Don't be surprised
Friday August 25, 2006, at Istanbul Park. The Turkish Grand Prix weekend is about to get underway.
A 19-year-old boy, facial features comically mismatched in that way so common to young men as their bodies hapazardly grow into adulthood, strides towards the garages. Sebastian Vettel is ready to make his Formula 1 debut.
The BMW Sauber F1.06 rolls in to the Friday morning sunshine and a future sporting great is on his way.
Fast-forward to now and we have a 26-year-old fully grown man as our four-times world champion. Stubble grown – at Sao Paulo – into a scruffy beard on the face of a guy who’s assumed the mantle of sporting excellence. Google his name, take a look at the transformation; it’s amazing to see.
Sure we all grow-up, our faces changing as we progress from gawky teenage years to adult life. But it’s different for sporting superstars. Increased responsibility, pressure, fitness training and limelight focus – which most of us simply never experience – all play their part in making the man.
Of course, occasionally evidence of the youngster inside manifests itself in erroneous decisions: I doubt Sebastian will be taking another bottle of bleach to his hair anytime soon!
So as we consign the 2013 F1 season to the history books, what do we make of our champion? Lucky lad fortunate to be sitting in an Adrian Newey rocketship, or a truly gifted leviathan of the sport?
I don’t believe in the fallacy of luck so I plump for the latter of the two.
Good drivers find good cars, and boy has Vettel ever done that. But wait – he didn’t just arrive and sit in a race-winning machine. Red Bull – let alone Toro Rosso, who, lest we forget, the German also made into winners – had never won a race before Sebastian arrived.
Vettel has played an immense role in developing Newey’s aero-efficient cars into the dominant opposition-crushing machines we’ve watched over the past four and half years. Adapting his driving style – particularly, it appears, this season – so as to extract the maximum speed from the RB9, Seb has enabled Newey to indulge all his genius. To deny this fact and simply dismiss Vettel as ‘lucky’ is to exhibit ignorance in the extreme.
If you do hold such an opinion, what does that say about everyone’s favourite ‘unlucky’ bloke, Australian Mark Webber? Acknowledged as a very good F1 pilot, Mark has won – in his seven years at the team – nine grands prix. An impressive tally, no doubt, until that is you learn that his team-mate has won that many races since August this year…
Fernando Alonso, in his assumed role as Sebastian-hater numero uno, can harp on all he likes about the need for the German to do his time in a midfield also-ran car, but he misses the point. Vettel shows no signs of making the same ill-judged career decisions our Spanish hero has so often made.
Enthusiastically reported rumours of the 2010-to-’13 champion driving a Ferrari in 2014 were so wide of the mark as to be absurd. Leave a team that loves you, and has the greatest F1 car designer in history penning your ride, to go to the Italian marque with a recent history of championship failure? I’m afraid most Germans just don’t make such daft decisions!
Many followers of Formula 1 who were perhaps looking for a convenient reason – other than his annoying but brand-building finger-wagging – to decry Vettel jumped with unbounded enthusiasm upon the boo-boys-bandwagon fuelled by this season’s ‘Multi-21-gate’ shenanigans. On lap 46 of the Malaysian Grand Prix Sebastian, as we know, ignored team orders, challenged and passed Webber for the lead and eventual victory at Sepang.
Deal with it.
That’s what ruthless champions often do. They see an opportunity and they take it, their hapless team-mates almost never being considered anything other than an inconvenience for their illustrious and victorious rivals.
As much as his Malaysian actions exposed Vettel’s win-at-any-cost attitude, it also spoke volumes about his team’s lack of rigour in dealing with the firestorm that engulfed them. As many times as a team practices pit stops and race-winning strategies, their public relations people should drill for potential crises.
As Sebastian exited Turn 4 in the lead on Sunday March 24, 2013, a full scale PR offensive should have been enacted so as to protect Red Bull’s prize on-track asset. Instead, Vettel was left to face the press on his own, seemingly with little or no advice on how to deal with the ravenous and baying-for-blood media hordes.
The Milton Keynes superteam failed utterly to deal with the situation, and their star driver’s meek and weak excuses – delivered and then retracted soon afterwards – showed a significant (in this reputation-driven world) failing in Red Bull’s armoury. It’s a particularly noticeable flaw because in Vettel they have a more likeable personality than many of his peers.
Vettel has a humility about him, a sense of humbleness that is rare among the often arrogant, overly feted and endlessly indulged, typical F1 driver. Trips for sought-after vinyl in back street Tokyo record collectors’ shops for this man who appreciates ‘good’ music are as likely as private Pirelli F1 tyre factory visits. He often displays a normal guy-like charm – an appreciation of F1 history being a particularly welcome rarity among his contemporaries – as well as frightening levels of commitment to the race-winning, championship-dominating Red Bull cause.
You’ll also find him showing up unprompted at the Saturday-evening track runs in which F1 sponsor UBS makes a charitable donation for every lap logged by every runner. “It’s not often one gets to pass a three times world champion” shouted Red Bull’s ever-sarcastic photographer Mark ‘Thommo’ Thompson as he squeezed by into Turn 1 at Suzuka. “Yes, but look at all ze traffic,” laughed Vettel, picking up the pace through the uphill Esses and leaving the fading snapper behind. “Argh, no traffic now!”
So when you turn-up early at a race track on a Thursday morning – as I did at Silverstone this year – and see a multi-title-winning F1 driver screwing the floor back onto his car while sharing a joke with ‘his’ crew, then 20 minutes later paddock-posing for pictures with a rival team’s VIP guests, don’t be surprised that it’s Sebastian.
And come the Sunday evening – of the same race weekend – only hours after his RB9’s gearbox gave up the fight, which driver do you think stood on stage at a post-race concert, chatting and smiling with the very same fans who had cheered and jeered his retirement from that afternoon’s race?
You won’t be surprised that it was Sebastian.