to win a grand prix, he won it."
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