So, what did we think about the manner in which Sebastian Vettel departed the grid at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix? I would guess that fans of Jenson Button were not impressed.
Now that the dust – and the grass – has settled, perhaps we can take an objective view while setting aside our allegiances.
What I hope, above all else, is that these are not the early signs of the emergence of Schumacher-style tactics. Why do I say this? Because until now, Vettel has built a reputation for being a sportsman, a cheerful and approachable young man who has deservedly won two titles – becoming the youngest ever double World Champion – and appears not to be spoilt by the adulation. Further, he has given credit where credit is assuredly due. He has had not only the best car but also the sharpest team in the 2011 pitlane. This has been a potent combination.
He is, of course, a very determined, ambitious and serious man when the lights go out. In recent months he has had little to fear when leaving the grid having made a habit of grabbing pole position on Saturday afternoons. As we all know, when a tough competitor lets the man in P2 get alongside him the first thing he does – instinctively – is to move across in an attempt to ‘intimidate’ his front-row rival. But there’s a fine line between intimidation and forcing a car off the asphalt.
There is blocking and there is forcing the other car to leave the track. The latter is not only dangerous but against the rules. And Vettel knows this because he has read the rulebook and has made similar moves before when under pressure. In Japan last Sunday he made a reasonable getaway from pole but it was immediately clear that Button had made a stronger start and a pass looked to be on. Vettel had known since Friday that the McLaren was, at Suzuka, a match for the Red Bull. A blink separated them on Saturday afternoon. So he veered to the right, forcing Button to back out of the throttle at a critical moment in the start procedure.
Now, we can argue until the HRTs come home about who was fractionally ahead of whom and who, if either, was to blame for what could have become an accident. For me, this is not the point. The point is that a driver of Vettel’s supreme talent, with a second title in the bag, should not have felt the need to be so aggressive in the first few yards of a Grand Prix that was virtually certain to end with him clinching the 2011 World Championship with four races still to be run. He did not need to do it, it was an extreme move and Button did well to back off, keep calm and stay in the race. Jenson’s result last Sunday said it all.
To conclude, I do not want to see Vettel driving like this in years to come. He doesn’t need to. I believe that Michael Schumacher’s quite exceptional achievements as a Grand Prix driver will always be tainted by his occasionally forcing others off the road. Let us hope that his young countryman will use his talent and not his elbows to win races. He may not always have the best car and will have to learn to lose on the odd occasion. Learning to give, as well as take, is part of becoming a great driver. Especially in the first few metres of a 90-minute race.