Formula 1: Rating the Best Drivers of the Modern Era
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The 2011 Formula 1 season is drawing to a close with Sebastian Vettel totally dominating the scene. This young German is Formula 1's version of what Roger Federer is to tennis: clean living, super achieving, almost too-good-to-be-true role model.
When a new force emerges, comparisons are inevitably made with past greats, and the proud German sports public already refers to Vettel as “baby Schumi.”
However, while he idolises Michael, it is no secret that Sebastian wants to be recognised for his own achievements. He is raking in records in true Schumacher fashion, but just how good is he compared to other drivers of the modern era?
Top driver lists have been produced for many years, and their merits will always be debated. When we attempt to compare the efforts of people that competed in different eras, it can never be conclusive. We have to level the playing fields a bit more.
This exercise is my effort to scientifically compare composite statistics of the drivers that competed after the turn of the century. They had similar cars at their disposal, raced on the same tracks and often competed against each other. What is more, we have seen them in action ourselves—they are not merely historical statistics!
The Selection Process
Formula One commentators Martin Brundle and David Coulthard
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To ensure nobody was overlooked, I compiled a comprehensive list of drivers’ standings at the end of each season since 2000, before fleshing it out with their career records. This provided a shortlist of 19 drivers that needed further analysis.
Michael Schumacher set the benchmark as the the complete package—a fitter, hands-on and at times a ruthless driver, he had the uncanny ability to deliver when it was needed. Commentator Martin Brundle once said that Schumacher “drove by the seat of his pants.” He could interpret track conditions, compute information and relay valuable data to his team while concentrating on the job at hand—driving a Formula 1 car!
Button arrived on the scene in 2000 while Alonso, Raikkonen and Montoya joined in 2001, followed by Mark Webber, a relatively late starter, in 2002. Lewis Hamilton’s arrival in 2007 changed the face of Formula 1 when he became the first black champion in 2008.
Robert Kubica's unfortunate accident in Canada opened the door for Sebastian Vettel at the USA Grand Prix. The performance led to him replacing Christian Klein at Toro Rosso for the final seven races of the 2007 season. The rest is history!
My research highlighted the similarities (and differences) in this crop of exceptional drivers.
They all excelled in karting before progressing into junior racing programs and eventually Formula 1. Some had wealthy parents or sponsors subsidising their expensive hobbies, while others had to work harder to achieve their goals. Most of them cut their F1 teeth in less reliable back markers, while Hamilton had an easy way straight into a top team.
They have different driving styles, as well as lifestyles. Sadly, some of them never fulfilled the high expectations as they allowed distractions to interfere along the way. We can only speculate what could have happened if Raikonnen or Montoya showed the dedication and determination of Michael Schumacher.
Red Bull Racing brainstrust at work
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I adopted the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While statistics tell an important side of the story, the most successful driver still has that something extra that allows him to reach the top of the pile—the X-factor that separates the also-rans from the superstars. By contrast, some drivers allowed destructive forces to spoil their success rate.
Step 1 was to analyse each of the 19 drivers’ vital statistics in greater detail—wins, poles, podiums, fastest laps, championships, etc. and convert those numbers to percentages, to allow for a fair comparison. The base number for each driver was his number of races, i.e. Coulthard had 13 wins in 247 races, so his win percentage is 5.26.
The exception was in the championship category, where only eight champions scored points. Their performance percentage was obtained by dividing the number of championships won by the number of active seasons, i.e. Vettel won two titles in 4.5 seasons for 44.44 percent; Schumacher secured seven titles over 17 seasons at 41.18 percent.
Vettel's achievements over the next few seasons will provide a more accurate comparison, but no one can deny he's had an impressive start on the road to becoming an all-time great.
Once the drivers were rated in each category, scores were awarded in reverse order, i.e. the driver ranked No. 1 obtained 19 points while No. 19 only scored one point. Their scores for each category were then added together to obtain each driver's total. Based on the composite total, the drivers were rated from one to 19.
The process turned up some surprising results!
A final comment regarding the results: the initial request was to rate the top seven drivers. As can be seen from the comprehensive results table, two of the current top four drivers, Jenson Button and Mark Webber, only featured at 13th and 11th, respectively. Hence, my expanded list.
There is one race left this season, and the calculations will change fractionally without affecting the overall positions. If anything, it will bring Vettel closer to Michael Schumacher in most categories!
13. Jenson Button
Jenson and girlfriend jessica in Japan
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Despite strong performances in recent years, Button’s statistics compare poorly with fellow drivers, and he only ranked 13th with an overall score of 31.
Jenson made his F1 debut at age 20, and prior to winning his only championship title in 2009 with the superior Braun team, he had a reasonably uneventful career. Initially, he earned a reputation as a playboy that did not fulfill the promise he showed as junior. Nigel Mansell stated that Button was under-performing, and Button himself called the 2007 season a “total disaster.”
After winning the 2009 championship, (a bare 11 points ahead of a charging Vettel,) he joined former world champion Lewis Hamilton at McLaren and finished fifth in the 2010 Championship.
A few great drives in a season dominated by Sebastian Vettel saw him emerge as a true competitor in 2011. At the time of writing, Button is in second position with one race to go.
Jenson has always been known as a smooth driver, able to nurse his car along while others falter. His recent performances suggest that he has a fighting spirit as well.
Born in the Somerset region of the UK on the 19 January 1980, Jenson is the fourth child of South Africa-born Simone Lyons and former rally cross driver John Button. His parents divorced when he was seven, and Jensen and his three elder sisters were brought up by their mother in Frome.
He failed his first drivers' test for parking too close to a vehicle.
12. Rubens Barrichello
Rubins Barichello - Italian Grand Prix 2004
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Barrichello is one of the oldest and most experienced drivers still in action. He was born on his father’s birthday (23 May 1972) in Sao Paolo and is also known as "Rubinho", or little Rubins.
As a young and aspiring driver, Barrichello looked up to the late Ayrton Senna, who in turn considered him his protégé.
Rubens made his debut at the South African Grand Prix in Kyalami and has since accumulated 11 wins, 68 podiums, 658 career points, 14 pole positions and 17 fastest laps. Many of these were achieved as Michael Schumacher’s teammate. In 2010, he became the first driver to reach the 300-race mark. Barrichello is the incumbent chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association.
He still carries the Brazilian flag together with Felipe Massa, but must be nearing the end of his solid career.
Rubens scored 33 points and is ranked 12th, ahead of Jensen Button.
11. Mark Webber
Mark Webber, "No 2 Driver", in winning way at Silverstone
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"Aussie grit" entered the world of motor racing relatively late, at the age of 14. As the son of a local motorcycle dealer, he started out racing on two wheels before making the switch.
Webber moved to the UK in 1995 to further his motorsport career. This decision paid dividends as he won many awards and caught the eye of F1 scouts.
He eventually became the lead driver for Jaguar Racing. During two years with the generally uncompetitive team, Webber showed a qualifying flair that was fast becoming a trademark. He earned 17 of Jaguar’s 18 points, and many were left wondering what the Australian could achieve with a top drive. Webber received the Lorenzo Brandini Trophy after his 2005 season.
Success only came after moving to the Red Bull Racing team in 2008. The combination of Renault power and Adrian Newey design provided potential, but the car’s poor reliability meant regular top-ten qualifying performances rarely translated into points.
A broken leg sustained over the winter hampered his preparations for 2009, and on 11 February he returned to testing with steel rods in his leg.
While new team mate Sebastian Vettel stole the headlines with Red Bull’s first win, Webber’s campaign gradually gained momentum.
He experienced his best season ever in 2010 by adding ten more podiums. Webber finished the season in third place having led for a long period. He drove the last four races of the season with a small fracture in his right shoulder, the result of a mountain bike accident.
In 2011, a season dominated by his team mate, he failed to win a single race but is securely in fourth position with one race to go.
Mark Webber is an outspoken but popular driver and was also a long-term director of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, the Formula One drivers union.
An example of a driver that worked hard to get where he is, Mark scored 36 points and is ranked 11th.
10. Jacques Villeneuve
Jacques Villeneuve in conversation with Damon Hill
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Jacques was only 11 when Gilles Villeneuve died during a qualifying session for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. Despite the tragic loss, he always wanted to follow in his father's racing footsteps.
After an impressive career in karting and junior racing, he signed a two-year contract with Williams in 1996 and made his Formula One debut in Melbourne. His first performance was most impressive, taking pole position and almost winning the race. Due to an oil leak, he was forced to slow down, but the Canadian managed to hold on to second place.
The 1997 World Championship was decided in his favor at the final round in Jerez, a race that is remembered for a controversial collision between himself and Michael Schumacher.
His career went into sharp decline after this success. He struggled with an underpowered Williams car and failed to win a single race in 1998, only earning two podiums. Not surprisingly he switched to other versions of racing like Le Mans and NASCAR. During his 10 years and 164 races in Formula One, he scored 235 career points, one championship and 11 wins.
He leads a high-profile life and has appeared in various TV adverts and in the 2001 Sylvester Stallone action movie, Driven, as a race car driver. He is a respectable musician with a few CDs to his credit.
Villeneuve has had some famous girlfriends, amongst them Sandrine Gros d'Aillon. He was engaged to Australian singer Dannii Minogue and American ballerina Ellen Green. He married his Parisienne girlfriend Johanna Martinez on 29 May 2006. The couple divorced in July 2009.
He scored 38 points and is ranked 10th.
9. David Coulthard
DC visits Austin to promote the USA 2012 Grand Prix
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His best performances were achieved with McLaren, but he was overshadowed by 1998 champion Mika Häkkinen. Coulthard took just one win and spent most of the year in a supporting role.
David showed flashes of speed and brilliance throughout his career, but errors, bad luck and wrong decisions affected his results. By his own admission, his poor qualifying performances put him in the middle of the pack where bumps and scrapes are commonplace. A steady driver but with no X-factor performances. His best Drivers' Championship finish was runner up in 2001.
He vacated the Red Bull hot seat, now occupied by Sebastian Vettel, at the end of 2009.
Perhaps an underachiever, he remains a very presentable ambassador for the sport. These days, he is a BBC Formula One TV commentator and pundit as well as team consultant for Red Bull Racing.
Arguably another one of the better drivers that never won a championship, David scored 42 points and is ranked ninth.
8. Felipe Massa
Ferrari team supporting Massa in Hungary, 2009
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After a successful career in karting and various junior championships, Felipe Massa was offered a Formula One test with the Sauber team for 2002. He soon proved to be a competitive driver, but regularly made mistakes, spinning off the track several times.
A one-race suspension forced him to miss the USA Grand Prix, and Frentzen made full use of the opportunity to impress, taking over his seat in 2003. Massa did not race that year, but gained valuable experience as test driver with Sauber’s engine suppliers, Ferrari.
In an about-face, he was re-signed by Sauber to join new team mate Fisichella in 2004. He improved steadily and beat his teammate Jacques Villeneuve in the 2005 Drivers' Championship before joining Ferrari in 2006, paired with Michael Schumacher.
Despite some good races his tendency to cause accidents continued. He beat Schumacher in Malaysia, but crashed during qualifying in Australia. His first podium came at the Nurburgring when he finished third behind Schumacher and Alonso. In Turkey, he won the race from pole.
Schumacher’s retirement at the end of that season secured Massa’s future position at Ferrari. He had a popular win at his home Grand Prix, the first time a Brazilian driver won at Interlagos since Ayrton Senna in 1993. He led much of the 2007 Brazilian Grand Prix, until yielding the lead to teammate Kimi Raikkonen, thus securing the Finn’s one and only World Championship title.
His best performance came in 2008 when he narrowly lost the Drivers' World Championship to Lewis Hamilton after an eventful final race in Brazil. He was suddenly regarded as a contender—no longer the automatic No. 2 driver.
Massa nearly lost his life in a horrific accident during the qualifying session of the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, and he only returned to racing in 2010. Whether it was Alonso’s strong presence or the after effects of his accident, he has not been the same driver since.
Felipe is under contract to race for Scuderia Ferrari until the end of the 2010 season, but rumours have been flying that his seat may be taken by Rosberg. Despite being a fast driver, he never quite lost the tag as supporting driver to Michael Schumacher and his successors Raikonnen and Alonso.
He scored 47 and is ranked eighth behind Montoya.
7. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya, Brazilian Grand Prix 1995
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The tough-as-nails Colombian is probably one of the most talented drivers of this era that never became a Formula One champion.
His architect and motorsport enthusiast father, Pablo, encouraged him from an early age to participate, and records confirm his uncanny ability to start (and win) from the front row on the grid, in some cases taking 80 percent of a season's poles.
During his debut season in Formula One, his speed impressed and he was a real race win challenger. During 95 races in a Formula One career he scored 307 points, appeared on the podium 30 times, including seven wins, was on pole 13 times and recorded 12 fastest laps. As it was for Vettel, Monza was the scene of his first Grand Prix win in 2001.
Montoya was one of the few drivers to take on Schumacher. He will be remembered for his forceful overtaking moves, although clashes with other drivers cost him several places. Often criticized for his unreliability and tendency to make costly mistakes, his aggressive driving style was reminiscent of the 1980s and was far more suited to other forms of racing.
He was outspoken and relations were often strained within his team, and he simply failed to adapt to Formula One cars provided for him.
At the start of his 2006 Championship campaign, he discovered that Fernando Alonso had been contracted by McLaren for the following season. Montoya consistently underperformed on the track during the first three races, and the 2006 US Grand Prix saw an eight-car crash on the first corner, causing him to retire from the race.
His career effectively came to an end on 9 July 2006, when he announced in a public press conference from the US that he had signed a contract to run in the NASCAR series, effective 2007. McLaren announced that Montoya would stop racing for the team with immediately.
In October 2009, Montoya was ranked 30th in a list of the Top 50 Formula One Drivers of All Time by Times Online.
An undeniably talented and fast driver that attracted trouble, he scored 58 points and is rated seventh.
6. Kimi Raikonnen
Oh dear! Kimi at McLaren 2003
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The Iceman made his Formula One debut in 2001 in the Sauber-Petronas. He is considered to be one of the quickest drivers ever seen on a Formula One track, yet during his nine seasons he won the Formula One World Championship only once, in 2007.
These days, he competes in the World Rally Championship for the ICE 1 Racing team, but ongoing rumours imply that he may return to Formula One after unsuccessful seasons in rallying and NASCAR.
Raikkonen is a very relaxed, laid back person, cool and calculating in his everyday life as well as in his racing career. But his much-publicised social life and lack of commitment has been blamed for the at times lacklustre performances. It is reported that he was still asleep 30 minutes before his debut race at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix, where he scored a championship point for Sauber.
He joined McLaren in 2002, during the sabbatical of double-world champion mentor and fellow Finn, Mika Hakkinen. Kimi became a title contender by finishing as runner up in the 2003 and 2005 championships to Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, respectively. Many pundits speculated that without the reliability problems, he would have already been world champion.
Raikkonen switched to Ferrari in 2007, where he became the highest-paid driver in motorsport with an estimated wage of $51 million per year, and also secured his first Formula One World Drivers' Championship. He remains one of the very few drivers to become champion in his first season at Ferrari, taking the title with a victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos during an incident-packed race.
2008 turned out to be disappointing, but he equalled the record for fastest laps in a season for the second time. Some disappointing performances in 2009 led to Ferrari announcing that Raikkonen would be leaving the team, despite having a contract to race for them until 2010. His seat was taken over by Alonso, and various negotiations with other teams fell through before he refused a final offer from Toyota.
His nickname Iceman is tattooed on the underside of his left forearm and is also written on the side of his current helmet design. He is married to a Finnish model and former Miss Scandinavia.
Raikonnen scored 579 career points in 156 races and has an impressive record of 35 fastest laps.
In my ratings, he scored 63 and is sixth.
5. Mika Hakkinen
Mika and his wife at Mercedes
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Mika Hakkinen, who signs his name as the "Flying Finn," started his racing career in karting at the age of five and won his first race two years later. He had already won numerous championships by the age of 11. He made his F1 debut in the Lotus-Judd in 1991.
One of the few double world champions of this era, he initially joined the McLaren team as a test driver. Mika probably could have found a seat with other teams but opted to work in an established environment even if it meant watching from the sidelines. The door opened when Michael Andretti left Formula One after disappointing results.
Hakkinen's race debut in Estoril was impressive. He out-qualified Ayrton Senna, but later in the race crashed into the pit wall. A week later, he scored his first podium in Suzuka. After Senna left, Hakkinen became McLaren's first driver with Martin Brundle as teammate.
Mika nearly died in 1995 in a serious accident that occurred during practice at the Australian Grand Prix, but a trackside tracheotomy saved his life. He recovered and returned to racing, winning his first Grand Prix in 1997 and his first championship in 1998. He is considered by many to be Michael Schumacher's greatest rival. When the German broke his leg in an accident at Silverstone, Hakkinen overtook him in the standings to win the title again in 1999.
In 2000, the improved Ferrari of Michael Schumacher became a strong threat. Hakkinen came close to winning the championship once again, but Schumacher beat him to it after an epic duel in Japan. McLaren was not competitive in 2001, and it was Coulthard who carried the challenge to Schumacher. Hakkinen had a bad season but won the last Grand Prix of the season (and his career) in Indianapolis before retiring.
There were rumours of a possible comeback, especially in 2007, but McLaren decided to invest in young Lewis Hamilton. At the time of Hakkinen's retirement, his records showed 51 podium finishes, 420 career points, 21 poll positions and setting 25 fastest laps in 165 races.
These days he enjoys family life in with his wife Erla and son Hugo, as well as pet turtle Clarence, at their residence in Monaco. From their balcony there is an excellent view of the first corner (Ste Devote) and the long straight of the street circuit.
Hakkinen scored 65, just one less than Alonso, and was rated fifth.
4. Fernando Alonso
Brazil 2006, World Champion for Renault
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Cesaro Fioro, former sporting director of Minardi, felt Fernando Alonso was “the prodigy of prodigies,” but an under-performing Ferrari seems to have taken a bit of fight out of the Spaniard—for the moment.
His karting career started at age three when he showed interest in the toy his father originally built for his elder sister. Some adjustments were made to the pedals, and the youngster was ready for action. He soon proved to be in a league of his own and won numerous titles.
Fernando needed special dispensation to compete in older age groups, and got quite used to breaking records. "I've always been the youngest at every category, and so maybe that's why I'm used to breaking that kind of record. Perhaps it strikes me as less of a big deal than it should do. I was always the youngest in every category I raced in," recalls Fernando.
Most of these records have since been broken by Sebastian Vettel.
Some research highlights his sound upbringing and appreciation towards his parents. Fernando was never shy to work for what he wanted; even at the age of 14 he acted as mentor to youngsters aged seven to eight, fixing their karts. It gave him personal satisfaction to help others enjoy the sport, but the money he earned also helped meet his costs, as he did not want to be a financial burden to his hardworking parents.
He tested with Formula Nissan at age 18 and immediately impressed. Over the course of the season, he often made mistakes while in the lead but when questioned, he replied that he needed to learn how to push it to the limit throughout the whole race and until he learned to do so, he would not stop.
Communication with his pit wall always gets a frank response. On one occasion, when told to slow down as his lead was 42 seconds, the retort came, “I’m wearing out my brake pads, I can't go any slower."
That same year, he tested a Formula One car. "We were in Jerez to try out a few drivers," says Fioro. After a few laps, Alonso was a second and a half or so quicker, and you could see he had it all: sense, concentration, intelligence...the attributes which, combined with talent, make for a champion."
On debut he finished seventh in Australia, and later became the youngest driver to achieve a pole position at the Malaysian GP, aged 21.
Alonso became the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix, at the age of 22, in Hungary. He won the coveted World Championship in 2005, thus making him the first Spaniard to win the title as well as the youngest winner ever. He retained his title in 2006 by one point over Michael Schumacher.
The year 2007 saw the start of a tumultuous relationship within the McLaren team, and he often felt they favoured the up-and-coming Hamilton, it was no surprise when Alonso returned to Renault.
Rumours started flying that he would join Ferrari, and this materialised in 2010 when he joined the Scuderia team. At preseason testing in Valencia, Fernando was fastest for the day, and his first Grand Prix went like a dream. In Bahrain, he started from third on the grid before racing to victory. He won five races but narrowly missed out on a third driver’s title to Sebastian Vettel at the final race.
Alonso scored 66 and was ranked fourth.
3. Lewis Hamilton
An all too familiar sight - Hamilton accident.
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Hamilton is one of the most controversial drivers in action at present. After bursting onto the Formula One scene in 2007, he sadly seemed to have lost the plot along the way. It is almost as if a sense of desperation has impaired his previous fine judgement and he must be one of the most regular visitor to the steward's office these days.
Like so many of his fellow racers, he performed exceptionally well in karting and clearly did not lack any confidence when at the age of 10, he told McLaren team principal Ron Dennis at the Autosport Awards ceremony, "I want to race for McLaren one day."
This bold statement became reality and less than three years later, he joined their Young Driver Support Programme. This made Hamilton the youngest ever driver to secure a contract which later resulted in an F1 drive.
After winning various championships on his way up the racing career ladder, Lewis made his Formula One debut for McLaren alongside Fernando Alonso in 2007, 12 years after his initial encounter with Dennis. Unlike many other young drivers, he was able to start his career in one of the leading Formula One teams.
During his first season, he set numerous records before narrowly losing the championship to Kimi Raikonnen, courtesy of team orders given to Massa. The following year, he turned this around to beat Felipe Massa by a narrow margin after an eventful final lap in the Sao Paolo race.
He decided not to use his father as manager after the first year, and appeared to have relationship troubles that did not help retain his focus.
Sadly, being the first black driver seemed to add another element to his emotional challenges, something of his own making. His ethnicity clearly plays on his mind, as he recently stated that his colour may be the reason why he is always in trouble with the stewards. Ahead of the World Championship finale in 2008, Hamilton answered a question about what it would mean to him to become the first black champion, saying, "It will show that not only white people can do it, but also black people, Indians, Japanese and Chinese. It will be good to mean something."
As a result of team tension with Fernando Alonso, Hamilton was never well-received in Spain and verbal abuse made his visits quite unpleasant. He was heckled during preseason testing by several Spanish spectators. Alonso condemned the racist supporters.
Much was expected of Hamilton after his impressive start, but he struggled with a less competitive McLaren in 2009 and finished a close fourth in 2010. In 2011, he had, by his own admission, “one of his worst seasons ever.” A mixture of brilliant performances in a strong car, coupled with his aggressive driving style, numerous racing incidents, (often with Massa or Webber), got him into trouble with authorities a bit too often and cost valuable points.
Something inevitably happens when Hamilton is on a charge. He does not shy away from risky overtake manoeuvres, but it often attracts the attention of his critics and at times has been deemed potentially dangerous. In 2010, he had 32 overtakes in four races, but this season his well-reported get-togethers with Massa contributed to a record number of visits to the stewards.
2. Sebastian Vettel
An emotional youngest ever, new world champion - Abu Dhabi 2010
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The man of the moment is certainly Sebastian Vettel. The popular young driver with the cheeky grin, at times referred to as the “Babyface Assassin,” seems destined to rewrite the motorsport record books.
Vettel entered the scene in 2007 after an accident to Robert Kubica, competing in only eight races but immediately started setting “youngest ever” records.
One amongst a crop of talented young drivers, his mature approach and commitment makes the difference. To quote Martin Brundle in a recent tweet: “This Vettel kid impresses the hell out of me. Deep thinker, intelligent, humble, a real person."
Born in Heppenheim on 3 July 1987, Vettel grew up as the son of a carpenter and homemaker. At the age of three, he received his own kart as a Christmas present and enjoyed this toy so much, he often had to be reminded to eat.
His junior track record is littered with achievements and acts of determination, even before his Formula One debut. In 2006, flying debris nearly sliced off his finger, and he was expected to be out of racing for a few weeks. However, despite the injury he competed the next weekend with great success.
Sebastian cherishes the day his idol, Michael Schumacher, handed over a junior award. Michael noticed the prodigious talent and mentioned his name to Gerhard Burger. Two years after his initiation into karting, he was signed up as member of the Red Bull junior team.
He became BMW Sauber’s third driver at age 19 at the Turkish Grand Prix, and impressed by setting the fastest lap in practice sessions on debut. In his second testing at Monza, he again set the fastest lap times in both Friday practice sessions. He was confirmed as BMW’s test driver for 2007 while leading the World Series. Robert Kubica’s injury at the Canadian Grand Prix allowed Vettel to race at the USA Grand Prix, where he became the youngest F1 driver to score points on debut.
In July, he joined Red Bull’s Toro Rosso team, replacing Scott Speed for the remaining seven races. In the rain-affected Japanese Grand Prix, he was on course for his maiden podium behind Hamilton and Webber, when Hamilton’s erratic actions resulted in the accident between Webber and Vettel. He bounced back to finish a career-best fourth in Shanghai, starting from from 17th.
The year 2008 started with numerous Toro Rosso retirements, but he finished fifth in Monaco despite a five-position grid penalty for gear box changes. In Canada, he scored after starting from the pit lane. In Germany, he fended off Alonso to secure the last championship point. He impressed at the European Grand Prix by setting fastest times in the second qualifying session. This remained the fastest overall time although he could not repeat it in the final session. He finished the race in sixth position.
An impressive performance followed at the Italian Grand Prix—fastest qualifying times in all sessions, youngest driver to sit on pole and win a Formula One race; barely two months after turning 21.
At the Brazilian Grand Prix, where he ran second for much of the race, he overtook Lewis Hamilton for fourth on the penultimate lap to set up a thrilling finale. This briefly gave Massa the title, before Glock’s tyre gamble failed and handed the championship to Hamilton. Vettel earned the title “Rookie of the Year.”
In 2009, Braun dominated the first half of the season and despite some crucial retirements, Vettel finished a bare 11 points behind Jensen Button. The sobering thought is that if not for a lack of reliability, he could have won his first title in 2009. At the opening race in Melbourne, Vettel was the only driver able to keep up with the Brauns. He was running second when a race incident cost him valuable points.
He won brilliantly in Shanghai, crashed out at Monaco and lost the pole lead in Turkey to finish third. His title charge started at Silverstone with an emphatic win, followed by second position in Germany behind teammate Mark Webber. His fight back predicted a great title chase, but sadly, reliability cost him valuable points in the next two races.
He added another two wins in Japan and Abu Dhabi, but rain spoilt his chances during qualifying in Brazil. Despite a brilliant drive from 16th to finish fourth, this was not enough to prevent Button winning his first title after nine years of Formula One racing.
2010 saw a fast but at times unlucky driver in action, when reliability and mistakes cost him. He worked hard to become a more calculated and consistent driver. This is probably the single most dangerous tool in his armoury, and the change came about after he conducted an intensive self-assessment.
If not for all the retirements and penalties, that season may also have been concluded long before the final race, but we saw one of the most exciting chases in history, leading to Vettel becoming the youngest ever double world champion. His unfortunate retirements in 2009 may haunt him, as he could so easily have been a triple champion by now.
A calm and confident champion returned in 2011, and he rarely made a mistake.
He only failed to appear on the podium twice, once in his home race where the pressure of being the new icon may have gotten to him after an inexplicable puncture on the first lap of yet another pole-sitting race in Abu Dhabi.
The inaugural Indian Grand Prix provided one of his many special achievements. In a career first, he scored the so-called Grand Chelem of pole, win, fastest lap and leading every single lap to further underline his dominant campaign.
What has impressed many supporters is Vettel’s down-to-earth personality and sensible approach despite his phenomenal success rate. He remains in a steady relationship with his high school sweetheart, Hanna Prater, but she never comes to the races as they prefer to keep their private lives private. “Never bring your girlfriend to work,” he once said. He proudly states that she is not a supermodel.
In the stats list, he is second to Schumacher in most categories, but tops the table in championship and poles percentage. His one “weakness” is fastest laps, where he features only seventh.
Vettel scored 75 and is rated second.
1. Michael Schumacher
The Master and his pupil...
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There can be no argument that Michael Schumacher stands tall in this group, despite the negative impact his poor results with Mercedes has had on his statistics.
Born on the 3 January 1969 in Hürth, West Germany in humble surroundings, this versatile sportsman and family man set records that may never be broken.
His father Rolf, a bricklayer and handyman, played a role in the birth of an impressive career when he modified four-year-old Michael’s pedal cart by adding a small motorcycle engine.
This led to the young daredevil crashing into a lamp post in Kerpen. The family thought it was safer to let him practice his driving skills at the local karting track, where he became the youngest member at the age of six. At home, the brothers often flooded the backyard to make their races more interesting.
In an effort to support their son's successful racing career, his parents took on a second jobs in the karting club; his father renting and repairing karts while mother Elisabeth worked in the canteen. To get around the German licence requirement, he obtained one in Luxembourg at the age of 12. When he reached the legal age of 14, he got a German version in time to win the German Junior Championship. He quit school in 1987 to become a mechanic.
At the end of 1988, Michael was spotted by Willi Weber during a Formula Ford race on the rain-soaked Salzburgring when he stormed from seventh to first place in just one lap. He was invited to a test drive in the WTS Formula 3 team. Schumacher was a sensational 1.5 seconds faster than the established team member, and a two-year contract was signed—Michael’s financial problems seemed to be over.
Weber’s thinking no doubt helped the young driver in the long term. He planned an apprenticeship with Mercedes-Benz in the Group C World Championship where Michael gained valuable knowledge such as how to deal with the press professionally and conduct interviews in English. He learnt how to cope with the car's high-level performance while Jochen Mass showed him how to tune a car professionally. He learnt about race tactics, how to look after his car and conserve fuel and tyres over a long period of time.
After one chance, Mercedes-funded race for Jordan, Schumacher landed a contract with Benetton in 1991, leading to him winning consecutive championships in 1994 and 1995.
The revival of the Ferrari outfit started during his eventful 11-year spell that began in 1996.
Schumacher missed an opportunity to win their first championship in 1999 due to a broken leg, but he won another five consecutive drivers' titles in the period 2000 to 2004, when he won more races and championships than any other driver in the history of the sport. He was noted for his ability to produce fast laps at crucial moments in a race and to push his car to the very limit for sustained periods. His record in wet conditions earned him the nickname of “Rain Master.”
Stirling Moss commented at the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix, "It was not a race. It was a demonstration of brilliance."
In a 2006 FIA survey, Michael Schumacher was voted the most popular driver of the season among Formula One fans and to this day, Michael has many supporters around the world.
His career has not been without controversy, and many competing drivers have experienced his ruthless streak. However, the multiple champion remains an icon and since his return, has shown a very likable side to the world.
Off the track, Schumacher is an ambassador for UNESCO and a spokesman for driver safety. He has been involved in numerous humanitarian efforts throughout his life and donated tens of millions of dollars to charity. In my ratings chart, he scored 82 points to be undisputed No. 1.
Driver Statistics Top 10
Adoring fans watching the Korea Podium
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
KEY: T = Titles Sc = Score R = Races W = Wins Pl = Pole Pd = Podium FL = Fastest Lap
Driver Statistics: Ranked 11 to 19
Rosberg at the spectacular Yas Marina complex
Clive Mason/Getty Images
KEY: T = Titles Sc = Score R = Races W = Wins Pl = Pole Pd = Podium FL = Fastest Lap