Sebastian Vettel’s fourth world title has now put him alongside Alain Prost in terms of championships won. He’s only one away from Fangio’s record and three titles from the ‘unbeatable’ Schumacher.
Can he be considered one of the greats, though? The statistics say that he should be, as do many of his fans. But why, when Motor Sport asked readers who they thought the best driver was between Schumacher, Alonso, Prost, Senna and Vettel, did he come a distant last with only five per cent of the vote? What more has he got to prove?
Some argue that he has simply had the best car these last few years. This season he does, as he did in 2011, but it hasn’t always been so easy. He’s not the only driver in a Red Bull either – Mark Webber has also had his hands on Adrian Newey equipment and he’s not slow.
Vettel is simply the master of getting the best out of the current tyres and the blown floor, which Newey’s team of designers has got to work better than anyone else. Asked how he could beat Vettel in the Indian Grand Prix, Webber simply replied, “I’ve just got to have a perfect weekend”. He wasn’t far off, but still finished behind his team-mate in all three practice sessions, qualifying (he was on a different strategy) and the race (his alternator failed when there was no longer a realistic chance of victory).
Vettel is a superb Grand Prix driver, there’s no argument. However, I doubt he will be considered one of the greats until he retires from Formula 1, or at least from Red Bull. At the moment he is too driven and too ruthless (as many champions are) for much of the public to truly warm to him, despite his smiles and British sense of humour. Schumacher and Senna were two of the most cutthroat champions there have been and they came first and third respectively in the poll. Rose-tinted glasses perhaps? Alonso, the only other current driver, was second last with 11 per cent of the vote.
The other hurdle the German still seems to face is that all his championships have been won in a Red Bull designed by Adrian Newey. Jim Clark only ever raced a Colin Chapman-designed Lotus, though, and his status as one of the best drivers there’s ever been is rarely questioned. Also, if we rewind to the Italian Grand Prix in 2008 Vettel, aboard a Toro Rosso, claimed a wet pole position and race win. The Toro Rosso was a superb car that weekend and, had his team-mate Bourdais not made a mistake in qualifying and not stalled on the grid, he may well have challenged him. Vettel was faultless, however. It’s on days like these – when a driver produces a near-perfect performance – that he makes it look easier than it was. It reminds me somewhat of Sergio Pérez’s drive in the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix in terms of opportunity. The Mexican managed to close up on leader Alonso in the closing laps and, had he not made a mistake at Turn 14 and run wide, he may have sealed his first Grand Prix victory. Vettel, when given the opportunity of his first win, grabbed it with both hands.
Some say that he can only win if he qualifies on pole and can then build up a sufficient gap at the start of the race, that he can’t race in amongst the pack. He has shown he can do this on occasion – to seal the 2012 Championship in Brazil he battled back through the field from 22nd and last to sixth at the flag – but he hasn’t done this every weekend because, quite simply, he doesn’t have to.
There’s no doubt that all of us would like to see the other teams and drivers mount a more serious challenge to the Vettel/Red Bull juggernaut. They may well do next year, but for those complaining of the sport’s predictability, Formula 1 has not historically been a sport when the championship is decided at the final race. We’ve been spoilt these last few years and it’s easy to forget that in terms of wins vs Grands Prix entered, Vettel still sits behind Fangio, Alberto Ascari and Jim Clark. Interestingly Lee Wallard and Bill Vukovich are also ahead of Vettel on win rate, but the Indy 500 winners never competed in a Grand Prix outside of the Brickyard.
Also, if Vettel’s 2004 Formula BMW season was included in those statistics it could be a whole lot worse/better depending on your view. That year he won 18 out of 20 races, finished second and third in the other two, was on pole 15 times and got 15 fastest laps. Brazilian stock car driver Átila Abreu, who finished second, was 124 points adrift come season’s end.
It was in 2012 that Alonso’s stock rose considerably as he wrung the neck of an under-performing Ferrari. He’d always been considered one of the best drivers on the grid, but last year left no doubt in anyone’s mind. Perhaps next year Red Bull will be in a similar situation and Vettel will have a chance to show us all what he can do with a car that struggles to make the podium. With Red Bull’s current form, though, I don’t suspect we will.
It’s impossible to compare drivers from different eras (even Vettel admits that), but we can judge him on how he has coped with the current cars, tyres and rules. On that basis he is a great Grand Prix driver. Is he one of the greats, though? We’ll sadly have to wait a few years before many people can accept that label.