SEB VET­TEL: A TRUE GREAT?

Four ti­tles and a run of out­stand­ing records. And yet doubts still linger about Se­bas­tian Vet­tel’s F1 ‘great­ness’. Surely a fifth crown in a Fer­rari would con­firm him as a true leg­end – wouldn’t it? An­drew Ben­son makes the case

F1 Racing - - CONTENTS -

In terms of cham­pi­onships and race wins, Seb’s up there with the best. So why is he so of­ten de­scribed as sim­ply ‘lucky’? And can he fi­nally prove his tal­ent this year at Fer­rari?

WHAT MAKES A GREAT F1 DRIVER?

For some, it’s num­bers. Michael Schu­macher, with 91 wins and seven ti­tles, is the great­est of all time, and that’s the end of it. Ex­cept it’s not, is it? Ac­cord­ing to the num­bers, Schu­macher was more than twice as good as Ayr­ton Senna, who was not as good as Alain Prost, and Da­mon Hill was bet­ter than Gilles Vil­leneuve and Stir­ling Moss. How many peo­ple would agree with that?

The rel­a­tive great­ness of F1 driv­ers is a fas­ci­na­tion of a sport where the inuence of the ma­chin­ery queries the sta­tis­ti­cal sim­plic­ity of, say, cricket or base­ball. The num­bers mat­ter up to a point, but only as a frame on which to hang the rest of the ev­i­dence. Which brings us neatly on to Se­bas­tian Vet­tel. Forty-four wins puts him be­hind only Schu­macher, Lewis Hamil­ton and Prost in the all-time list. Four world ti­tles is level with Prost and be­hind only Schu­macher and Juan Manuel Fan­gio. The win tally looks set to go up this year – as does his ti­tle tally, judg­ing by Fer­rari’s start to the sea­son. It would take a spe­cial churl­ish­ness to try to sus­tain an ar­gu­ment that statis­tics such as these do not qual­ify Vet­tel for great­ness. And yet nag­ging ques­tions re­main; weak­nesses are all too ev­i­dent.

Un­til the end of 2013, Vet­tel’s ca­reer tra­jec­tory was ver­ti­cal. But then came the turbo hy­brid era and Daniel Ric­cia­rdo joined Red Bull. Vet­tel slumped in 2014, and Dan beat him in qual­i­fy­ing and races. As a re­sult, Ric­cia­rdo was asked if he had ever thought what might have hap­pened had he been pro­moted to the se­nior team sooner. “Some­times,” Ric­cia­rdo replied. Asked to elab­o­rate, he chuck­led. “Seb was lucky,” he said.

And then came the sec­ond half of 2016, when, af­ter 18 months of an­ni­hi­lat­ing team-mate Kimi Räikkö­nen, sud­denly Kimi was out­qual­i­fy­ing Vet­tel and gen­er­ally match­ing him over­all.

So, was Ric­cia­rdo right? Was Vet­tel lucky? Will it take a ti­tle at Fer­rari to so­lid­ify his great­ness? Or is it an in­sult even to ask?

THE NAG­GING DOUBT

THE PAT­TERNS OF VET­TEL’S CA­REER

can be traced by two sim­ple truths: he needs a car to be­have in a specic way to be able to per­form at his best; if he does not get it, things can quickly head down­hill.

As for­mer F1 driver Alex Wurz puts it: “He is a sen­sa­tional driver – out­stand­ing when things are go­ing his way – with the only draw­back be­ing that when they are not, his an­a­lyt­i­cal mind­set takes pri­or­ity over his nat­u­ral tal­ent, which some­how seems to limit his per­for­mance.”

Even in Vet­tel’s dom­i­nant Red Bull era there were times when this hap­pened. The rst few races of 2012 were a case in point: Vet­tel had romped to his sec­ond ti­tle the pre­vi­ous year, ex­ploit­ing the com­bi­na­tion of bal­ance and down­force pro­vided by Red Bull and Re­nault’s mas­tery of har­ness­ing the ex­haust gases for in­creased rear down­force. This led to a coun­ter­in­tu­itive driv­ing style, which dic­tated that rather than lift off if the rear started to slide, a driver should get on the throt­tle be­cause the ex­haust would pro­vide the down­force to make it stick.

Partly be­cause Red Bull led the way with the tech­nol­ogy, Vet­tel was the rst to re­alise this char­ac­ter­is­tic could be ex­ploited. The car could be de­lib­er­ately pro­voked to ro­tate faster on en­try, and the driver could then use the ex­haust-gen­er­ated down­force not only to make the rear stick when it would oth­er­wise slide but also to come off the cor­ner like a rocket.

The rules changed for 2012, and ex­ploit­ing the ex­hausts in this way grew harder. In the rst few races Red Bull couldn’t make it work con­sis­tently. Airow into the dif­fuser was de­tach­ing in an in­con­sis­tent way – some­times down­force was there and some­times it was not. With­out that con­sis­tency, Vet­tel could not ro­tate the rear on cor­ner en­try in the way he wanted. Team-mate Mark Web­ber worked out a way to drive around this char­ac­ter­is­tic and was gen­er­ally more im­pres­sive in the rst part of the sea­son. Vet­tel was un­able to adapt, and made com­pro­mises on the setup, try­ing to make the car be­have the way he wanted gen­er­ally by stiff­en­ing the front. That made him more com­fort­able on turn-in, but cost too much gen­eral grip.

As the year went on, Red Bull worked on the prob­lem. It im­proved over the sum­mer, and they nailed it with an up­grade ahead of the Sin­ga­pore Grand Prix. Vet­tel won four races in a row, over­took long-time leader Fer­nando Alonso in the cham­pi­onship and hung on to win the ti­tle de­spite a shaky nal race in Brazil. Web­ber was com­par­a­tively lost, and re­mained so un­til the end of his F1 ca­reer a year later.

All the times when Vet­tel has strug­gled in his ca­reer, the same fun­da­men­tal is­sues have been at play. For 2014, ex­haust-blown down­force was banned, and Vet­tel could never get that year’s Red Bull to be­have in the way he wanted. The re­sult? Gen­er­ally, Ric­cia­rdo was quicker. The same hap­pened in the sec­ond half of 2016. De­vel­op­ment took the Fer­rari in a di­rec­tion Vet­tel did not like and he grew frus­trated with it, try­ing to force it to do things it could not do. The re­sult? His pace fell back to­wards Räikkö­nen’s.

In these sit­u­a­tions, Vet­tel’s sunny side clouds over, and he heads into a down­ward spi­ral. His frus­tra­tion and anger come to the sur­face. He tries too hard on track. He rants over the ra­dio. And his de­sire to be in­volved in many as­pects of the team, usu­ally a strength, can backre.

For the en­gi­neers, these are con­fus­ing times. Be­cause Vet­tel can be so ex­cep­tional, the ten­dency is of­ten to as­sume the prob­lem must be with the car. Con­se­quently both driver and team can get lost, hav­ing failed to re­alise it is the driver who has gone a lit­tle hay­wire and that ev­ery­one needs to take a step back. For the team man­age­ment, too, it can be tough. Vet­tel is not averse to throw­ing his weight around even when things are go­ing well – and the same is even more true when they are not.

Ten­sions boiled over within Fer­rari last year. The ev­i­dence was there to be heard in many ra­dio con­ver­sa­tions – be it Vet­tel cor­rectly over­rul­ing ques­tion­able strat­egy calls from the team, or fum­ing at Max Ver­stap­pen in Mex­ico. It was also ev­i­dent in some tar­geted state­ments from Fer­rari’s man­age­ment, which read very much like warn­ings to their driver.

Team prin­ci­pal Mau­r­izio Ar­riv­abene, talk­ing about the fact that Vet­tel’s con­tract was up for re­newal in 2017, said in Oc­to­ber: “Each of us has goals. So it is only right that any­one, no mat­ter who it is, earns their place and their salary. Se­bas­tian just needs to fo­cus on the car. He is a per­son who gives so much, and some­times this means he is in­ter­ested in a bit of ev­ery­thing – so some­times you have to re­fo­cus him; re­mind him to be fo­cused on the main job.”

Fer­rari pres­i­dent Ser­gio Mar­chionne has said: “We know Vet­tel wants to win with us. Can we guar­an­tee it? In re­turn, he must drive with com­po­sure, be more calm, less ag­i­tated.”

TV com­men­ta­tor David Coulthard, whose place at Red Bull was taken by Vet­tel in 2009 and who re­mains close to the team, says: “With Seb, as with all these ‘lif­ers’ from the mod­ern gen­er­a­tion of rac­ing driv­ers, there is a child-like, spoilt na­ture. These are peo­ple who have been rac­ing their whole lives, so they have ex­tended child­hoods; they have gone from boys to men, from poor to ex­treme wealth, with­out do­ing

KEEP­ING THE FAITH

the uni­ver­sity of life. If you are used to hav­ing a team of peo­ple around you telling you you’re great, and fa­cil­i­tat­ing suc­cess, the mo­ment when that suc­cess is not there, the nat­u­ral re­ac­tion of a hun­gry com­peti­tor is to as­sume that the prob­lem must be some­thing else other than your­self. But I think once Seb calms down, he is a team player and some­one who maybe ac­knowl­edges be­havioural pat­terns that he is not proud of and things like that.”

By the end of last year, what Vet­tel needed was a win­ter away from F1 to re­fo­cus his mind, for­get the frus­tra­tions of 2016 and come back at some­thing ap­proach­ing his best. So far, that looks to be ex­actly what has hap­pened.

IF A CAR LACKS PRE­DICTABIL­ITY

at the rear, it’s as if Vet­tel can­not process it ef­fec­tively. He also lacks the adapt­abil­ity to drive around it in the way Hamil­ton or Alonso would. The ip side comes if he gets the car he wants.

Wurz says: “If in the en­try phase his rear re­acts sud­denly or in­con­sis­tently, he doesn’t seem to like that. But when the car does not have any sur­prises, like sud­den snaps on en­try, or has a very neu­tral bal­ance and a sta­ble and con­sis­tent rear end dur­ing the en­try phase, he will use all four wheels to ex­tract the most grip, all around the cor­ner.

“Many driv­ers aim for this style, but only su­per-good driv­ers can do it. Seb does it to per­fec­tion. The vast ma­jor­ity drive to just one side of the car for grip on cor­ner en­try – mainly to the front grip, not us­ing the rears – and, as such, limit the grip po­ten­tial of the car.

“Seb uses the en­try phase to eval­u­ate the grip po­ten­tial, but at the same time starts to ro­tate the car well be­fore the apex. He likes to ro­tate the car a bit more on en­try than oth­ers, when he still has enough front to end up with a per­fect four-wheel slide at the apex, op­ti­mis­ing the grip of all four wheels through­out the cor­ner.

“You can inuence it as a driver but you need to be re­ally on it. He can do that bet­ter than any­one else; in a well-balanced car, he gets way more than any­one else.”

That last sen­tence is worth read­ing again. Wurz is say­ing that, with the right car, Vet­tel is quicker even than Hamil­ton. It mar­ries with an ob­ser­va­tion that Red Bull mo­tor­sport ad­viser Hel­mut Marko has made – that Vet­tel needs a par­tic­u­lar kind of car to per­form what Marko calls “his tricks”. And, if true, it forces a re­think on some of the pre­con­cep­tions around Vet­tel.

For some, his strug­gles with cars he does not like prove he is not at the level of Hamil­ton or Alonso. Or, af­ter 2014, Ric­cia­rdo. But the ex­ten­sion of Wurz’s ar­gu­ment is to un­der­stand that as an over­sim­plis­tic anal­y­sis of Vet­tel’s gift.

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