rag­ing bull

Make way! The boy­ishlook­ing Se­bas­tian Vet­tel is no pushover on the F1 track.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - by nooRSIlA Ab­dUl MAJId

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.

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