Vettel champion special: From the archive

By on Monday, October 10, 2011

Article originally written in June 2010. Think of what has changed since then...

Sebastian Vettel. Photo credit: Red Bull GEPA

The 2007 Canadian Grand Prix was an extremely significant race. No, not for the reason that you’re thinking of, it has nothing to do with Lewis Hamilton’s first victory. Halfway through the race, Robert Kubica attempted an optimistic move on Jarno Trulli but nudged the rear of the Toyota at high speed and his front wing became lodged underneath his own car. TV cameras missed the initial incident but they caught the rest of it. Kubica’s BMW Sauber speared into the first concrete wall before smashing into the one situated slightly behind it (narrowly missing Scott Speed’s parked Toro Rosso) and had a horrifying accident. Debris was strewn across the track and the medical crew quickly attended to the Pole, whose car had come to a stop on its side. The driver’s foot was visible through the front of the car; such was the severity of the impact. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it became apparent that the accident was not fatal but reports came through that he had suffered from a broken leg. A few hours later and this turned out not to be true: nothing more than a sprained ankle and a sore head. The fact that the next grand prix, at Indianapolis, was only a week away was crucial: Although Kubica passed the medical examination, and did not seem to show any ill effects, the FIA medical delegate decided it would be best to rest him for the weekend, and not risk a second impact at the circuit - so famous for its high speed crashes. This was a precautionary measure - another concussion so close to the previous one could be dangerous. Kubica himself was pretty annoyed and wanted to race and was happy and jolly at the FIA press conference in the build up to the race. But despite his desire to race that weekend, he wouldn’t.

BMW decided to put their test driver in the race and he went by the name of Sebastian Vettel. He had a largely impressive race: qualifying 7th and finishing 8th. By doing so, he set the record for becoming the youngest ever points scorer and he caught the eye of a few team bosses. The name ‘Vettel’ was scribbled down in notebooks and his name added to silly season threads.

Anyway, Rob was now fit again so when the circus went to France, Sebastian went back to World Series, where he was comfortably leading the championship.

Prior to 2007, his junior formulae record had been impressive, but not up to the same sort of domination as Lewis Hamilton or Nico Hulkenberg. However, he did win a staggering 18 of the 20 races in the 2004 Formula BMW series. The other two races? Well, they were just measly second and third place finishes. To get through any junior formulae series without a retirement is an achievement but to score like that? Just incredible.  A bad crash at Spa Francorchamps in 2006 saw his finger nearly sliced off but he still managed to finish runner up in the 2006 F3 Euroseries to Paul di Resta.

Fast forward a few races to the German Grand Prix and Toro Rosso’s Frank Tost has finally lost patience with his outspoken charger Scott Speed, who in a season and a half of Formula One had made little impression in terms of his ability on the track. Their bust-up soon became public and Speed’s position in the team became untenable. Spinning off on the second lap of the race confirmed his position.

After the race, Toro Rosso made enquiries to BMW about their young charger and on July 31st of that year, BMW released Vettel and a significant part of his career was over. He was now no longer part of the BMW Motorsport programme but was now property of Red Bull. Hot property.

So Vettel got to driver for the latter part of 2007 and for the whole of 2008. Would he become another Scott Speed or was he a star in the making? Well, things did not start well. Vettel struggled to keep up with Liuzzi's pace at Budapest, Istanbul, Monza and Spa, and never managed to progress amongst the lower-midfield pack (Toyota, Honda, Toro Rosso, Super Aguri). At the time, it was known that Liuzzi was heading out of the team to make way for Champ Car superstar Sebastien Bourdais and the Italian’s speed at the time was nothing special.

But then, something happened. That something was an element of weather which was to define his status as a potential champion. It rained at Fuji and it didn’t stop, it just kept pouring and poring and pouring. Vettel drove a brilliant race for a driver with so little experience. In the soaking conditions, he made his way up the field to 3rd, taking scalps such as Fernando Alonso along the way. After Alonso’s large crash, the safety car came out and it was at this point when he was to go from hero to zero in a matter of seconds. Behind the safety car, he accelerated too sharply and smacked into the back of Mark Webber. It was probably the worst driver to crash into as sister team Red Bull were optimistic of taking a first victory. Whilst Vettel trudged back to his garage and was in tears, Webber was less forgiving: ‘It’s kids isn’t it... kids with not enough experience – they do a good job and then they f*** it all up’.  However, Vettel bounced back to claim a career best 4th in wet conditions in China. Incidentally, no one in the team really noticed that Liuzzi came home 6th to take his best finish... After the season, Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz said of his driver: ‘Vettel is one of the young guys with extraordinary potential...He is fast, he is intelligent, and he is very interested in the technical side’.

The opening half of the 2008 season was less than convincing however. After four races, he was the only driver not to have finished a race and in three of them, he had retired with accident damage on the opening lap. He finally finished the fifth race but it was a mediocre drive, coming home 17th after qualifying 14th. However, he once again proved his wet weather prowess with a fine 5th place in Monaco. He survived when other didn’t and mainly benefitted from incidents involving Adrian Sutil, Kimi Raikkonen and Heikki Kovalainen. He followed it up with another strong drive in Canada, finishing 8th, before 12th in France. The British Grand Prix was a particularly iconic race as he was taken out by David Coulthard on the opening lap in changeable conditions – those in which he had proved to revel in. Perhaps it was karma getting him back for Fuji? Or perhaps it was just incompetence from Coulthard? Most likely the latter to be honest.

A major turning point came at Valencia, where he topped a practice session and set the fastest lap of the weekend in Qualifying 2. He finished 6th, where he also qualified, just two seconds behind Jarno Trulli. It was an impressive drive, but nothing like the praise he would get at the Italian Grand Prix. He became the youngest pole scorer after topping the times in Q2 and Q3 and he was hoping to score a healthy amount of points. Not many predicted he would finish on the podiums, yet in challenging conditions – the ones in which he revelled – he dominated. He smashed the record of youngest winner by 317 days and became the youngest podium winner at the same time. At that race, all three drivers on the podium – Vettel, Kovalainen and Kubica – had won their first race in that year but Vettel’s performance was unquestionably the finest. Toro Rosso team boss Gerhard Berger said, "As he proved today, he can win races, but he's going to win world championships. He's a cool guy". Lewis Hamilton praised the German, stating that this victory showed "how good he is" The nature of the victory led the German (and international) media to dub him "baby Schumi", although Vettel was quick to downplay expectations: "To compare me with Michael Schumacher is just a bit ridiculous...It will be difficult in normal conditions for us to repeat this achievement" So not only was he quick, but he was humble and he had a good sense of humour. Yes, that’s right, a German with a sense of humour. The rest of the season was also very good. He also played a pivotal role in the 2008 season finale at Interlagos. Vettel was the driver that had much of the world on tenterhooks as he hunted Hamilton down and passed him on the penultimate lap. That would hand the title to Felipe Massa, but we all know how that one ended up...

After the 2008 season, Vettel had received praise from a variety of sources and was being tipped as a future champion. Some questioned his move to the senior Red Bull team as the Toro Rosso had looked a much better package for the majority of the campaign.

2009 was a season that combined flashes of sheer brilliance with moments of utter foolishness. A crash in the dying laps at Melbourne cost him valuable points and he spun off in the wet at Sepang. Once again though, wet conditions would take Vettel to the top once more and he claimed his second career victory at the Chinese Grand Prix. He had taken Toro Rosso’s first victory and now he had done the same for Red Bull. But by the Turkish Grand Prix in June, he looked to be dwindling. A silly crash in Monaco was more lost points and he had been beaten by team mate Webber in Istanbul thanks to the Australian’s favourable strategy. A comprehensive victory at Silverstone silenced his doubters that he couldn’t win in the dry as Red Bull claimed another 1-2. They repeated the feat three weeks later at the Nurburgring with the roles reversed. But mechanical gremlins would strike and were a key part of the reason for failing to win the championship. Whilst the Button & Brawn machine steamrollered the opposition in 6 of the opening 7 races, their lack of development meant that the RB5B was now the best car on the grid. Moreover, Ferrari and McLaren were now challenging near the top. The problem was that Brawn never had these teams to contend with, such was their early-season dominance. Red Bull did have to contend with them and they often got beaten off the line by them thanks to the KERS device. Hamilton won in Hungary whilst Seb retired and an engine failure in Valencia did little to boost morale. He was now way off the championship lead with not many engines remaining. Returning to his happy hunting ground of 2008 did little to boost his aspirations as he took a trip through the gravel en route to 8th, which would have been 9th had Hamilton not decided to try and close a 2 second gap in an impossible time...

However, Vettel sent out a message to the opposition that he would be stronger in 2010 with victories at Suzuka and Abu Dhabi, the latter aided by Hamilton’s car giving up the ghost. Nonetheless, it was an omen that the rest of the grid needed to heed. Bahrain was a promising race, Australia was a disaster – 50 points gone in two races. In Malaysia, he duped Webber into Turn One and Mark gave him the race on a plate.

But perhaps it is Mark’s upturn in form that has led to Vettel being slightly rash lately. Of course, I’m talking about that move in Turkey, the one that has led to so much speculation about why Vettel was faster, whether he is being favoured by Red Bull and if the team can rebuild from such an incident. Vettel currently has 78 points and is fifth in the championship. It doesn’t sound too bad, but with all the mistakes that have occurred, he could be miles ahead.

So on the whole, Vettel is a very good driver. The fans tend to like him and he is one of Bernie’s favourites. However, he is not yet the complete driver. Whilst he can win, take poles and set fastest laps, he has yet to prove himself in a less than favourable situation.

For example, Lewis Hamilton has had comeback drives from the back of the grid. As has Fernando Alonso and a couple of others, whilst some of his rivals have had many years of driving in the midfield and knowing the best time to attack. Vettel has yet to deliver a performance where he has come from behind with some stunning overtaking moves. I’m not saying he can’t drive to the front because he has, but he has not shown aggression when fighting in the midfield, something which is critical in becoming a champion. But if the RB6 can stay in one piece, will he need to?

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