Sebastian Vettel is a remarkable young man. Not so long ago he was staring adoringly at bedroom posters of Michael Schumacher. Now he’s a four-time world champion, at 26.
Like Schumacher’s, so Vettel’s title streak is the result of natural speed and command, and of a ruthless pursuit of perfection that has been admirable in the main but which has caused its perpetrator some uncomfortable moments in the pits, on the podium, with the press and public, and perhaps, privately, within himself.
Like Schumacher, he grabbed his Formula 1 opportunity from the first moment – those sensational Friday performances with BMW Sauber in 2006 – and has since let go only to put foot rather than hand on its throat.
Also like Schumacher, he divides opinion among outsiders but unites his side of the garage and, more importantly, the top table of a team that provides him with the best equipment.
The similarities with Schumacher are obvious, the differences more subtle. (For one, Vettel’s field contains more bulls than that which ‘Scuderia Schuey’ trampled flat.) But what of the other driver to win four titles in succession: Juan Manuel Fangio?
Surely their ages and eras set them irrevocably apart.
Vettel is the youngest world champion. He was 23 when in 2010 he calmly snuck ahead of more experienced rivals at steel-and-glass Abu Dhabi to secure at the last gasp his first title.
Fangio is the oldest. He had recently turned 46 when in 1957 he drove his greatest race to beat younger rivals at hedge-and-ditch Nürburging and so secure his fifth title: a fourth in succession. Yet he looked older as he puffed out cheeks grimed by brake lining, oil and dust, and pushed, with grubby thumb, his peak until that brown crash hat perched on the back of his balding head.
He had, now, seen it all and held no wish to revisit the darker corners of his career: the deaths of co-drivers, inspirations, friends and rivals – Daniel Urrutia, Jean-Pierre Wimille, Onofre Marimón and Alberto Ascari; plus a broken neck and sufficient other stomach-churning misses, including at the 1955 Le Mans Disaster – a fleeting hand signal from doomed Mercedes-Benz team-mate Pierre Levegh and a scrape of paint off Mike Hawthorn’s D-type Jag – to cause an “emotionally anxious uneasiness”.
Bleached-blond Vettel, in his modern circumstances, can only be callow by comparison.
Fangio was 26 when he registered his first race finish (in a self-built and somewhat agricultural Ford Special. Brand Newey it was not). He was 37 – Mark Webber’s age – when finally he made his European debut in 1949. After a short and successful ‘apprenticeship’, he was in 1950 snapped up by the sport’s dominant force: Alfa Romeo.
He missed out – as did Vettel at Red Bull Racing (caught at the double-diffuser and not yet dominant) in 2009 – at the first time of asking. Indeed, he finished the season wondering whether his “inexplicable [mechanical] problems” and “small mysteries” were indicative of institutional Italian bias in World Champion team-mate ‘Nino’ Farina’s favour.
Fangio leads at Monaco, 1950: his first Formula 1 World Championship victory
He set matters straight in 1951 – albeit partly because Ferrari, with race strategy and momentum on its side, made an unfathomable swap of tyre sizes and threw treads and Ascari’s chance of the title away at the Barcelona finale.
After a season then spent mostly in recuperation and another mainly in the shadow of Ascari’s superior Ferrari, Fangio began in 1954 his sequence of four-in-a-row. He did so at the wheel of a Maserati 250F. He would end it in a 250F, too – a lighter, more svelte version that provided his “most brilliant season” – but there had been a deal of turmoil and upset between times.
After two controlled victories – Argentina and Belgium – in the Pirelli-shod Maser, Fangio assumed his option to drive for Mercedes-Benz. The debut of its otherworldly W196 at Reims was shattering, but soon it became clear that the car – a strange brew of revolution and revisionism – was no sinecure on its unproven Continentals. As Stirling Moss would discover in 1955, its heavy controls, “unnatural” gear change and swing-axles “demanded utmost respect”.
Untertürkheim threw money, men and method at it, and even gave it a pragmatic whack with the ugly stick, but any advantage lay with the car’s feeling of unburstability and Fangio’s innate adaptabilty. Ascari in a sorted Lancia D50 might have beaten him in 1955, but untimely fate intervened.
Winning on Mercedes’ home turf at the Nürburgring in 1954
The latter’s death left Fangio unchallenged as the Grand Prix benchmark. Team-mate Moss, 18 years his junior and understandably in awe (he still is), emerged as the man-most-likely while contentedly following the wheel tracks of The Maestro. Yes, he could have passed him. But no, he doesn’t think he could have stayed ahead. Better then to learn the easier way.
Fangio thus had it nicely wrapped up: an improved car, a respectful team-mate, the best team and a manufacturer that would revere and look after him for the rest of his natural. In the short term, however, a Mercedes-Benz keen to drive the German Economic Miracle had since long before he clinched his second title with it decided to pull the rug from under him.
Fangio’s 1956 with Ferrari would prove a rude shock.
He was not a prima donna but knew his worth, and neither his latest Italian team-mates nor boss Enzo afforded it him. It’s telling that the relevant chapter of his autobiography is based mainly around the words of his manager and legal representative Marcello Giambertone. (Ironically, it was Fangio’s reliance on representatives that irked Enzo.)
Dislocated by a chaotic environment and loaded atmosphere, Fangio’s driving and health suffered. The second place he shared with Peter Collins at Monaco was unusually scruffy verging on petulant. Then, already drained physically by a torrential Mille Miglia – he finished fourth in a cockpit awash with sloshing rain water – his mood slumped further after a mechanical snafu in the French GP at Reims and he followed medical advice and took a 10-day break.
Fangio leads Castellotti and Collins at Reims, 1956
He returned, Giambertone having obtained the services of a dedicated mechanic – nobody else was to touch his car! – to score back-to-back wins in Britain and Germany.
At Monza, while nursing fragile Engleberts – how he yearned for Pirellis! – on the bumpy banked oval, Fangio’s steering broke. Luigi Musso’s staring-straight-ahead refusal to hand his car over to him was indicative of the pressure that Ferrari’s hometown boys felt, while Collins’s immediate and bounding self-sacrifice, though unnecessary as the points worked out, was a better indicator of the Argentinian’s esteem.
A return to matey Maserati breathed new life into Fangio. The balletic 250F, in its Piccolo/nitro guise, allowed him a freedom of expression that the complex W196 and simplified, some might say smithied, Ferrari version of the D50, never could. Images of his balancing on the centre throttle at Rouen and of his wind-hollowed, grimy cheeks and flexed, corded forearms at the ’Ring are touchstones of the sport.
Vettel has yet to achieve this status.
His warm reception at India, boosted by expansive, expensive donuts and the absence of those stupid boo boys, clearly moved him. His was a response that revealed a human side – did I miss the much-misunderstood raised digit or was it wholly absent? – that has recently fallen victim to moments of madness and mealy-mouthedness.
Not to my knowledge did Fangio push a team-mate off the road, although he was a member of the Ferrari gang that jostled Harry Schell’s insurgent Vanwall at Reims in 1956. Nor did he disobey team orders to settle a score and win a race. But who’s to say he might not have done had he landed in Europe pre-war? He was, remember, only two years older than hotheaded cool-hand Bernd Rosemeyer. And even post-war Fangio’s impassive mask slipped on the rare occasions that he stamped his foot.
Vettel, of course, has worked more closely with his engineers – Fangio, with little more than psi and ratios to alter, tended to get in and go. But like Fangio, he, too, possesses an adaptability denied lesser men. Not only has he unlocked his car’s advantage by adopting a counter-intuitive style, but also he has found ways to prevail (in 2010 and 2012) – as did Fangio in 1956 – when not all was going to plan.
That Vettel has stayed comfortably put at Red Bull makes it more challenging to assess his capabilities – certainly Lewis Hamilton cannot seem to make up his mind, while Alonso’s respect is somewhat grudging – but it shows great wisdom, too. Although Fangio appeared to have the knack – it’s more likely that he was the knack – of being with the right team at the right time, he surely would have stayed with Mercedes given the opportunity.
Vettel’s statistics point to his greatness, too. He won 58 per cent of 2011’s GPs and to date has won 62.5 per cent of this season’s. Fangio won less than half a season’s GPs just once (1956) during his run of four, and only once (that tricky 1956 again) did he fail to score 40 per cent more points than his nearest rival. Vettel is currently 36 per cent ahead of Alonso, having beaten him by just 1.5 and a single per cent in 2010 and 2012.
It is an intangible, however, that tellingly separates Vettel from Fangio: no one doubts Fangio’s greatness.
Vettel, operating in a less trusting, more microscopic environment, is unlikely ever to be favoured by such unanimity, even though time and talent is very much on his side. All that happened in India 2013, however, should at the very least guarantee him a large-majority verdict.