So Fast, So Young

It’s been a long day. In the Lombardy region of Italy, an Italian team has been victorious with a German driver, both on the Saturday and Sunday of the race weekend.  The winning driver had been on pole by half a second over 3rd-placed Mark Webber in a rain-soaked session and his race win was never in doubt on a day where he made the field look silly. It was a popular win at the Monza race-track, the fans were familiar with a German winning for an Italian constructor. But this wasn’t Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. With Scuderia Toro Rosso and at 21 years of age, Sebastian Vettel had become the youngest ever winner of a Formula One Grand Prix, while on the same weekend, also claiming the record for youngest driver to take pole position.

Racing infancy at BMW

As a test driver for BMW

In 2006 as a product of BMW’s youth scheme and as the team’s reserve driver, the cheerful boy of just 19 embarked on his first practice session, on the Friday of the Turkish GP. Rules for the season meant that the regular race drivers had to take care as to not over-stress their engines and tyres were also under care which meant practice sessions were not always a case of the fastest driver ending the session on top. Nevertheless, Vettel’s topping of the timeseheets was still impressive, and he became the youngest driver to participate in a practice session. At the following race weekend at Monza, again he was the fastest, this time in both of the Friday’s practice sessions.

Kept on for 2007 as BMW’s official reserve driver, he got his first chance of racing mid-way through the season, as one of the two full-time drivers Robert Kubica had to sit out the weekend following his heavy crash at the preceeding Canadian GP, With his first chance to show the world what he could do when giving a full weekend, the German qualifying in seventh and impressively held his own in the race, finishing 8th and with it, claiming a championship point. This set the record for youngest points scorer.  For the next few races he went back to his reserve role, but not for long as the Toro Rosso team came calling and from Round 11 onwards, he was a Toro Rosso race driver.

Early Impressions

The car, which was in essence, the car which the senior Red Bull team raced the previous year, was far from a serious contender, however, Vettel did do well. While he suffered some retirements, he did have a strong 4th place in a rain-affected Chinese Grand Prix.  At the preceeding Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, he looked on course to get his and Toro Rosso’s first ever podium. During a Safety Car period, he ran into the back of Mark Webber’s Red Bull, causing both to retire when they had been running in 2nd and Vettel 3rd.

Australia and Germany have a coming-together

Australia and Germany have a coming-together

McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton had been leading the field and it was his responsibility to keep the field running at a decent length. Webber was highly critical of both Hamilton and Vettel. Hamilton for failing to keep up with the Safety Car, and Vettel for running into him. Of Hamilton, Webber said: “”It (Hamilton’s driving) definitely contributed to Sebastian hitting me up the back because he (Hamilton) wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing, clearly.” Perhaps even more critical, he also said about Vettel when asked how he felt minutes after his retirement: “”It’s kids isn’t it… kids with not enough experience – they do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

Despite a mixed end to 2007, Vettel had much reason to look forward to the following year. The opening four races ended with little promise, as failure to finish any of them and only getting past lap 1 in one of the four, left the young man frustrated. At the following race in Monaco, he scored points after a 5th-placed finish. In Canada, he also scored a point after starting the race from the pit-lane. His Toro Rosso team had much improved since the beginning of the season, and this was proved as more points finishes were the reward for Vettel’s efforts. In Monza, Italy, he won the race and became the youngest ever race winner as he led home McLaren’s Heiki Kovalainen by over 12 seconds. Of the new visitor to the winner’s circle, team boss and ex-driver Gerhard Berger said: “”As he proved today, he can win races, but he’s going to win world championships.” Following points finishes in three of the final four races, he was promoted to the senior Red Bull team following the retirement of Scot David Coulthard. With a strong technical team behind them, Red Bull were seen by some to potentially launch a title bid in 2009. How right they were was about to be known.

Contention

A potential podium place slipped away from Sebastian as he clashed with BMW’s Robert Kubica, just a few laps from the end of the first race of the season. Suffering damage after the collision, his team instructed him to stay on the track in an attempt to finish the race 3 laps from the end.  He was unable to get far on three wheels and retired his car at the side of the track. In attempting to drive what was seen as a dangerous car, Vettel was given a ten-place grid drop for the Malaysian Grand Prix, with his team fined for telling him to drive on. At the Malaysian GP, he started from 13th on the grid and was running 8th, but spun just before the race was stopped because of weather in which it was unsafe to continue.  The third race of the season was a vastly-different story, with Vettel and Webber leading home a Red Bull 1-2, a first in the team’s short history. Claiming another record, this time the German was the youngest to win a race for two different teams.

First 1-2 in Red Bull's history

Over the next races, there was a mixture of podiums and retirements as Red Bull lagged behind the championship-leading Brawn team, which had started the season far in front. Their lack of resources came to hurt them as Red Bull caught up and out-raced them in developing their cars. Beginning with the British Grand Prix, Red Bull had the quicker car and Vettel took a dominant win. From here on, Red Bull and Vettel got the better of Brawn for the majority of the second half of the season, but it was not enough as Brawn GP and Jenson Button finished the  season as champions.

Button finished 2009 as champion

The Glory Years

2010 started with a mixture of retirements and wins. Reliability was something which would later cost both driver and team championships.  After the opening four races, he had just one podium, but in the fifth and sixth races scored these consecutively. Whilst running behind team-mate Mark Webber at with both men comfortably leading the Turkish GP, Vettel ran into the Australian, prompting Vettel to made a gesture which implied Webber was the man in the wrong.True to the racer spirit, neither men took blame from an incident which seemed the fault of the German, as he retired from the race, while Webber finished in the final podium place in 3rd.

Canada was 4th place and victory was taken in Valencia at the European Grand Prix for Sebastian. A puncture suffered early in the race meant that a 7th-placed finish and 2 points were all he picked up from the British GP following an eventful race weekend for the Red Bull team. The team were using newly-designed front wings from the Friday of the weekend.  On the Saturday of the race weekend in the final practice session before qualifying, Vettel damaged his beyond repair, leaving only Webber’s as the sole new wing. In an event which showed to all the favouritism at work in the Red Bull camp, the Aussie Webber had his front wing taken away and given to Vettel.  Webber went on to gain pole position and the race win with the older-spec part. Moments after crossing the finishing line, the outspoken Australian said on the team radio, “Not bad for a number two driver!”. Such a comment displayed not only Webber’s acceptance that the team saw him as the number two, but also his unwillingness to accept the role and instead to fight against the tide.

Mark was a happy camper at Silverstone

Vettel bounced back to earn successive podiums at the following GPs. At the Belgian GP at Spa, Vettel was attempting to overtake Jenson Button but ran too deep into the corner, and his Red Bull car bizarrely lost control under braking, causing him to take Button out of the race. The German was lucky as the accident happened on the outside which allowed him to pit for repairs immediately. Not so fortunate was Button, as the crash caused irreparable damage to his McLaren. Vettel had been making progress through the field, but a drive-through penalty handed to him following his incident and yet another puncture put him finishing out of the points, a lap down on the eventual winner.

A retirement which wasn't Jenson's fault

Successive finishes in the points in the next two races, along with 2 wins from  two of the final races, meant he had a chance at the title coming up to the final race. However, 15 points behind championship leader Fernando Alonso and also behind his team-mate Webber, he was an outside bet. Low points finishes for Alonso and Webber and victory in the season finale at the Abu Dhabi GP gave Vettel an unlikely championship win. At 23 years old, he became the youngest champion in history. He also took the championship lead for the one and only time at the end of the season, something which had only happened once before, with James Hunt in 1978.

A life's dream realised

Following the race, he was lost for words:

“I’m a bit stressed to be honest, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” Vettel, who had not previously led this season’s championship, told BBC Sport.

“It’s been an incredible year, we’ve always kept believing in the team, and the car, and I have kept believing in myself.

“I’m speechless! The car was phenomenal. The start was crucial, and it was very tight with Lewis, but after that it settled down.”

Doing it yet again, this time for a double in 2011

The past season was nothing short of domination for Vettel. 2011 saw records broken further, with most wins, most wins from pole, total number of pole positions in a season, and most front-row starts and most laps led in a single season.  11 wins and 15 poles ensured nothing short of a virtually-faultless campaign. He could have had even more wins if it were not for tyres past their best in China and Canada.

Compared to the greatest

Schumacher and Vettel

Ever since his debut win at a drenched Monza in 2008, he has endured comparisons with his countryman Michael Schumacher. Despite having proven his speed and talent and with a stunning two world championships when he’s only reached 24 and being the sport’s youngest-ever double world champion, he denies these comparisons, saying he only wants to race for himself:

“I can rate many of Michael’s seasons, obviously winning the title seven times,” said Vettel, sat alongside Schumacher at the time of the question.

He had very good seasons, but he also had seasons where he was in a bit of trouble and came through it, making huge progress with the team and himself even though he didn’t win the championship”. But surely, for all of us, with his big footsteps, they are very, very difficult to fill. Everything he achieved is quite phenomenal.

So the question is not if there will ever be a German achieving that again, the question is if there will ever again be a driver in Formula One achieving what he has done.”

Quick charisma

Always smiling

Considering he started driving an F1 car at such a young age and given his status as championship contender from the age of 21, one would not be surprised if Vettel was shy or perhaps dormant in expression. He is anything but. Always happy to talk to anyone around him, he is a delight for journalists and fans alike as he radiates charisma and boyish charm. Some fans dislike him for spending most of his career in a quick car,seen as not earning his stripes, and his one-fingered style of celebration. Always modest, Sebastian is always well-mannered and polite. He has a love for Britain, with two of his favourite comedic pieces being Little Britain and Monty Python. His talent is purely natural. In the Race Of Champions, an event which brings racing drivers from different categories together, he has won team titles in the Nations Cup for Germany alongside his hero Schumacher. In the UK TV show Top Gear, the segment in which they put F1 drivers, both current and former, against each other to lap the test track in a road car, Vettel set the fastest time and is to-date the quickest driver ever around the Top Gear track, beating fellow drivers such as team-mate Webber and rivals Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello.

The Future

Despite Red Bull currently being the team to beat, Vettel has spoken of a desire at some point to drive for Mercedes and Ferrari:

Obviously he [Michael Schumacher] told me what kind of special moments he experienced driving for Ferrari or Mercedes,” Vettel wrote in his column in Bild. “Both brands are the past, present and certainly the future of Formula One.

“Every driver dreams of Ferrari and Mercedes. If one ever ends up driving for them depends on a number of things. Everything must fit together. The myth alone is not enough.

“But this is still a long way away. My next aim is to defend the title with Red Bull.”

Letting It Out

On the BBC’s post-race show following the 2011 Japanese GP where he clinched his 2nd world title, and after he had celebrated amongst his team, he was shown a short video of the company of which he was now part of, the double world champions. As iconic names such as Senna and Schumacher were shown, along with legends such as Ascari and five-time champ Fangio, his own name appeared at the end.

Other men would simply have stood, perhaps in astonishment, but Sebastian was visibly moved, and with eyes welling, wiped a tear after telling Jake Humphrey “You shouldn’t do this to me, man!”   It was a moment of pure human tenderness in a asport driven by egos and excess.

Visibly overcome with emotion

He has achieved so much and at 24 years old, can achieve so much more. With charismatic charm, friendly demeanour and a strong sense of humour to match, the sport and it’s fans, are at the feet, or perhaps finger, of Sebastian Vettel.

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