You have to feel sorry for Sebastian Vettel. At the age of 26, the poor chap has won four consecutive Formula One world drivers’ titles, accrued a host of world records featuring the phrase “youngest ever”, and dominated a field that has included five other world champions – the likes of Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, no less.
And yet Vettel’s supremacy has branded him both one of the greatest in the sport, on a par with Juan Mañuel Fangio and Alain Prost, and – deep yawn – a dull automaton who has killed all interest in it.
Last year, F1’s annual global television ratings plummeted by 10 per cent to 450 million as Vettel won 13 of the 19 races, including all the last nine. No hiccups or controversies. No down- to-the-wire finale. Nothing to get viewers jumping off the sofa. When Vettel celebrated on the podium in Canada, Belgium and Singapore, the victor met with boos from the crowd.
It was too much of a Seb-fest, too much an exhibition of sublime racecraft. On the eve of the new season, a long-time grand prix correspondent listed “Sebastian Vettel losing” as his number one hope for 2014. “After all,” he wrote, “it has been about eight months since anything but the German’s silly single digit has been waved.”
“Tall poppy syndrome” is nothing new in sport but, in Vettel’s case, the criticism directed at the result of his domination – unexciting races and a lack of human drama – seems to have transferred to the man himself. Unfairly so. Dull? Vettel? He is far more 3D than the exultant finger-wagger of the caricature. Compared with most elite sportsmen, he is Renaissance man.
This is a young man from Heppenheim, Germany, who is also fluent in French and English, who won over his Red Bull mechanics by talking to them in cockney rhyming slang. He loves Monty Python and, inspired by American Second World War bomber pilots, prefers to consider his cars as sexy personalities rather than machines, naming them accordingly. He has quite a harem now, with Julie, Kate, Kate’s Dirty Sister, Luscious Liz and the world championship-winning Randy Mandy (2010), Kinky Kylie (2011), Abbey (2012) and Hungry Heidi (2013). His 2014 model is called Suzie.
As luck (and conspiracy theorists) would have it, the F1 Strategy Group introduced radical new regulations in response to the TV ratings dip, which promise to make this season the most unpredictable for years and sustain the tension right to the last race. With all teams starting from scratch on the design of their 2014 cars, it was Vettel’s Red Bull team who headlined pre- season testing reports with dramatic struggles to overcome reliability and engine issues. In the season-opener in Melbourne, Vettel duly qualified an unlucky 13th on the starting grid and retired forlornly after five laps. Zero points.
So far so good for those who wish to see him tested to the hilt in the defence of his title. Even better, his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo took second place behind race winner Nico Rosberg before being disqualified for breaching fuel rules.
On the cards now is another sharp team rivalry (Vettel and previous team-mate Mark Webber had an infamously strained relationship).
The forthcoming 18 races will be a test of mettle – and it’s time to see facets of Vettel’s personality beyond the ruthless racer. “He’s the brightest racing driver I’ve ever met,” says Simon Arron of Motorsport magazine. “He is utterly intense on track, but away from it there’s so much more to him that people realise.”
Vettel is the third of four children born to Norbert, a carpenter, and Heike, a housewife. He has two older sisters: Melanie, a dental technician, and Stefanie, a physiotherapist for disabled children, and a younger brother, Fabian.
Sebastian’s childhood heroes were the three Michaels – Schumacher, Jordan and Jackson. He is a Beatles fan, scouring vintage music shops for vinyl. Two months ago he became a father when his partner Hanna Prater, whom he has known since childhood, gave birth to their daughter, Emilie.
Vettel began karting at the age of three on a 60cc go-kart around the back yard. To spice things up, his father poured water on the improvised racetrack. At the age of eight his speed and ability were spotted by Gerhard Noack, a talent scout who had also spotted Schumacher. “Right from day one, Sebastian was one of those people on the team who gets there first and is the last to leave,” Noack recalls. “He always wants to know ever detail of technical aspects.”
That hunger extends beyond F1. In 2011, Vettel became obsessed with tic-tac, the hand signals used by British bookmakers at race meetings. Arron recalls talking about him to Red Bull team principal Christian Horner at Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix. “Christian was just saying, ‘He’s an information sponge, particularly for anything quirky’, when Vettel wandered by. Horner called him over, fired a series of odds in his direction (5-2,33-1,9-4) and Vettel’s arms went into overdrive.”
What sets him apart form his peers is an extraordinary intellectual processing power. As Arron describes it, Vettel is all eyes and antennae. When, for example, the engineers have kept information back so as not to distract him during a race (for instance when the team has switched his team-mate to a different tyre strategy), Vettel will come on the radio within a couple of laps, asking about the lap times on the alternative compound, because he’s spotted the different tyre sidewall stripe via the trackside screens.
In a world of big egos, though, he is resolutely unstarry. He negotiates his own deals, walks around without an entourage and likes to consider himself “one of the guys”. In Texas last year, prior to the Austin Grand Prix, Vettel and another team-member dropped in at an unassuming diner for a burger. By chance, F1 circuit commentator Bob Constanduros was eating there. Neither greeted the other. Yet a few weeks later, Vettel sidled p to Constanduros and, as Constanduros recalls, “He said, ‘That wasn’t a bad place, was it?’ He’s a humble, down-to-earth guy.”
Qualifying session Saturday 7am BBC1 (repeated at 1.15pm) and 7.55am 5 Live Sports Extra
Grand Prix live on Sunday at 8am (race starts 9am) BBC1 (repeated at 1.45pm) and 8.30am on 5 Live
Sky Sports F1 also has live coverage of both qualifying and the race