Statistically speaking, Sebastian Vettel’s 2011 campaign has been pretty near perfect. From eight races he’s scored seven poles, six wins and two runner-up finishes. With less than half the season complete the writing is on the wall: the drivers’ crown is staying with Seb, and he’s going to win it with crushing dominance.
But the feeling among a significant number of F1 fans we’ve spoken to lately – in fact, seemingly everyone who isn’t a Vettel supporter – seems to be that the Red Bull man doesn’t deserve his success. Moreover, the words ‘bad for the sport’ are beginning to be bolted on to the end of sentences about his winning streak. Fair?
Sunday was his 16th win in Formula One, equaling the number taken by Stirling Moss. He’s now just two off Kimi Räikkönen, four shy of Mika Häkkinen and six behind Damon Hill. You’d not be foolish to suggest he’ll surpass all three this season.
Of those 16 wins Vettel has taken 12 from pole, three from second on the grid and just one from third. The latter was at last year’s Malaysian Grand Prix, where a superb start saw him lead the race by the first corner.
And this is where the idea that he doesn’t deserve it springs from: true champions can carve their way through the pack to score wins. Vettel has never really displayed his racecraft. On occasion – Turkey and Spa 2010 come immediately to mind – he’s shown himself up when trying to get past his rivals. Seb still needs to prove himself as an overtaker of genuine ability if he’s to be one day considered a true great of the sport.
His reaction to the Turkey incident – where he blamed team-mate Mark Webber – didn’t endear him to the wider public either. Perhaps there is a need for Seb – like a few others in the paddock – to take a calm look at racing incidents before making any public declarations.
But the idea that what he’s doing is easy doesn’t stack up. If it were true then serious questions would need to be asked of Webber, because with the same car underneath him he’s unable to match Vettel’s performance. Take the first few laps in Valencia: Mark wasn’t under any real pressure from the drivers behind – his sole objective was to chase down Vettel, get within a second of his team-mate and stab that DRS button.
But Vettel built a gap and held it. He was pushing like mad to keep Webber a safe distance behind and was successful in doing so. I’m not sure that this could be described as easy.
The ‘easy’ argument also ignores Vettel’s unquestionable ability to nail a fast qualy lap. The reason he has it relatively easy on a Sunday is because he works so hard on Saturday to take the box seat on the grid. He’s now scored 22 pole positions, more than anyone in the current field bar Michael Schumacher; he’s utterly destroyed Webber in qualifying.
And this is by no means easy. You can question his racecraft if you wish, but Vettel’s pace over one lap is under no scrutiny: he’s immense at banging in a fast one.
No one would deny that it spoils ‘the show’ when one driver dominates race after race, particularly when the action behind them is as turgid as it was in Valencia’s docklands.
But you can’t hold that against Vettel – he’s only doing what every other driver on the grid would give their hind teeth to do. He has the fastest car and is naturally going to use it to his full advantage – i.e. qualifying as high up as possible and disappearing at the head of the field when the lights go out. His responsibilities are to himself – to be the most successful driver he can be – and to his team, who pay his wages and thus demand a high level of performance. Like it or not he has absolutely no responsibility to put on a show. If he does that’s fantastic, but it comes a very distant second to fulfilling his personal potential and repaying the work that the Red Bull team do for him.
I find it hard to believe that this is not the attitude with which every driver on the grid today would – in fact should – approach Formula One. Take, for example, a self-proclaimed racer like Lewis Hamilton: would he, given the choice, prefer to start every race from pole and dominate to the flag, or would he rather have to work his way through the pack on a fortnightly basis, facing the many pitfalls this can present? The answer is pretty clear: he’d take pole and the win every single time.
Because a racing driver’s career is short, particularly in the you’re only as good as your last race world of Formula One. They have to live in the belief that each win could be their last, and so scooping up every available victory is natural.
I understand the negative feelings about Vettel; they’re natural given his dominance of the 2011 season.
But to suggest that he’s got an easy job overlooks just what a fantastic qualifier the guy is; it ignores the work he does in building an maintaining a gap to his pursuers; essentially, it implies that running at the head of the field is a breeze. It’s not.
Yes, he has the fastest car by some margin, but that shouldn’t be held against him. I’d like to see him carve through the field for his wins as much as anyone. But at the moment he simply doesn’t have to. You can’t give him a hard time for that.
And let’s be honest: even with a second title at 24 he still won’t be considered a true great. To do that he will have to win or at least challenge the championship in a car that isn’t the fastest on the grid.