Vettel proves himself a fast learner
German adds maturity to precocious talent and shows he is keeping his wheels firmly on the ground
Sebastian Vettel doesn't make many waves these days, having learned a lesson after his controversial clash with his Red Bull team-mate, Mark Webber, in Turkey last year, so perhaps that's why people think he's dull. He isn't. Indeed, as race drivers go the 24-year-old from Heppenheim is engagingly intelligent. Many of his fellows were too busy racing karts in their childhood to bother too much about education, but Vettel is smart, able to talk on many topics and many levels.
Rather than being dull, he is just focused on the thing that interests him in life: racing. He does it spectacularly well. That's why another world championship beckons well before he hits 25.
In the summer of 2007 he became the youngest man ever to take part in a grand prix weekend, as the third driver for BMW Sauber. He immediately broke another record: nine seconds into his Formula One career he was fined $1,000 (£645) for speeding in the pitlane. Impatience is always a good sign in a racing driver, and he has it in spades. "I'm not very patient," he admits. "When I started karting I wanted to do it again and again. I was attracted by the speed itself, but also by the challenge of being faster than everybody else."
He is still impatient. "Whenever I have to do something, I just cannot wait. Some people say it is because I am a German and I am always pushing. I cannot stand traffic. I don't like queuing very much. I cannot wait for things to happen. If I want to do something then I want to do it now. If I want to go somewhere, I want to go there now."
That impatience helped him to become the youngest driver to score points in a grand prix; the youngest to lead a race; the youngest to take a pole; and, at Monza in 2008, the youngest ever to win a grand prix. He was 21 years and 74 days old.
This year Vettel added maturity to that precocity, but it took a while. These days it is fashionable to lambast Lewis Hamilton for everything he does. It's easy to forget Vettel running into Webber behind the safety car in Fuji in 2008; his collision with Robert Kubica in Australia in 2009; the clash with Webber in Turkey last year; and the shunt with an innocent Jenson Button at Spa. All the more so because in 2011 he has scarcely put a foot wrong.
Last year, the only time he led the championship was after the final race in Abu Dhabi. That completed his record-breaking as it made him, at 23 years and 134 days, the youngest-ever world champion. This year he has dominated. Of course, he has generally had the best car, courtesy of the downforce that the ingenious AdrianNewey and Roger Marshall engineered into his Red Bull RB7, but he has used it to its maximum.
For all his success, he keeps many aspects of his life private. Details only emerged last year about his girlfriend, Hannah Prater, a textile-design student who was his childhood sweetheart. He guards his privacy, determined not to let his fame change him or push him where he doesn't want to go. He is generally happy-go-lucky, ready with a smile or a quick quip. But for the team who adore him, he's a tiger when it comes to getting what he wants. What Seb wants, Seb gets.
Case-hardened like Fernando Alonso, he is far tougher than Button, less easily distracted by external events than Hamilton. And he is grounded, literally. All weekend he has borne stoically questions about his approach and that damned point he needs for his second title in a row.
"I am trying not to treat this race any differently," he insists after qualifying on pole at the Japanese Grand Prix, as the initially faster Hamilton just missed his final run. "The target we have going into it is to get the best out of ourselves. Just like always. Obviously there's still a chance for Jenson to win the title and for me not to win. The moment you decide to fly, sooner or later there's a moment when you will come down. You have to, nothing flies for ever."
Such relentless pragmatism might be boring, but it wins races and championships. Already his strike rate is as good as legends such as Prost and Senna, and only Fangio, Clark, Schumacher and Stewart can boast better.
"I'm very happy at Red Bull," he says. "I'm enjoying it and what is most important is we have a winning car. I believe in the team. We have the right people and we have great potential."
Of course he is compared with the fading Michael Schumacher, whom their fellow-countrymen still prefer. "He's a different person," Vettel says carefully. "Michael is one of the best ever seen. A legend. And he well deserves to be in that position.
"I have a very long way to go. I don't consider myself to be famous. Politicians are famous. Presidents, kings, queens. The way I grew up and the way I live, I have no reason to start to fly high. You are the person you are."
He is the real deal, and by the time you read this he may well have taken yet another step closer to the person the world will remember him as.
Strike rates of the champions
J M Fangio 51/2/24/0.47
J Clark 72/17/25/0.35
M Schumacher 282/18/91/0.32
J Stewart 99/8/27/0.27
A Prost 199/19/51/0.25
A Senna 161/16/41/0.25
S Vettel 76/21/19/0.25
L Hamilton 85/6/16/0.19
F Alonso 172/30/27/0.16
N Lauda 171/31/25/0.15
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