Sebastian Vettel has started 120 grands prix in his career, winning 39 of them. He has also won four World Drivers' Championships.
Those numbers already have the German in lofty company—only three drivers have more victories and only two have more championships—but how do Vettel's results stack up against other Formula One superstars at the same point in their careers?
To keep the comparison relatively simple, we will only consider drivers who have won at least three World Drivers' Championships (WDC) or are in the top 10 all-time in race wins. There are 12 such drivers, including Vettel, and they are ranked here according to their winning percentage in their first 120 grand prix starts.
(For the drivers that never reached 120 starts, their entire careers are included.)
|F1 Stars After 120 Grands Prix|
|Juan Manuel Fangio||24||5||47.1||51|
By pretty much any metric, Vettel compares very favourably with the greatest drivers in history. Even more astonishing: At only 26 years old, the German's career has probably not even reached its midpoint.
Although his winning percentage is lower than Juan Manuel Fangio's and Jim Clark's (and Alberto Ascari's, who is not on our list), Vettel has won four championships in only six full seasons of racing. That is comparable to Fangio's five in seven seasons and light-years ahead of the next best on the list: Jackie Stewart had three championships in nine seasons.
Vettel also has five more victories than Michael Schumacher did in his first 120 races. In fact, only Schumacher, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna have more victories in their entire careers than Vettel has in just six years.
Fernando Alonso is arguably Vettel's biggest rival. The Spaniard's first 120 races do not even compare with Vettel's, though. The German driver has almost twice as many victories, and four championships to Alonso's two.
Even more tellingly, in the last three seasons before Vettel earned a full-time drive (2005–2007), Alonso averaged six wins per season. Competing head-to-head, from 2008 through 2013, Alonso's average has dropped to 2.2 wins, while Vettel's is 6.5.
Despite the young German's incredible success, he still has doubters. In a recent interview with Steven Beacom of the Belfast Telegraph, former F1 driver (and Schumacher teammate), Eddie Irvine, said:
Vettel's record is amazing, though he has kept the best car pretty much every year which Michael didn't have. ... Vettel just staying at Red Bull winning trophies is boring. I don't see what he's trying to prove. Okay, he's going to collect a lot of championships, but you know what, who cares?
Stirling Moss, who won 16 grands prix between 1955 and 1961, disagrees. He told the Daily Mirror's Byron Young that:
It’s absolutely incredible to be able to do what he does and the ease with which he does it. He’s a remarkable man, a remarkable driver. ... I am an immense fan of Vettel’s. He’s so young, he could probably scoop up 10 titles. He’s that good. Some of the others are exceptionally good as well, like Alonso but don’t think they are going to catch him while he still enjoys the backing of Red Bull.
And Vettel does not seem eager to leave Red Bull. At a celebration for the 2013 championship, according to the Daily Mail's Phil Duncan, he said, "Even if I go to another team I will still have people who doubt me or don’t like who I am or what I do. You have to be happy with yourself, and right now I can assure you I am very happy with where I am, and what I do."
Whether Red Bull will remain dominant with the significant regulation changes for 2014 is unknown. One thing is certain, though: If Vettel ever decides to leave the team, he will have a long list of suitors for his services.
While Vettel is clearly already among the elite drivers in F1 history, he is now chasing the unofficial title: "Greatest of All-Time". But to reach those heights, he likely will need to prove he can win with another team.
At this point, it is difficult—and probably unwise—to bet against him.
Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter @MatthewWalthert