The title of this piece would suggest that either Sebastian Vettel has not won his titles on merit, or has been flattered by the quality of his car.
His booing on several F1 podiums this year further reinforces that idea.
True, the Red Bull Racing machines he has used to claim more than 30 wins and three titles by the age of 26 are works of technical art. But is it all down to his car?
That’s a harsh suggestion. In fact, that’s a ludicrous suggestion. His titles have proven him to be one of the greatest drivers on the grid, but this year’s efforts are setting out his stall to be considered the best of the current crop and one of F1’s finest in history.
Marina Bay Domination
Let’s look at Singapore. The Red Bulls were absolutely hooked up round the Marina Bay street circuit, utterly imperious in direction change and finding traction through the dusty twists and turns.
That Vettel was able to qualify pole and win the race is not a surprise. He’s in the best car, and should be challenging for the win anyway. On that note, where was his teammate?
This may seem like tired rhetoric, but the best barometer for how good Vettel is, is to compare him to his teammate.
Mark Webber’s been comprehensively bested in every area in the years they have spent as teammates. Vettel’s on the verge of a fourth title, Webber none. In 114 starts since his arrival in F1, Vettel’s won 33 Grands Prix, Webber nine in that same period. Vettel’s qualified on pole 41 times, been on 56 podiums and led 2147 laps. Webber 11, 36 and 580.
That’s not to, in any way, diminish Webber’s reputation or suggest he is not a very good Formula 1 driver. Of course he is. He’s won multiple Grands Prix and with a stronger resolve would have been the 2010 world champion.
That’s simply to lay out the facts that people seem so ready to ignore at Vettel’s expense. Ultimately, he has a very good driver alongside him at Red Bull who he has made to look ordinary. How can that be blamed on machinery or technical brilliance, when they both drive the same car?
But that is to digress. Back to Singapore, where in practice Vettel was considerably faster than anyone else on the Friday long runs, and was a full second ahead of anyone on the qualifying simulation runs on Saturday morning.
In qualifying, while everyone else does two runs on two sets of brand new super-soft tyres, Vettel hangs back in his garage after just one flying lap. He hangs on to pole (just), but is still clear of his teammate, who later admits that the German was untouchable. Ahem.
Sunday. Vettel opens up a 10-second lead, but he's cruising after the first pitstop. It's all under control.
Then, a safety car, his lead disappears and it’s back to square one. A perfectly-judged restart sets him on his way, and with fuel now less of an issue, he gets the call to push and—for the first time this year—we see Vettel flex his muscles.
It was frightening.
Even when Rosberg, delayed by rubber in his front wing, was out of the picture, Vettel was still a crushing two seconds a lap quicker than any other driver.
He went on to win by a dominant 30s-plus margin, one of the largest in modern F1 history and totally unprecedented in a dry race that had a safety car at half-distance.
The Car Is a Catalyst
That win was made possible by him driving the best car, of that there is no arguing. Equally, you may have no quarrels with the point that it was the best car being driven by a supreme racing talent. He managed the car when he needed to, he did everything right and when he was free to turn up the wick, he did so in devastating fashion.
And yet, it does seem to open up more criticism about the “state of F1,” because Red Bull is so far ahead. The truth is that Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren all have the resources and talent to match this team, they’re just falling short. As they do this, Vettel capitalises.
It’s opportunistic, it’s about maximising every advantage he has and it’s about him being every bit as impressive as his car.
Sticking with that point, Formula 1 history is littered with examples of drivers who had the best car but couldn’t make the most of it, and world champions who were good drivers that made the most of a car that, for one season, was untouchable.
Kimi Raikkonen should have been world champion in 2005, driving the quickest car on the grid, but it was too unreliable. And how many times was Nigel Mansell robbed because of circumstances outside of his control?
Conversely, in 1997, Jacques Villeneuve—in his second season—once again had the best car on the grid. He didn’t win it in ’96, but managed to do it that year. In average machinery thereafter, he never again looked like threatening the podium, let alone winning. A good driver who deserved his one title, based on how he drove in his machinery.
Jenson Button—whose sole title success came as a result of the Brawn team getting a huge jump on the opposition in the early stages of the 2009 season—is another deserved world champion. Is he likely to repeat it? Possibly, but he probably lacks that final 0.1 of a per cent required to be on the level of contemporary rivals Fernando Alonso, Hamilton and—yes—Vettel.
Plucking a different example from the archives: Mika Hakkinen and McLaren in 1999. The world champion was once again driving the best car, and his main competition was out of the picture at Ferrari thanks to a broken leg, and so Eddie Irvine, a good but not great driver, became his title rival. He hung on, but blunders along the way nearly cost him the title.
Vettel’s never looked like doing that. In fact, in 2010 and 2012, he overcame large points deficits to win the championship. In those run-ins, he had the best car. But he made the most of it, and that’s the mark of a champion.
The Ultimate Combination
It’s not unusual in F1 for one car to be better than the rest. It’s the ultimate test of man and machine and, by and large, the best combination usually comes out on top. That’s Red Bull and Vettel at the moment.
To disparage what he has achieved driving a car like the Red Bull is to question Michael Schumacher’s dominant seasons at Ferrari of 2002 and 2004; to question Nigel Mansell’s 1992 title-winning season at Williams; to question Ayrton Senna for the 1988 and 1989 McLarens; and to question Alain Prost’s 11 of 13 years in F1 in race-winning machinery.
Remove those, and Mansell’s 31 wins become 22, Senna’s tally of 41 becomes 27 and Schumacher’s drops from 91 to 67. Yes, they are still fantastic statistics, but you take a large chunk out when you deny great racing drivers from counting wins from seasons in which they had the best car because “it was only down to the car.”
These drivers, Vettel included, all had teammates alongside them driving a similarly fantastic car. Some fans will always stick to a team or an exclusive group of drivers—that’s understandable, that’s sport. “He can’t hold a candle to Fernando,” is one impression you get.
But anyone that bats off Vettel’s success as “just because of the car” is doing everyone else a disservice. People should be having furious debates about Vettel, but it should be about how great he’d have been in a McLaren MP4-4, or just how mega he really is.
Instead, there are people who inevitably cling to the concept that Vettel’s not half as good as the four-time world champion he will soon become. “Put him in a Toro Rosso, see how he gets on.”
Well, about that…
Do you think Vettel's being flattered by his car? Or is the German going to go down as one of the F1 greats? Comment below or get in touch with this writer on Twitter.