Sebastian Vettel’s fine drive to victory at Sunday’s Indian Grand Prix meant that he joins an elite list of drivers to have won four world drivers’ championships.
Vettel’s title triumph was his fourth in succession and in achieving the feat he draws alongside compatriot Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio and Alain Prost in having won at least that many and only Schumacher and Fangio have also won four on the trot.
At the tender age of 26, Vettel is the youngest of the four to have done so but the German wunderkid is no stranger to breaking records. His dominant 2011 season saw him rack up the most points in a season, most pole positions and the most laps led.
Vettel himself is a keen student of the history of the sport and acknowledged it was hard to come to terms with what he had achieved afterwards, as quoted on BBC Sport.
Fangio did five and everybody appreciated him as the best driver in the world. Michael came along many years later, different time, different era - I am just talking as a fan - he had a very dominant car but he created that in Ferrari. He was working very hard - he worked harder than anyone else. He had some tough challenges - [Juan Pablo] Montoya, Kimi [Raikkonen], David [Coulthard], Fernando [Alonso] - and it is incredible one guy managed to score more titles than this guy [Fangio] did. To join people like that is very difficult for me to put into perspective. I am far too young to understand what it means.
But are statistics alone a true measure of greatness? Not everyone is a fan of Vettel and his dominance of the sport and many have voiced their frustrations through a chorus of boos during a number of Vettel’s podium celebrations this season.
The doubters will still argue that Vettel has only reached this level of dominance because of the equal brilliance of Adrian Newey and the machine he has been provided with and also that he hasn’t had to deal with a teammate of top notch calibre, good though Mark Webber undoubtedly is.
Of the other mentioned four-time champions, all of them have positively checked those boxes. Schumacher won his first two tiles in a Benetton that was arguably not the best car on the grid, Fangio in an era when driver skill was the overriding factor and Prost against evenly-matched cars and against some fearsome teammates.
But Vettel too has shone in inferior machinery, notably with Toro Rosso in 2008 and has learned from some impetuous mistakes that cost him early in his career.
It leads Newey himself to suggest that Vettel is now the complete driver with very few weaknesses, as quoted on Autosport.
His driving has gone from very talented but slightly raw at times, let's say in 2009, to incredibly well-rounded now. You could occasionally in 2009 and 2010 criticise him for making slightly ill-judged moves, and hence having accidents. And you could criticise him possibly for not being able to overtake, as a lot of people felt that if he didn't start from pole and control the race from there, then he was not so good. But I think you really cannot make those criticisms any more. It is difficult to see a chink in his armour.
Newey is no stranger to designing winning card for previous world champions through his years at Williams and McLaren but says it is unfair to compare drivers from different eras.
A lot of people have asked me to compare the drivers I have been lucky enough to work with and it is wholly unfair for me to compare them. The one thing they do share is that they have that ability to drive and process at the same time. They also have an incredible recall after they get out of the car. I think that means that they can drive whilst considering and planning what they are going to do next in the race. Then, they can get out of the car afterwards and continue to learn and analyse what happened in the race. You see it with Sebastian all the time - you have that impression that each time he gets in the car, he gets in with a bit more knowledge than he got out of it last time.
The records, of course, speak for themselves but it is perhaps best left to his current peers to assess his achievements.
Felipe Massa, who has partnered both Schumacher and Fernando Alonso at Ferrari, is quoted on Autosport that Sunday’s achievement makes Vettel one of the greatest drivers in history.
Today, he signed his name as one of the best Formula 1 drivers in history together with Senna, together with Schumacher, together with other drivers who are all the time at the top. I'm very happy for him [as after] everything he did in his career he deserved it. He is a fantastic driver.
And Alonso, who has pushed Vettel harder than anyone else over the past four seasons, possibly summed it up best of all in saying that whatever the record books say, everyone will hold their own opinions.
Many people think Ayrton was the best in history, he had only three championships compared to people that had more. Some people think that Michael is the greatest if you look at the numbers he should be the best one because he has 91 victories and seven titles. This is nothing we can discuss, there will always be many different opinions and this is the good thing about the sport.
A great, unquestionably. The greatest? Well that’s a matter of opinion.