Vettel has Germany dreaming again
Wednesday 08 July 2009
German Formula One fans, heading to the Nuerburgring with their cars and camper vans loaded with beer and sausages, will be drinking to the success of Sebastian Vettel this weekend.
The party will really kick off if, as locals hope, the 22-year-old Red Bull driver becomes the first German to win his home grand prix since seven times champion Michael Schumacher retired in 2006.
Like Schumacher, Germany's greatest motor racing talent of the modern era, Vettel is a winner. He is young, fast and sure-footed in the wet. He also lives in Switzerland.
But in many respects, the engaging youngster from Heppenheim has more in common with Italy's extrovert MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi than Schumacher, the great he hates to be compared with.
Vettel, the only man other than championship leader Jenson Button to have won this season, may have attracted the moniker 'Baby Schumi' early in his career but he could never be described as a typical German racing driver.
He has a penchant for British humour, from Monty Python to Little Britain, lapsing into Cockney rhyming slang and the occasional Birmingham accent along the way.
He even expressed a momentary twinge of regret at not being an Englishman when he won at Silverstone in front of cheering crowds last month.
Vettel addresses his car as if it were a woman, calling the current one 'Kate's Dirty Sister' because it was livelier than the regular 'Kate' that he wrote off in a crash at the season-opening race in Australia.
Back in his early days in the junior Formula BMW series, Vettel could be seen on the top step of the podium sporting an afro wig and shades. He has carried that natural exuberance, and the cheeky grin, over into a Formula One paddock short of spontaneity.
"I am who I am," he said before the start of the season. "I don't try to be anybody else or act in any way. I've always been the same idiot."
In Malaysia, he raised a schoolboy snigger when he described how he coped with the humidity and searing in-car temperatures: "I've got a bag with dry ice in it, which I put next to my balls, so at least they stay nice and cool," he said.
Asked last year why he had a steady girlfriend (whose mother is half-English) when he could play the field as a Formula One driver, he replied: "I was never the kind of guy to change women like his underwear."
Vettel has an enthusiastically old-fashioned approach to the business of racing. He even gets by without a manager, negotiating his own deals and speaking for himself.
Something of a rough diamond at first, particularly in 2007 when he crashed into current Red Bull team mate Mark Webber in Japan behind the safety car while the Australian was running in second place, he is polishing up nicely in a car that plays to his strengths.
"I'm not really a fan of all these psychological tricks and mind-set and so on," he said when asked about the importance of beating Button in front of the Briton's home fans last month.
"All I try to do is squeeze the car out every single time, every single lap and to do the best I can."
That can backfire, as it did in Melbourne in March when he crashed out after fighting to defend second place from Poland's Robert Kubica.
Germany is not short of Formula One drivers, their five on the current starting grid giving them more than any other country, but Vettel is the only winner among them.
Nick Heidfeld's BMW-Sauber are struggling for pace. Adrian Sutil's Mercedes-engined Force India team have yet to score a point.
Nico Rosberg has finished no higher than fifth for Williams in eight races this season, despite regularly lapping quickest in practice, while Timo Glock's Toyota is still chasing the leaders.
Vettel, the youngest of them all, has delivered in a fast-improving car that looks increasingly able to match Mercedes-powered pacesetters Brawn even if he is 25 points adrift of Button with nine races remaining.
With three career wins, the youngster who raced go-karts as a kid at Schumacher's Kerpen track near Cologne already ranks as the joint third most successful German since the championship started in 1950.
Schumacher is up in the stratosphere with 91 wins but Vettel could soon have more victories to his credit than all the other Germans combined.
Ralf Schumacher, Germany's second most successful driver, left the sport in 2007 with only six wins from 11 full seasons. Vettel has made only 34 starts so far after his debut with BMW in 2007 before moving swiftly on to Toro Rosso, with whom he won in Italy last year.
The youngest driver to win a Formula One race, to score a point and start on pole position, Vettel has time on his side but has always been in a hurry.
He was given his first go-kart as a three-year-old and in 2006, at 19, became the youngest driver ever to take part in a grand prix weekend when he took part in Friday practice in Turkey for BMW-Sauber.
On Sunday, he will try to make it two victories in a row for a team that had won nothing before he arrived.
"We're working very, very hard, the team is very determined and we know where we want to be, we want to win," he said after Silverstone.
"It won't be easy but we are totally up for the fight. The season is still very long, anything can happen."
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