Sebastian Vettel at 27: Analysing German Driver's Standing in Formula 1 History

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistJuly 3, 2014

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 19:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Infiniti Red Bull Racing looks on as he signs autographs for fans ahead of the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix at Red Bull Ring on June 19, 2014 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Sebastian Vettel isn't having the best of years.

His mighty Red Bull team have been relegated to the ranks of the also-rans by a frail, underpowered Renault engine, and Vettel himself is struggling to get to grips with the new breed of cars.

Making matters worse is the progress of his new team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo.

The Australian was largely unrated before the start of the year. Quick over a single lap but somewhat inconsistent in the races, Ricciardo had never finished higher than seventh.

Most of us thought he'd be good, but not good enough. He'd be quick, but not a patch on Vettela new Mark Webber, albeit a more jolly, happy version.

We were wrong. Ricciardo has won a race, started on the front row and, by and large, put his illustrious team-mate firmly in the shade.

But Vettel is a four-time world champion and far from over the hill. Today, July 3, is his 27th birthday.

He should be able to come back from thisshouldn't he?

Vettel (July 3) and Ricciardo (July 1) celebrate their birthdays.
Vettel (July 3) and Ricciardo (July 1) celebrate their birthdays.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

A peek into Vettel's past reveals a statistical record which may never be matched by a driver so young.

Four world championships, 39 wins and 45 pole positions from 128 race starts.

Only two men have more titlesMichael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio.

His win rate, 30.47 percent, is better than recognised all-time greats such as Ayrton Senna, Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost.

And his strike rate for poles is bettered only by Fangio, Senna, Jim Clark and Alberto Ascari.

Vettel could retire tomorrow with his place in the record books secure. Fans not even born today will know his name, know what he did, scour YouTube for videos of his greatest drives, and when they make their own lists of all-time greats, his name may well crop up.

His current team principal, Christian Horner, certainly feels that way. After speaking to the media earlier in the week, he was quoted by Paul Weaver of The Guardian as saying:

He’s 26 years of age, he’s still hugely motivated, he’s got four world championships and all those race victories and pole positions, so he doesn’t actually have to prove anything if he stops tomorrow as one of the greats.

But does his record to date really make him one of the greats? Some will argue that it doesn't.

To be a "great," a driver needs to demonstrate an ability to do things his peers cannot. And that is something Vettel has not yet truly done.

Given the same cars, Fernando Alonso would have won those four titles. So would Lewis Hamilton. Kimi Raikkonen might have, depending on which version of the Finn turned up to drive them.

Alonso.Dan Istitene/Getty Images

And maybe, looking at his performances this year, we can add Nico Rosberg's name to the list.

If Vettel is a great, are they all greats too? Yes, because they'd have won the titles as well; or no, because they had the misfortune to be driving something other than a Red Bull?

Speaking to BBC Sport at the end of 2013, Alonso hinted he believes the jury is still out. He said:

When he will have a car like the others, if he wins, he will have a great recognition and be one of the legends in F1. When one day he has a car like the others and he is fourth, fifth, seventh, these four titles will be bad news for him because people will take these four titles even in a worse manner than they are doing now.

Alonso is right.

To become a true great, Vettel needs to remove the doubts. He needs to give us a firm answer to the most important question of all: When he won his titles, was he a great driver in a great car, or just a very good driver in a great car?

And the first step on the road to proving his doubters wrong (or right) lies across the garage at Red Bull.


MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 08:  Racewinner Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing is sprayed with champagne by teammate Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Infiniti Red Bull Racing following his victory during the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix
Andrew Hone/Getty Images

The young Australian is perhaps the only driver on the grid with more question marks over his head than Vettel at the moment, because his career up to this year just wasn't that impressive.

His qualifying record was the only thing that truly stood outRicciardo has always qualified well. He gave Jean-Eric Vergne a pasting on Saturdays during their two years together at Toro Rosso.

But in the races, there was little to choose between them.

Are we to believe a man with his record is equalling or bettering a four-time world champion operating at the peak of his powers?

Sadly, no. It's far more likely he's only matching Vettel because the German is experiencing a unique problem.

The Bulls in Bahrain 2014.
The Bulls in Bahrain 2014.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

On his way to winning his four championships, Vettel adapted his driving style to suit the high levels of rear grip provided by Red Bull's brilliant exhaust designs.

The team did a better job than anyone in channeling the hot air from the exhaust to generate downforce at the rear. Taking advantage of this, Vettel made subtle alterations to his natural style to extract the maximum possible benefit.

BBC Sport's Gary Anderson described his style at the end of last year, relating it to the nature of the Singapore street circuit:

The Red Bull has great rear downforce and traction, partly because of the way it uses the exhaust gases for aerodynamic effect. Red Bull, I believe, do this more effectively than any other teamas they have since 2010.

The way Vettel drives works perfectly with this. He brakes into the corner, getting the car turning sharply by rotating it around the inside front wheel, and then gets on the throttle early, using the downforce created by the exhausts to stop the rear sliding too much.

But the (single) exhaust now exits higher on the car, and all that exhaust-blowing technology is gone. The rears of 2014 cars slide a lot more on corner exits and don't have as much rear grip.

They lack the characteristic which is key to the style Vettel has been left with.

He's having to work out a new way of driving, and it's far harder to unlearn a skill than it is to learn it in the first place. Vettel hasn't suddenly been "found out" as an average driverhe's struggling because he hasn't quite re-stocked his toolbox yet.

Vettel during the 2013 Singapore Grand Prix.
Vettel during the 2013 Singapore Grand Prix.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Vettel can, and almost certainly will, re-establish himself as Red Bull's No. 1 and as one of the handful of stellar talents currently occupying the grid.

From there, he needs to start showing his brilliance regardless of what he's given to drive. Even if he's only scrapping for the minor places on the podium, Vettel needs to demonstrate that he can wring the absolute maximum out of any given package.

Schumacher could do that, as could Senna, Clark and Prost.

If Vettel can show us that he can do it too, he more than deserves his place alongside them in the hallowed halls of F1 legend.

But if he can't, the record books will forever be printed with a tiny asterisk beside his name—and a single line of text at the foot of the page.

* Maybe not that good after all.


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