Why Vettel's quest to break all records is a tall order
By Phill Catterick
Wednesday 12 Oct 2011 21:51:00
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Not many drivers can claim to have successfully defended their Formula One World Drivers' title, but over the weekend Sebastian Vettel became the ninth man to do exactly that after finishing 3rd at the Japanese Grand Prix.

The German became the youngest double World Champion in the sport's history following his 14th podium of the year, sparking endless tributes and positive comments from fellow drivers, members of the media and former professionals.

In just four full seasons while at Toro Rosso and Red Bull respectively Vettel has won 19 Grand Prix, claimed 33 Pole Positions and won races in each of those seasons.  He is now setting his sights on the records of his hero and fellow countryman Michael Schumacher, although the young pretender has plenty more to do to emulate the successes of the man who himself enjoyed back to back titles in his early days while at Benetton.

Vettel has led the standings from start to finish this season and has proved relentless in his quest for a second successive title. It has proved to be slightly easier than his triumph in 2010 where he defied the odds to win in Abu Dhabi and beat Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton in a last day decider.

This season he has totally out classed his opposition and made them look average to say the least, including team-mate Webber who has yet to win a race and has very rarely threatened his younger, unquestionably quicker, Red Bull counterpart.

Suzuka has been the scene of many title deciders over the years, and Vettel adds his name to the list of famous drivers who have clinched the championship around the challenging figure of eight race track. Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen and Damon Hill have all previously sealed their fate on Japanese soil, and it was a fitting place for Vettel to finally end the wait for a second crown.

His celebrations didn't go completely smoothly though after an incident at the start involving eventual winner Jenson Button. With the Englishman having got the better start from 2nd on the grid he did his utmost to pass the German before the first turn, but the Mclaren felt he had been unfairly pushed onto the grass and then lost a place to team-mate Lewis Hamilton.

The stewards deemed the move fair enough to not serve a penalty, but this didn't stop Button from asking Vettel about it before the drivers stepped out onto the podium. The annoyance was clear in Jenson's voice, but having won the race it didn't trouble him quite as much as it otherwise might have done.

Button rather smartly got off the power and allowed Vettel to take his normal line, an action which the aforementioned Senna refused to adhere to in 1990 when he simply ran Alain Prost's Ferrari off the circuit, thereby handing himself his second championship. Unlike the previous year he was not disqualified from the race and took the title by default.

With four races still to go it's more than possible that Sebastian will further increase his points advantage over Button beyond the current deficit of 114 points. It's already the biggest championship winning margin in history, although this has something to do with the fact the current points system has only been in effect for two seasons.

Quite naturally many are predicting this could be the start of a period of Red Bull dominance, similar to what the sport experienced when Schumacher won his third title at Ferrari in 2000. They certainly have all of the ingredients required to win further titles, but with the level of competition at an all time high, I can't see Red Bull or Vettel matching the levels of unprecedented success that Schumacher and Ferrari recorded ten years ago.

Fernando Alonso is determined to take a third title with his second team; Lewis Hamilton is looking to bounce back following a disappointing 2010 campaign, and Jenson Button wants to prove his success with Brawn GP wasn't just a flash in the pan.

Besides that Mercedes are forever adding to their very capable team of technical staff as Schumacher and Rosberg continue to work hard, and Mark Webber may be about to enter his final season with a top team which will almost certainly end his chances of winning a World Championship, although the Aussie has already admitted his best chance may have been and gone.

At this stage it is too early to tell if Vettel can become one of the all time greats of the sport, but age is undoubtedly on his side and given the fact he currently possesses the best car on the grid, he will feel confident that he has the right team around him to give him a third straight title.

However previous examples prove that winning two titles can often mean either a long wait for a third, or in some cases, never winning another. Alberto Ascari won back to back titles in 1951 and 52, but these would prove his only successes as he failed to conquer Fangio during his dominant years. After which Jack Brabham won his second title in 1960, and then waited a further six years before winning for the last time in 66.

Jackie Stewart, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna recorded their third titles rather quickly, but Michael Schumacher waited five years for his third title while in Ferrari colours, and Mika Hakkinen failed to win a third after taking his second in 1999 with Schuie out of the picture due to suffering a broken leg at Silverstone.

The latest case of course is Fernando Alonso who has enjoyed stints at Mclaren and Renault since his second title with the French outfit in 2006, and has since failed to enjoy a third championship after a strategic miscalculation in Abu Dhabi last year handed the title to Vettel.

The Spaniard has issued a challenge to his Red Bull rival, namely who can beat each other to title number three. Ferrari are desperate to land their first since Kimi Raikkonen left them in 2007, and Fernando is equally determined to add his name to the small list of those who can claim a trio of title victories.

With Vettel just 24 years of age it is more than likely he will drive in the sport for longer than Alonso, Button and possibly Hamilton which, given his levels of dominance to date, gives him the best possible chance of over hauling the 91 Grand Prix wins and seven World Championships held by hero Schumacher.

One man though, the 1996 Champion Damon Hill, believes his records will never be beaten, and that Vettel will have a much more difficult job in seasons to come. He told BBC Sport:

"They changed the rules because he (Schumacher) was winning too much. It's much more competitive now than it ever was. Vettel has that to contend with."

He's already got two in the bag. I would say another four titles in the next 10 seasons wouldn't be out of the question, would it?

"But it's never as straightforward as that. All things were working towards helping Michael come to that level of championships.

"There was a lot of momentum there that created the circumstances. There were objections to the level of winning he was doing, and they changed the sport.

"You'd perhaps like to see him put through a bit of a tougher test of his mettle - a bit of pressure from another team, a contender," Hill added.

" He's obviously going to be driving for a few years yet and there are going to be much tougher times ahead, but in F1 you do need some sort of personal rivalry to find out what is going on within each competitor.

"It seems to be that any time there is another driver and the question is, 'which one of these two is better', that spurs them on to push themselves to greater heights.

"I think Webber has done an amazing job and I think he's an incredibly good driver, but you have to face the fact that Vettel has got the edge on him, so he's not putting the pressure on Vettel that he needs for us to find out exactly what he's made of.

"I wouldn't like to guess what would happen if you put him up against a Hamilton. It might fire Hamilton up. He might need to get some sort of rivalry going.

While Vettel is clearly out of the top drawer, it remains the case that, until he goes up against another great in an equal car, his absolute potential is hard to judge."

But Hill said it was clear Vettel was "exceptional", adding: "From the moment he put his Toro Rosso on pole and won at Monza (in 2008), that was a sign, a Schumacher moment, where a guy turns up and goes against the form."

BBC F1 co-commentator David Coulthard added: "There's no question he's got all the foundations to establish himself as one of the true greats of the sport. He's in a very elite club of double world champions."

It appears his task now is to come out of any rivalry as the top dog, and ensure he resists any challenge from a top class team-mate in a car which may not be as dominant as he's become accustomed to.

When this season ends, Ferrari, Mclaren and maybe even Mercedes will design cars capable of winning races, and he needs to focus on pushing his Red Bull team even harder to prove to the field that he really is 'the complete package.'


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