Sebastian Vettel has dominated the 2011 Formula One season. He’s German, he’s driving the best car on the grid and his teammate isn’t getting a look in. But the dominance we’re seeing in 2011 is very different from that seen in the Schumacher era.
In his first championship winning year, 1994, Michael Schumacher won six of the first seven races. The one he didn’t win was the Spanish Grand Prix, where he finished second despite being stuck in fifth gear, a phenomenal feat in itself.
But Schumacher’s most dominant seasons were 2002 and 2004. In the former, he won five of the first six races and was on the podium in every race of the entire season.
Indeed, he was on the podium for 19 consecutive Grands Prix, stretching back into 2001. In 2004, it was more of the same, as the German won 12 of the first 13 races. His only retirement being an accident in the Monaco tunnel.
This compares to Vettel’s six wins and two second places so far.
Schumacher’s dominance was total. As each race weekend approached, there was never any doubt as to who was going to win. Formula One fans had to grin and bear it while Schumacher won everything offered.
But this dominance was so clinical—and so extreme—that it became a joy to behold. We were witnessing arguably the best sportsman of any discipline at the time annihilating the opposition at every race. It got to the point where Schumacher was handing wins to his teammate. He even attempted to manufacture a dead heat, much to the chagrin of many in the paddock.
Throughout the history of the sport, there have been dominant driver and car combinations, but it was always inevitable they would fail at some point. Car reliability was often the culprit.
But this wasn’t the case with the Schumacher and Ferrari super team. Together, they went an astonishing 43 races without experiencing a car failure, from Germany 2001 to Bahrain 2005. This left fans of the sport facing the reality that Schumacher really could win every race in a given season.
Vettel’s Red Bull RB7 also has bulletproof reliability, aside from the KERS issues, but Vettel isn’t the assumed victor of each race. Absolutely, he goes into each race as the favourite, but a Vettel victory is certainly not inevitable in the way a Schumacher victory was.
There are numerous reasons for this. His teammate is Mark Webber, a very fast, highly motivated and politically astute driver. Webber was a class above Vettel in Monaco and Spain last year, and in many other races he pushed Seb very hard. He’s done it before, and he can certainly do it again.
Webber can beat Vettel in a straight fight, no question about it. He’s in a completely different position to that experienced by Rubens Barrichello when he was Schumacher’s No. 2.
The opposition are closer to Red Bull than they were to Ferrari in the early 2000s. In Sunday’s European Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso kept up with Vettel’s Red Bull throughout the race. While it’s likely that Vettel had Alonso well covered, it is also correct to say Alonso applied some real pressure. Vettel wasn’t able to take it easy, at least until the last five or 10 laps. Alonso ended up just 10.8 seconds behind the Red Bull.
Meanwhile, McLaren has beaten Vettel twice in the eight races we’ve had so far. They pushed Red Bull very hard in Spain, finishing 2 – 3 with Lewis Hamilton just six tenths behind Vettel.
And then at Monaco, Jenson Button looked like he could have capitalised on a rare strategy error from Red Bull. But we’ll never know because the red flag rules allowed Vettel to change his tyres, negating Button’s advantage.
But perhaps the most important point of all is that even though Vettel has done most of the winning, the races this season have been spectacular.
Canada was one of the most entertaining races in history and Malaysia and China were frenetic. The only races which have been less than thrilling were the Australian and European Grands Prix, but even they had some notable highlights and would have been seen as good races in many previous seasons.
So Vettel is 77 points ahead of his nearest challengers, Webber and Button. He’s winning nearly every race. But this doesn’t tell the whole story of the season so far—not by a long way.