MAURICE HAMILTON

Vettel: On the verge of greatness?


Sebastian Vettel, Japanese GP 2011

Sebastian Vettel, Japanese GP 2011 

 © The Cahier Archive

Whatever you may think about Sebastian Vettel, surely there can be no argument that he deserves the 2011 title more than anyone else? F1 drivers rarely compliment each other but the generous praise from Vettel's rivals say everything about his emergence as a worthy champion. And possibly a truly great one.

They might not have said that a year ago when Vettel came out on top at the eleventh hour, his 2010 season marked by alternating displays of excellence and petulance. Five wins had to be offset by the controversial incident with Mark Webber in Turkey, the basic error behind the Safety Car in Hungary and the misjudgement when trying overtake Jenson Button in Belgium. In my view, the turning point came right here in Mokpo, venue for this weekend's Korean Grand Prix.

If you recall, Vettel led that rain-lashed race. It was done and dusted, only for a rare engine failure to intervene a few laps from the end. His championship challenge, flimsy at times, appeared to have gone up in smoke and flames, along with the Renault V8. Red Bull team members braced themselves for toys to come flying from the pram.

But no. The Vettel who returned on foot to the pits was not only philosophical but also aware that his mechanics and engineers would be as disappointed as he was, particularly when Fernando Alonso went on to score his third win in four races and become championship favourite. "There's two more races to go; let's do this," said Vettel. And they did.

Indeed, from that moment on, I think you can safely say he's hardly put a foot wrong. Okay, there was the misjudgement when under pressure from Jenson Button in Canada, but I wouldn't call that a hanging offence given the need to open more than one second before the final DRS zone, otherwise he was history no matter what happened. There have been crashes during practice in Turkey, Canada and, last week, in Japan. But his instant recoveries from those potentially destabilising moments have been the hallmark of a driver who has become fully at ease in his own skin, never mind within the cockpit of the Red Bull RB7.

Speaking of which, Vettel has also put paid to the thought that success is mainly due to a superior car. The notion that he can only lead from the front and is incapable of racing through the field was put to bed by that utterly determined move on Fernando Alonso at Monza, never mind the startling overtake of Button just after the pit stop in Melbourne. Not once - apart when under instruction during the final few laps last weekend - has Vettel shown any sign of cruising safely to collect points.

The mistake would be to conclude that just because Vettel has won nine races so far this year, it's only because of Adrian Newey's genius. The fact is that the races have actually been closer than they look on paper and not many drivers could have pulled off those victories or, as has often been the case, secured pole with 'where the hell did that come from?' laps reminiscent of Ayrton Senna.

You have to feel sorry for Mark Webber in the other Red Bull. Webber's pace has not dropped off; it's simply that Vettel has raised his game to heights that few of the current drivers can match. Vettel has a relaxed and happy demeanour but that disguises a cast iron will to succeed that leaves absolutely no detail overlooked. Again, Senna comes to mind when discussing the killer instinct that separates the brilliant from the really good.

I was talking to Gerhard Berger about this during a forthcoming interview for 'F1 Racing' magazine. Berger had first-hand experience of Vettel during their time together at Toro Rosso. Without giving too much of the story away, suffice to say that Berger was despairing of the drivers at his disposal (one of whom he described as being "the most stupid driver I have ever seen"). Vettel then arrived and brought with him a brand of intelligence and desire that immediately marked the young German as a future star.

Berger says Vettel's only fault - if you could call it that - was his massive hunger to win. "It was clear," said Gerhard "that when Sebastian won the championship, he was going to make another big step because this pressure would be released. That's exactly what's happened in 2011."

You need to remind yourself that Sebastian Vettel is only 24. We could be witnessing the birth of a true great. And, as an interesting aside, a very nice guy to boot. It's been a privilege and a pleasure to watch a worthy double World Champion. And he's not done yet.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

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