How successful can Sebastian Vettel be?
An ominous question. Particularly when discussing a man primed to claim his fourth consecutive Formula 1 world championship crown, at the age of 26.
So, narrowing the question slightly: how many races can he win? Can he match Michael Schumacher's 91 wins? You almost shiver at the thought. It's the tallest of orders. But for the sake of argument, we’ll attempt an answer, using the scientific approach of guesstimation.
First, we need to answer whether he can continue his current success—of the top six drivers on the list of all-time wins, Vettel’s 30 victories in 111 races is a rate only bettered by Schumacher.
Shoulder-to-Shoulder With the Greats
The Red Bull driver has his critics: "He only knows how to drive from the front," they'll preach. "And he's always had the best car."
Given he claimed his first grand prix victory with Scuderia Toro Rosso—a perennial mid-table team then and now, and a team which never came close to winning before and has not done so since—that's a very harsh observation.
Humour that hypothesis—so what if Vettel has always found himself in race-winning machinery?
To quote Plato: "The measure of a man is what he does with power." Loosely translated to 2013 F1 speak, that means: "The measure of a driver is what he does with a great car."
Some argue Vettel walked into a race-winning car and, by virtue of this tremendous good fortune, is an anomaly—how can one compare his statistics to the likes of Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost?
There lies a bubble that needs bursting. All three drivers won in their second season of Formula 1. All three spent the vast majority—entirety, in the case of Prost—of their careers in cars capable of winning grands prix.
Can He Continue Winning?
Vettel justifiably ranks alongside the greatest drivers of all time, and the fact remains that the best of the best don't just find themselves driving these cars—they revel in them, they make them their own.
Having established this, the next question is can he continue to win as often as he is now?
Making the most of your opportunity separates the great from the very good. That's why Vettel's win tally since 2009 is 29—20 more than team-mate Mark Webber managed in the same period. Eleven of these came from his dominant 2011 season, all during a time widely regarded as one of F1’s most competitive eras for race wins.
The competitiveness of modern grand prix racing is where the idea that Vettel could break Schumacher’s all-time record of 91 wins hits the proverbial skids. However, he does have time on his side; while Schumacher took one fewer race to reach 30 wins, he achieved it when he was three years older than Vettel is now.
More significantly, based on his seasonal averages (winning just under 30 percent of his races), Vettel can expect to win five or six grands prix in an average 20-race season. Aside from his first year in F1 (one win), and 2011 (11), his 2009 and 2013 tallies stand at four and his 2010 and 2012 tallies at five.
Guesstimating An Answer
So, playing the German’s advocate, let’s make a final prediction.
At 26, Vettel could, in theory, continue to race at the top with success for at least another 10 years. The calendar is likely to float around the 20-races-per-season mark, but for the sake of argument we’ll say 19 to be cautious. Given his range of win rates during his short career so far, it’s also as good a barometer as we can hope when making such a prediction.
But, taking this all into account, and factoring in a gentle decline in his win rate of 5 percent a season from the age of 32, a 37-year-old Vettel will end his F1 career with...
80 wins. You can open your eyes now, Mr Schumacher. Your record is safe.