In 2007, he became the youngest ever driver in Formula One. In 2008, he became the youngest ever pole sitter and the youngest ever race winner. In 2010, he became the youngest ever World Champion and in 2011 the youngest ever double World Champion.
At the tender age of 24, Sebastian Vettel has achieved more than most Formula One drivers will achieve in a lifetime. 19 victories, 33 podiums, an astonishing 27 pole positions – the records speak for themselves. But whilst Vettel wanders through the throngs of cameras, journalists and autograph hunting fans in Yeongam this weekend, he stands on the precipice of greatness. And yet for all his success, Sebastian Vettel cannot be considered great. He cannot be considered great neither in comparison to past champions of the sport nor indeed fellow professionals with whom he currently shares the F1 grid with.
Sebastian Vettel is the fastest driver in the sport. Of that there is no doubt. 22 pole positions in the last 34 races speak volumes of his utter harmony with his Red Bull Renault and his ability to thrash four wheels around the tarmac more rapidly than anybody in the world. It is very difficult to be overtaken when you have already dashed half a mile up the road. This is where Vettel is a very unique breed. His victories are utterly dominant and follow a very similar strategy. 24 cars go out to qualify, Vettel finishes ahead of them all, sprints off to an unassailable lead within the first 15 laps and watches his mirrors whilst the chasing pack fail to catch him. This strategy is certainly a huge factor in his ascent to the top of the sport. Yet it also contributes to the fact that he isn’t great.
The fastest driver – Yes. The greatest driver – perhaps. The greatest racer – Not a chance.
15 of Vettel’s 19 races wins have come from pole position and almost all in identical fashion to the style described above. For it is Sebastian Vettel’s devoid lack of racecraft, wheel-to-wheel combat and aggressive overtaking that mean, in my eyes, he is not a great racing driver.
Those who point to his move on Fernando Alonso in the 2011 Italian Grand Prix to argue the case that he has silenced his critics. Well not this one! 1 move in 77 Grand Prix does not a great racer make. In my eyes there are three greater racers in Formula One today.
Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, and, this may surprise you, Robert Kubica.
These racing drivers all have racecraft, they all possess a deep inner ability to pick out braking points that are 15 metres later than everybody else (think Hamilton on Raikkonen in Italy 09), they can all out-perform an ailing car (Fernando at Renault in 09, Hamilton at McLaren 09, Kubica at Renault 10) and they can all overtake and perform under pressure.
There are those that may point to his first win for Scudaria Torro Rosso in 2008 at Monza to Vettel out-performing his car. But the wet nature of the race and qualifying and the harmony of his car with Vettel mean this is the exception rather than the rule. Take Nico Hulkenburg’s qualifying at Interlagos last year…
At San Marino in 2006, Alonso held off a charging Michael Schumacher in front of the adoring tifosi for over 20 laps. In Canada this year, Vettel fell off the road when Button simply sneezed behind him. At Spa in 2010, Vettel’s inability to overtake knocked Jenson Button out of the race after a kamikaze move at the Bus Stop chicane.
Vettel is a very poor defensive driver, as demonstrated by his crash with Kubica in Australia 09 this year and a very poor aggressive driver, see the move on Button above.
Even recently at the Japanese Grand Prix, the same Grand Prix that sealed the inevitable point to crowd him World Champion for a second consecutive season, he was unable to beat Alonso when closely matched on track. Some may identify that he was thinking about his title rather than risk a crash that would keep the fight going for another week. I’d point out his frustration at being blocked by Timo Glock and the subdued celebration on the podium to see how much Vettel wanted to win.
Whenever pressured, Vettel is not up to the task and until a teammate of similar standing is provided to challenge him and put him under the cosh on occasions or indeed he drives a car that isn’t the quickest on the grid, the jury must still remain out on Sebastian Vettel. I am not disputing the fact that Vettel has been a deserved champion in 2010 and 2011, but I am disputing those with the disposition to breathe his name in the same vein as Fangio, Stewart, Prost, Senna, Schumacher, Hakkinen and Alonso.
Until he can go toe to toe on the track with another driver and come out on top, Vettel cannot ever be described as great.
I am a freelance sports broadcast journalist and commentator for BBC Radio Kent. Views here are my own and not representative of my employers and/or their associative partners
Thursday, 13th October 2011