The numbers leave no room for argument. None has done what Sebastian Vettel has done, consecutive world championships from the first to the fourth. Michael Schumacher and Juan Fangio rattled off four on the spin but both had already tucked a championship away before posting their quadruples. Whichever way you drill into the details, be it race wins (36), pole positions (43), fastest laps (21), etc, the statistics are overwhelmingly in favour of the notion that this boy is an all-time great. And he is still only 26. So where is the fanfare?
Vettel was lucky that providence led him to his fourth title in India, a nation that has nil racing tradition, that does not understand what is happening on the circuit but comprehends the simple ideas of winning or losing. Thus does uncritical love pour down from the stands on the only racer to have won an F1 race in their country. It sure beats being booed to the chequered flag.
Cartoon unpopularity, as much as it might disappoint in the immediacy of victory, is easily brushed aside by Vettel. He has the respect of every driver in the pit lane and every operative from the lollipop men to those whose grand designs he drives. Vettel is not let down by unappreciative fans, but by a sport that has driven into a cul-de-sac of aching predictability.
Sport is predicated on unscripted competition. Watching Vettel rattle off a sixth consecutive victory is akin to observing Real Madrid wallop Yeovil every week. You couldn’t sell a ticket for that.
It is a wonder that Vettel took the season to the cusp of November. In his days of absolute mastery Schumacher would have the thing won by July. In those days, the absence of spectacle triggered a fortnightly wringing of hands and a series of regulatory changes to somehow slow the killer coalition of Ferrari engineers and the epoch’s greatest driver. They mucked about with qualifying, with tyres, with aero specifications, with power units, anything to rip up the established template and give the others a chance.
At the height of Schumacher’s grim superiority a decade ago, Formula One’s commercial rights holder, Bernie Ecclestone, bowled into Brazil suggesting a handicap system in qualifying, effectively inverting the grid so that the fastest car started at the back. When it was pointed out to him that the very integrity of the sport was in danger of being eroded by the rapid implementation of madcap ideas, he replied: “Beats going out of business.”
None will be more discomfited by the ease with which Vettel won his fourth championship. As much as Ecclestone loves the kid, he loves making money more. And yesterday’s procession did nothing to either sell the product or convey how good Vettel is. Every great champion needs a great adversary. There were four world champions on the track in India piddling about in midfield. Vettel is merely beating the clock when he needs to be wheel-to-wheel with Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen.
Muhammad Ali was a great boxer not because he won myriad bouts but because of those he had to beat to raise his fists in triumph. Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, those were the men that created the Ali legend. He would not have been voted the 20th Century’s greatest sportsmen knocking over Richard Dunn every week. Make no mistake, Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen and Button can fight, but are being denied a shot at the champion by engineers who have failed to match the number crunchers in Milton Keynes. This brings us back to an age old problem for the sport, namely, the balance between man and machine.
As clever as the science is, it is difficult to sell physics to a sporting audience no matter how beautiful the solution the discipline provides. You can have all the PhDs in the world, but until we can place a camera inside the brain and track the route of an idea along the synapses, we will never make a race out of academic agility.
Formula One’s finest minds have been busy making sense of the new engine specifications for next year, which on paper at least provides Red Bull’s rivals with a chance to land an engineering blow on the men from Milton Keynes. The hope must be that all that thinking feeds into a more visceral battle on the field of play.
Vettel deserves the chance to set his talents against the best that the opposition can throw at him. He has demonstrated how brilliant he is at maximising the potential of a car. But unless that ability is challenged, prodded and poked by a rival in machinery equally as potent as his, then he is condemned to take the same unloved walk into history as that other totemic Teuton, Schumacher.