Sebastian Vettel has a head for stats and clearly enjoys the status they bring.
Last Sunday in India he moved ahead of Jim Clark on 26 Grand Prix victories. This Sunday in Abu Dhabi he could match Jackie Stewart: 27 wins from 99 starts. Plus there is a strong chance that by the end of this month he will be equal with JYS on three Formula 1 world championships.
Stewart spread his titles over five seasons whereas Vettel is likely to pack his into three consecutive, a feat bettered only by Juan Fangio and Michael Schumacher. And yet Vettel is just 25.
His age is a part of the ‘problem’. Ours, not his. You would think that a driver bearing such a weighty haul so easily on his young shoulders would be simple to assess: a Mozartian prodigy.
Except that he failed to win a race during his first season in the Formula 3 Euro Series and was beaten to the title by team-mate Paul di Resta in his second.
Though he was so obviously greater than the sum of these numbers from the moment of his first Friday Free Practice with BMW Sauber in 2006, even his ‘telling’ F1 stats are skewed: by a heavy reliance on runaway wins from pole positions in cars designed by Adrian Newey. Nineteen of those 26 were secured from P1. That’s 73 per cent – more than confirmed frontrunners Ayrton Senna (71%), Clark (64%) and Schumacher (44%).
In contrast, Vettel’s tally in the subjective – and therefore less scientific and thus endlessly debatable – ‘racer’ column stands at a solitary one: his outside pass of Fernando Alonso at Monza’s Curva Grande in 2011.
In Jenksian parlance, he has the ‘tenths’ but does he possess the ‘tiger’? Think Jean Behra hunkered in a Gordini sucked along by the draft of three Mercedes-Benz stromlinienwagens at the 1954 non-championship Berlin Grand Prix. Think Graham Hill’s escape road-to-victory at Monaco in 1965. Think Gilles Villeneuve in 1980. Think Alonso in 2012.
The prima facie evidence is damning. When this year’s Red Bull was off the pace in Qualifying, smooth Vettel tended not to catch the eye in the races, winning just once. Alonso, in contrast, was all tooth, claw and cunning.
But did the maligned Ferrari provide the Spaniard with more room for such manoeuvres than did Vettel’s RB8?
Newey’s cars, as did Colin Chapman’s Lotuses, win so regularly because they are more tightly packaged and push the envelope further. They are designed to run at the front. That’s why when they were dragged into the melee their finer balance was disturbed and their lack of straight-line speed often left them marooned and occasionally vulnerable to attack.
The banning of exhaust-blown diffusers hit Red Bull harder than it did any other team. So dramatic a change was it that it took Newey and his techies until September to recover the aero lost. Not all of it, but more than their rivals have, and in sufficient quantity to put Vettel back where he is at his efficient best.
The German has led every lap since Lewis Hamiton’s McLaren coasted to a halt because of a gearbox failure in Singapore, and for the first time in his career he has won four on the bounce in the same season. If he wins in Abu Dhabi he will join Jack Brabham (1960), Jim Clark (1965), Nigel Mansell (1992) and Schumacher (2004) on five in a row. (Schumacher also won seven in succession during that most thorough of campaigns.)
Unlike those peers, however, Vettel potentially is not yet at the mid-point of his career. He hasn’t vibrated his mirrors off and showered his chasers with muck and tuffets, or manhandled a saloon to prove his versatility and exhibit his raciness, or sat in a bath of petrol to show his toughness, or barged open a controversial -gate or three to help us harden and then split our opinion of him. Yes, he scored an incredible maiden GP victory in circumstances similar to Senna’s, but since then he has been busy ‘simply’ doing his job: winning.
Of the greats, he is today perhaps most like Alberto Ascari: 69 per cent of wins from pole.
Many contemporaries considered the tubby Italian in the sky-blue basin helmet to be faster than Fangio, to be peerless at the head of a field but perhaps lacking the metaphorical stomach for a fight. Superstitious to the point of fatalistic, he was a creature of habit: pole (often by a wide margin), followed by a rocket start and three hours of unstinting concentration, unwavering stamina and unerring accuracy.
Handed a car advantage, and in the absence of the injured Fangio, he came within a second of sweeping the GPs he contested in 1952: six wins, six fastest laps, five poles.
He won the first three of 1953 too.
This amazing sequence concluded at the ‘Race of the Century’: the French GP in July. Though he qualified on pole at Reims, and though he was always in the rough-and-tumble of a “deadly struggle”, he led not a single lap. Instead it was Ferrari newcomer Mike Hawthorn who fought tigerishly for the lead with the Maserati of Fangio. They were mere feet apart when they crossed the line to begin the final lap, while Ascari and Maserati’s Froilán González, in close attendance, dead-heated for third.
The six-cylinder Masers had a superior top speed while the four-cylinder Ferraris had better handling and brakes… but it was the inexperienced Hawthorn who outfumbled Fangio at the last corner, the cobbled Thillois; Ascari finished fourth having somewhere, somehow, scrubbed away 3.2 seconds.
There was more of the same at Monza in September, though Ascari was keener to assert his authority in front of a home crowd and so led in batches of laps while team-mate Giuseppe Farina and Fangio made do with one or two here and there.
The situation was muddied by the presence of Fangio’s protégé Onofre Marimón – several laps in arrears because of repairs to his Maserati’s oil cooler but able to run at the leaders’ pace – and Ferrari’s Luigi Villoresi. The latter, also lapped, was supporting his protégé Ascari against not only the Maseratis but also Farina, who was still seething because Ascari had ignored team orders to win the preceding Swiss GP. Alberto was not totally without moxie.
At Monza, he crossed the line in the lead from laps 53-79. But at the last corner, the cobbled Parabolica, he slid wide and was punted into retirement by Marimón. Some reports reckoned spilled oil to be the cause, others that Farina had bullied him. The upshots were that Fangio won and the whisper campaign about Ascari’s vulnerable heel continued.
Circumstances conspired against him thereafter and he contested just six more GPs, retiring from them all, before suffering a fatal crash while testing a Ferrari sports car at Monza in May 1955. As such, one facet of his GP career sparkles for all time while the other remains forever uncut.
Vettel, no matter his stats, must one day emerge successful from a ‘personal Thillois’ or ‘Parabolica’ if he’s to be deemed better than Ascari, better than Stewart, as good as Clark.
He has the time and ability for that to happen. But will he get the opportunity? Does he even want the opportunity?
The latter question lies at the root of the rumour – and denials – of his signing for Ferrari.