Like any theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs, anyone espousing such ideas is often deemed an absurdist. In the rush to be the first to say “we told you so” in the wake of Sebastian Vettel’s fourth consecutive world championship, the self-appointed custodians of the court have screamed “heretic” at anyone who dared express a diametric opinion to the ‘all time great’ coat of arms plastered over motorsport websites the very minute Vettel crossed the line in Delhi.
For all the concern over freedom of the press (should FOM wrestle control over print media accreditation), the media’s main players are doing a pretty good job at shutting out the kind of discussion that is the staple of any great pub debate or barbecue dispute. Who was better? Fangio or Moss? Was Prost’s last world title a patch on his previous three? Pose a similar query to Sebastian’s status and you’re hit with a herd-mentality ultimatum.
I don’t begrudge Vettel one cracker for maximizing the best car on the grid over the last four years, but then by that reckoning I shouldn’t resent Damon Hill or Jacques Villeneuve for doing the same thing either during their respective championship years. Neither of these drivers is considered an all-time great, but then neither driver hit their stride until sealing their world titles; only then to be cast into inferior machinery the following year.
Mika Hakkinen is still extremely underrated in the sport for the same reason. He might’ve wielded a technological advantage over his opposition just as Vettel did (courtesy of the same designer), but did so after standing on the threshold of mortality after his life-threatening accident in Adelaide in 1995 – as far as I know there is yet to be a movie made about Mika’s unfathomable tenacity and fortitude.
The trouble with measuring the current talent on the grid is that we’re experiencing a golden age that hasn’t been seen since the 1970′s. Look up any mid-1970’s grand prix stat sheet and you’ll find the likes of Ronnie Peterson, Mario Andretti, James Hunt and a string of future world champions either listed as a retirement or in the meat and potatoes end of the top ten. But you’d hardly label any of these talents as an ‘also ran’. The current grid is no different. Nico Rosberg was grossly underrated until the start of this year – and Button too until he came up against Hamilton in 2010. Alonso was painted as a pantomime villain in 2007 by the same publications now heralding his acts of brilliance in an underperforming Ferrari. Doing so sells copies and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I’m more inclined to place more consequence on Adrian Newey’s quotes about Sebastian; primarily as Adrian has less to gain making such compliments. He was after all the only man at Red Bull who seemed genuinely distressed at Seb’s actions in Malaysia – that’s if you don’t count the expression on Helmut Marko’s face as he watched his #1 asset’s stock take a nosedive.
Newey believes Sebastian’s ability has progressed from “very talented but slightly raw”, to an extraordinary “ability to drive and process at the same time with incredible recall.” This is a rare quality in a driver that unfortunately is concealed from public view under the veiled confines of garage debriefs. With Alonso and Button, we are privileged to be able to watch (or rather listen to) a driver in charge of their surrounds, making dogmatic strategy calls as opposed to engaging in backchat and insolent behavior. Personally, I’d love to see Vettel’s brilliant mind at work first hand – not via a Red Bull press release.
Speaking of marketing, if there’s anyone who knows how to market Vettel it’s the man himself. I’m not talking about the Anglophile routine that continues to charm the English press, but his uncanny Vonnegut-like ability to foot-note himself into seminal moments of Formula One history. At Interlagos 2011, whilst negotiating a paddle-shift, power steering assisted RB7 minus a gear, Vettel had the presence of mind to radio to his engineer “Rocky” (and the watching world) that his predicament reminded him of Ayrton Senna’s feat in a manual gearbox 20 years earlier. You’ll have to excuse the purist in me, but such a remark does a great disservice to Senna’s achievements that day in front of his home crowd.
But I applaud a driver with a sense of history. Only I would add that there’s more to history than statistics alone and that such moments can’t be summoned out of thin air. Sebastian’s drive from the back of the grid in Abu Dhabi was done with the benefit of a tall seventh gear and consequently had a demonstrative advantage over the cars he was overtaking. It was no Fangio at the Nurburgring circa 1957, yet selling the feat as a ‘legendary drive’ says more about the sport’s marketing gurus than it does about sporting achievement. I agree that it’s unfair to judge Vettel on what he hasn’t achieved yet in a mediocre car, but I don’t believe for one minute that it serves as an injustice to want to see it happen.
Sports fans don’t remember how many possessions a football player had, they remember the great mark someone took or physics-defying goal they scored. I firmly believe Vettel can achieve that kind of magic and if he does so, the last remaining boo’s will fade into the background. Oh and a word on the boo-ing. It’s the fans who make Formula One what it is. If fans feel the basic fundamentals of sport have been violated, then they have a right to express an opinion – no matter how visceral. After all, it’s not tennis for crying out loud. Metaphorically hitting a rival after the bell sounded is disgraceful, regardless of what spin you put on it. Vettel has taken his medicine and it’s in his interests to do so. When he produces a truly great moment that defies belief, it will make the story all the sweeter.
So c’mon Seb. Sign a Williams contract in (insert year) and show us heretics what you’re really made of.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic and RichlandF1