Time to Stop Criticising Vettel
I’m writing this from the roof of the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore. It’s an incredible facility and one of the most impressive and iconic buildings I have ever seen. From the edge of the infinity pool I have one of the best city views in the world and as I gaze down on the streets being transformed from circuit to public highway in the aftermath of Sunday’s race, I cannot help but be staggered by the achievements of Sebastien Vettel in this year’s Singapore Grand Prix.
From our Bay Grandstand we were treated to an exciting race with tight battles and overtaking throughout the entire field. Well, almost. The battle for first place was almost non-existent; such was the domination of Sebastien, reigning world champion and now three-time winner in Singapore.
Vettel made a monstrous start, leading by six seconds after as many laps. He made an equally strong restart, pulling ahead by two seconds per lap and was able to pit and remain clearly ahead of those on a different strategy staying out. Whilst the rest of the field’s varying tactics played out, culminating in a wild and unpredictable reshuffling of the order in the closing stages, Sebastien’s victory never looked in doubt. He won by 32.6 seconds, the biggest winning margin in a dry race since 2005, and this race included a safety car for Daniel Ricciardo’s crash under our grandstand which evaporated Vettel’s lead midrace. This was not just the guy with the fastest car or the smartest strategy getting the edge over his rivals. This was a crushing display by a driver who appeared to be in a league of one. Any doubts I had before Sunday about Sebastien being a worthy triple world champion are well and truly banished. But you cannot judge such things as worthiness or how much someone deserves their championships on one race alone, so let’s look at the young German’s achievements as a whole.
Prior to the 2013 season, the last Grand Prix I attended was Silverstone 2009. Whilst the FIA and Formula One Teams’ Association’s war was reaching its climax, talk was more of politics than racing in a weekend dominated by Sebastien Vettel, who went on to impressively finish second in the drivers’ championship to Jenson Button that year. The British Grand Prix was a fairly dull race but I remember coming away a newly converted fan of the young German. By then he had already stunned the F1 world by winning the previous year’s Italian Grand Prix in a Toro Rosso and by taking the Red Bull team’s first ever victory in China in 2009. At Silverstone in 2009 I witnessed Vettel’s third ever victory. Two days ago in Singapore I witnessed his 33rd victory. Unbelievably he has notched up his 33 wins in barely five years and is still a young driver with a long future ahead of him.
He’s already developed considerably since that day at Silverstone four years ago. His 2009 season yielded two more wins – a commanding drive in Japan and an inherited win in the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix when Lewis Hamilton retired.
In 2010, he was even more switched on. Nobody could touch him in Malaysia, Valencia or Japan (again), and he should have won Korea but for engine failure, but then there were still some silly moments. In Turkey he infamously clashed with team mate Mark Webber, losing the team a certain one-two finish. This, combined with Vettel accidentally driving into Webber at Fuji in 2007, did not help Webber’s feelings of respect towards Sebastien. Then Seb clumsily crashed into Button at Spa and by the tail end of the season it was Webber looking to win a season-long battle with Fernando Alonso to take the title. At the penultimate round of the championship in Brazil, many questioned Red Bull’s tactics in not making Vettel step aside to let Webber past and aid his team mate’s title chances. A week later on the other side of the world in the Abu Dhabi desert, Vettel won again and remarkably took the title when Webber and Alonso made wrong strategy calls.
So Vettel was unexpectedly world champion after only winning ten races in his career albeit most of them rather convincingly. He still had some work to do to become the complete package, but domination was about to follow.
In 2011, Vettel won five if the first six races in Australia, Malaysia, Spain, Monaco and Turkey. He looked set to win the next one in Canada too but a mistake under pressure on the last lap of an epic four hour race let Jenson Button through to take a dramatic win. Normal service resumed next time out in Valencia and Vettel took win number 16. The mid-season saw wins for Alonso, Hamilton and Button but Vettel’s domination continued, winning five from six again in the second half of the year in Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Korea and the inaugural Indian Grand Prix. He was champion with four rounds to spare and had won 11 races in a truly dominant season. He may have had the best car, but the fact that Webber won only one race all year, ten less than Seb in the same car, shows just what amazing things the German was achieving with his RB7.
2012 was a different story. In a year where nobody could dominate for the first three quarters of a tumultuous season, seven drivers took victories from the first seven races. Vettel’s came in the Bahrain Grand Prix in April, but he was not to win again until Singapore in September and that only occurred thanks to Lewis Hamilton’s retirement whilst leading. Alonso looked a dead cert for the championship having been the most consistent driver throughout 2012 and the hitherto sole triple winner. But then came the domination and consistency that had been missing from the season thus far, and of course it was Red Bull and Sebastien Vettel who stepped up. Uncatchable in Japan, Korea and India, the now five-time 2012 winner led the championship and was aiming to become the youngest ever triple champion and the first ever to win a title without winning a race in Europe in his title season. In Abu Dhabi, Seb showed he was more than just a driver who can only race from the front. He was forced to start from the back of the grid and brilliantly battled through to the podium. He then could not match Hamilton in Texas and a showdown with Alonso was set up for Brazil. Vettel had the points lead but it turned out to be perhaps his least straightforward and challenging race yet. But, like in Abu Dhabi, Seb overcame serious initial setbacks and a race of attrition that ended under safety car to fight through to sixth place, sufficient to win the title by three points, an incredibly close margin. To put that into context, Vettel’s choice to switch back to a two stop strategy in Canada when Alonso stayed out too long was enough on its own to change the eventual outcome of the championship.
If anything, having to really fight for the 2012 title has only driven Vettel to reach a new level of driving brilliance. Yes, his move on Webber against team orders in Malaysia this year was ill-advised and selfish but then he’s a racer and team orders are not in a driver’s true nature. In Bahrain, Canada and Germany he drove great races to win whilst he has been far more consistent than his rivals, finishing in the top four in every single race except at Silverstone when he suffered gearbox failure. It has been since the resumption of the season after the summer break, however, that Vettel has truly been in a class of his own. His Belgian Grand Prix an Italian Grand Prix victories came at low downforce circuits which were not expected to suit the Red Bull RB9, thus showing Seb’s ability to extract the most from a car in less than ideal circumstances. At the Marina Bay circuit in Singapore last weekend, however, he demonstrated what he is really capable of in one of the most dominant displays to date.
Vettel led all 61 laps, took pole, scored fastest lap and won by over half a minute, lapping at times two seconds per lap quicker than anyone else, a massive margin in performance. Vettel twice broke the lap record for the circuit in Q1 and Q3 (admittedly, the track was modified for 2013 with the simplification of turn ten, increasing lap times by a second). Sebastien even managed to gamble by just going out once in Q3 and maintained pole, saving himself an extra set of tyres in the process. So Vettel now leads the championship with 247 points to Alonso’s 187 and six races to play for. Surely it is now a matter of when and not if he will be a quadruple world champion.
Mathematically, Vettel can win the title as soon as the Japanese Grand Prix in less than three weeks, but if Alonso continues to finish runner-up to Vettel as he has at the last three races now (incidentally, this is the first time two drivers from different teams have ever finished 1-2 thrice consecutively), Vettel will still be champion at the next round in India at the end of October. If he is crowned champion in India or America, he will have won all four of his titles at different venues, having sealed the first three at Abu Dhabi, japan and Brazil respectively. If he is champion in Texas, he will have won four titles on four continents.
Regardless, we are clearly witnessing a true racing great performing at his peak and to describe this as boring or berate Vettel at all is churlish and blinkered. What Vettel achieved in Singapore was a crushing blow from a supreme athlete at the top of his game to his sporting rivals. Right now, they’re not even close to being on Seb’s level despite the wealth of talent in the current crop of drivers. Vettel just really is that good.