Bien avant de s’illustrer chez McLaren, Ferrari ou Renault en F1, Patrick Tambay...
Sébastien VETTEL INVICTUS… It’s all a matter of opinion, by Massimo BURBI!
The distinctive sign of genius is the ability to turn the impossible into inevitable.
In Formula 1, as in many other areas of sport and life in general, “real artistry is making something very difficult look easy”. Those words belong to John Young Stewart, better known as Jackie, and they’re exactly twenty years old. He was then paying his tribute to Alain Prost, just crowned world champion for the fourth time at the very end of a record breaking career.
In recent times Formula 1 world witnessed the rise of another four time Champion, but unlike his predecessor he’s not a man about to bow out, quite the contrary: he’s “boy” with far more road stretching ahead of him than the one he’s already walked.
At Vettel’s current age many of the motorsport most celebrated legends still had to put themselves on the map. He could stop racing tomorrow, at 26, and still go down in history as one the all time greats.
To “build” a winner there’s little better than the winning itself, and Seb did it plentifully in the last few years.
Any top driver will tell you how winning the first race, or the first championship, changed his approach, his mentality. All these blokes grow up believing they can make it on the big stage. But once they actually made it it’s not a matter of believing anymore, they know they can. And if they did it once they can do it again. Winning gives a sportsman the one thing that keeps him cool, calm and lucid when he hits adversity, it’s called confidence and it makes all the difference in the world, particularly in tough times. At this level much of the difference is between drivers ears.
Some of the greats, like Mansell or Hakkinen, endured a long season of disappointments before their day finally came, but most them reached that breakthrough almost instantly and built their career on it.
The more Vettel stretches his winning streak the more he gains confidence and the harder he becomes to beat for his rivals. Not that he wasn’t self-confident before becoming a title-winning-machine. Ask Chris Horner and he’ll tell you the story of how he went to wish him good luck just before the 2010 title decider in Abu Dhabi only to find him playing with his drum kit and to get a “see you on the podium” as an answer.
He was the underdog that day. Only three weeks before a blown engine in Korea seemed to have put an end to his title hopes relegating him to fourth in the championship table with a massive 25 points deficit to recover with just two races to go. A 23 years old boy dealing with the stress of the title fight for the first time could have been forgiven for cracking under pressure, especially while facing an almost impossible task. Remember how Schumacher hit the wall in Adelaide 1994, remember how Hamilton, at the same age, almost managed to lose it twice in a row at the eleventh hour.
Vettel’s answer was quite different: two pole positions and two victories.
Bang, bang. Less than 20 laps into that final race the impossible task had already became the inevitable outcome of the season. It was Helmut Marko, and not Christian Horner, who joined him on the podium that evening, but he kept the appointment he made and, also thank to a Ferrari uncharacteristic strategic misjudgement, together with the winner trophy there was his first world championship crown to welcome him on the top step. That wasn’t the first time he turned the highly unlikely into inevitable, and wasn’t going to be the last.
Many people will tell you that Vettel doesn’t belong among the all-time-greats, that his serial wins are “too easy”, that everything has been laid down to him before starting. It’s true that in the last four and a half seasons Seb generally, not always, enjoyed a technical edge over his opponents but it’s also true that his Newey-designed rocket ship wasn’t always as reliable as, say, Alonso’s Ferrari. The truly remarkable thing that strikes watching Vettel’s run of success it’s not the statistics combined with the young age or the apparent lack of adversities, because adversities there was. No, it’s his ability to always find resources in himself to overcome those adversities and emerge victorious every single time.
He has managed to turn so many apparently terminal blows into “happy ends” that you can tell he never mentally writes himself off, he never feels defeated until the very end under any circumstance. That gives him a crucial psychological edge over most of his opponents who are much more accustomed than him to defeat.
In 2010 Webber’s campaign seemed to be the most solid one in the Red Bull camp. Who claims that Webber was just a pushover has a very short memory. Before the Pirelli-tyres&blown-diffusers age there was very little to choose between the “Bulls” in terms of raw speed and pace.
And it wasn’t even lack of consistency which denied the aussie the 2010 crown: leading the series after 16 rounds is more than was necessary for half a century, in terms of consistency, to take the title home. No, the real difference was that when Alonso started to look untouchable and every race turned into a “make it or break it” Webber slowly vanished while Vettel raised his game even higher and just went on winning.
And if 2011 was a walk in the park 2012 proved to be a very different story. After Monza Seb laid fourth, 39 points adrift. He reclaimed the top spot with four consecutive wins only to be forced to start from the pitlane at Abu Dhabi due to a team miscalculation and to find himself at the very back of the field after being hit from behind four corners into the Interlagos title decider.
There he was, pointing the wrong direction, with a damaged car (actually he was lucky it was still something he could race with), while Alonso was already challenging for the podium. Many drivers would have just felt hopeless, lost, some would give up, some would go off for trying too hard out of frustration.
He just spun his RB8 back, kept his head down and seven laps later he was already in a championship winning position. Later on in the race his team wrongly called him for a switch to slick tyres which needed to be reversed in just a couple of minutes with another (long) pit stop. That resulted in a huge time loss which again relegated him out of the points. Just four laps later he was again where he needed to be to keep his points lead, and he stayed there until the end.
A masterpiece of self-control. All through that brazilian rollercoaster he never shown a slight sign of desperation. He just went on doing his thing confident that it would turned out to be enough to win. And again it was.
In 2013 Vettel shown the world his “dark side” in Sepang, where is hunger for victories overcame his loyalty to the team. It wasn’t good to see, as much as his excuses after the race wasn’t good to hear. But the whole Sepang affair was consistent with the personality of a man who, as a 17 years old boy, first impressed his mentor Helmut Marko for being mad at himself for failing to win all the races of the Formula BMW calendar (he ended up winning “only” 18 out of 20).
But 2013 showed also, again, Vettel’s ability to find what it takes to win, whatever the circumstances. We witnessed it in Singapore with a display of speed which left most of the paddock speechless and we saw it again in Suzuka: It’s true that Webber’s side of the pit wall probably didn’t pick the best strategic option but you have to give Vettel credit for making the two stopper work to perfection. After his second stop he resumed behind Grosjean. He closed up on him instantly and after a single lap behind him he forced the Lotus on the wrong line approaching the chicane, got a good tow going into straight, and in a matter of few hundreds meters he was through.
Time lost in the process: close to zero.
The sense of inevitability was there again: It looked all too easy, like anybody could do it: a Red Bull on fresher tyres, how could anyone kept it behind for more than few corners?
Yeah, well, less than 10 minutes later Grosjean’s rubbers was 5 laps older. And it was Webber’s turn to attack the Lotus on fresher (option) tyres: it took him no less than 6 laps to get through. By the time he did it his gap from Vettel has grown from little more than 5” to almost 9” and the race was over.
In India it was the same story again. You watch Vettel’s recovery from the back of the field after an early stop, with hardly any time loss at all, and you could think the Buddh Circuit is a particularly overtaking-friendly environment. But then you see other drivers hopelessly stuck behind slower cars and you realise you should maybe reconsider your conclusion. It wasn’t easy, he just made it look like that.
He closed the season with nine consecutive wins, which means he hasn’t lost a race since July. One thing is driving the fastest car, quite another is not putting a foot wrong while doing it in nine consecutive events over a three months time.
In 2013 Red Bull was undoubtedly the class of the field, but look at the sixty-four season long F1 world championship history and you’ll be able to
count the drivers who won the title racing an inferior car on the finger of one hand.
Vettel simply made it work to perfection while his team mate, perhaps not at the peak of his motivation but still a true racer, wasn’t able to extract a
single win out of it in 19 races.
The easier Seb made it look the bigger is the credit due to him. Make no mistake, with Vettel we truly are in the presence of greatness.
Many thanks to Paul-Henri Cahier (www.f1-photo.com) for his kind permission to reproduce his photos.