Make way! The boyishlooking Sebastian Vettel is no pushover on the F1 track.
BELIEVE us when we say Sebastian Vettel is a little boy made of snips and snails, and puppy dog tails. The Formula One champion driver for Red Bull Racing is cheeky, witty, self-assured, confident yet respectful. It is hard not to be impressed by Vettel. He is the real deal.
“I am an athlete,” he declares. “I don’t feel like a celebrity.”
Garbed in the latest Puma street wear and underwear (yes, he is quite forthcoming) during this interview at the Puma flagship store in Singapore over the F1 weekend late last month, the 23-year-old racer can easily pass off for 17 – especially with his baby face and Justin Bieber bangs.
“But when I’m racing, I’m not particular (about underwear),” says Vettel with a grin in German-accented English. “You don’t wake up and choose specific underwear (on race day).”
Funnily enough, Vettel, sans his F1 racing suit, claims that he feels “kind of naked”. “The suit is lighter than what you see,” he explains. “In F1, you have to look at saving weight.”
On the track, the German F1 driver also looks at winning – no matter what. Perhaps that explains his aggressive driving style, which saw him conquering the Italian Grand Prix in 2008 in treacherous wet conditions to become the youngest winner – at 21 – in F1 history.
F1 commercial rights boss Bernie Ecclestone gave his prediction on Vettel: “For me, Sebastian Vettel will be the next world champion. Michael Schumacher will have many rivals such as (Lewis) Hamilton, (Fernando) Alonso and above all, Vettel.”
Fellow German and seven-time world champion Schumacher is definitely a big inspiration for Vettel who once said that his passion for cars was nurtured by watching Schumacher compete. “Michael is a legend. I think he has set a benchmark for F1. It’s difficult to get close to the record that he has set,” he said.
Vettel grew up in a middle-class family in the small German town of Heppenheim in Hesse, the son of a carpenter and a homemaker.
From young, he was crazy over go-karting, and he had raced go karts from 1995 to 2002, before switching to cars in 2003 in the German Formula BMW championship, where he finished second in his first year. He won the championship the following year.
In 2005, he was rookie of the year in the Formula 3 Euroseries, although he did not win any race. That was the year Lewis Hamilton won most of the races and the title. Vettel raced in the same series in 2006, but with mixed results as he had also begun his career in Formula 1 as a test driver.
At 19, Vettel became BMW Sauber’s third driver at the 2006 Turkish Grand Prix. He impressed his senior teammate Robert Kubica by setting the fastest time in the practice sessions.
He gave a repeat performance at the 2006 Italian Grand Prix, sealing the deal for him to be confirmed as BMW’s test driver the following year. When Kubica sustained injuries at the start of the 2007 US Grand Prix, Vettel was his replacement. The young German finished in 8th position and became the youngest driver to ever score a point in F1.
“I love fast cars,” says Vettel, who drives a BMW 5 series when he is off the track.
On the flip side, his aggression in the race circuit also courts controversy. At the Turkish Grand Prix in June this year, his car collided with teammate Mark Webber’s car, causing Red Bull to lose the championship lead and sparking off a row between the two ace racers. Apparently, the boys have yet to bury the hatchet.
“If I wasn’t there, there wouldn’t have been contact obviously,” Webber has been quoted by Reuters, putting the blame on Vettel in his typically blunt language. (The news agency censored the expletives.) “But we were there together and it wasn’t the easiest thing to predict what he would do in that split second.”
In his defence, Vettel explains that every F1 driver becomes a charging bull when he cranks up the gears. “You have to be aggressive when you have to be. F1 is a highly competitive sport. Sometimes you have to fight for the laps.” Has he always been that “bullish”? “I don’t change much (in person),” Vettel smiles. “But I’m not necessarily aggressive. It’s just that when I put on the helmet, you can’t see the real me.”
The real Vettel is, nevertheless, optimistic. With his win at Suzuka in Japan last Sunday, Vettel moves into third place in the championship standings with 206 points behind leader Webber (220 points) and Alonso in second (206). He has now overtaken McLaren’s Hamilton, who finished fifth at the Japanese Grand Prix.
The fast and furious Vettel has now won eight F1 races since making his debut in 2007 – starting with his historic first at the Italian Grand Prix in 2008 as a driver for Team Toro Rosso. In 2009, Vettel took the place of the retired David Coulthard at Red Bull Racing, and won four races. This year, Vettel has won at Sepang (Malaysia), Valencia (Spain) and the recent race at Suzuka (Japan).
“We (Red Bull) look very good for the season. I admit it’s not a trouble-free season. But you have to focus on what you can change,” says Vettel.
Well, the F1 hot property may not be able to change his style, but he sure has been changing his car names at whim.
“Like a ship, a car should be named after a girl as it’s sexy,” Vettel says, with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
His car has been given a series of names for each F1 season since he made his debut, his preferred ones being Kate, Kate’s Dirty Sister and the latest, Luscious Liz.
Aside from his car, Vettel admits he has another sexy girl in his life – his high school sweetheart, Hanna Prater. The very blonde lovebirds live 400km apart, but have been in a steady relationship for the past three years.
“Yes, I have a girlfriend. But she’s not a supermodel,” he says.
But you can forget about seeing Prater do a Jessica Michibata (who is dating McLaren driver Jenson Button) or Nicole Scherzinger (who is dating Hamilton) at the F1 races. The textile and design undergraduate doesn’t accompany her boyfriend around the world, preferring to keep their private life private.
“Never bring your girlfriend to work with you,” Vettel famously once said.
Red Bull-Renault drivers Sebastian Vettel (right) and Mark Webber celebrating on the podium of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on Sunday. Vettel’s car collided Webber’s car during the Turkish Grand Prix.
Go getter: ‘F1 is a highly competitive sport. Sometimes you have to fight for the laps,’ says Sebastian Vettel.