Is Vettel World Champion Material Or Is He Overhyped?

Daniel ChalmersSenior Analyst IJune 17, 2009

Young German Sebastian Vettel hasn’t been racing in F1 for two full seasons, but he has already made a massive impression on the scene. He has become extremely popular with the fans and media alike due to his endearing and bubbly personality, which stands him out from most other Formula 1 drivers.

“Dunno. Probably a nice girl...One with good character and intelligence. OK, with a nice arse as well!” said Vettel being his usual witty self, after being asked who he would like to share a lift with.

He has shown signs that he could be a future World Champion (maybe even this season if Jenson Button were to completely drop the ball). This boy is no ordinary 21-year-old.

Vettel excelled in the Formula BMW championship which he won in 2004, and then went on to win races in Formula Three in 2005. The year in which he drove an F-One car for the first time is when he tested for BMW Williams. Mario Theissen was impressed by his performance.

“Sebastian made a successful switch from around 220 bhp in Formula Three to almost four times that in a Formula One car. The whole team was pleased with him.”

2006 was when the F-One paddock really learnt of his talent behind the wheels of a Formula One car. Sebastian Vettel became BMW Sauber’s third driver. He became the youngest ever driver to take part in a Formula One weekend. He raised eyebrows when he topped his first session. To show that this wasn’t a one-time only situation, he followed it up by topping both Friday sessions at the next race weekend at Monza.

His F-One race debut came in 2007 when he replaced the injured Robert Kubica in the US GP. He qualified seventh and finished in eighth. This made him the youngest point’s scorer in the sport’s history. Later that season, he jumped ship to Toro Rosso to replace Scott Speed. Initially, he struggled to match teammate Tonio Liuzzi, but hit the headlines in the back-to-back Japan and Chinese weekends.

In Japan, he was running at the front in atrocious conditions when he hit Mark Webber behind the Safety Car. Vettel was destined for a podium finish if not more. He fought straight back from this disappointment to notch up fourth place in China, which was also affected by rain. These two races announced to the world that he was not just any other rookie, but rather that he had enormous potential.

2008 was Vettel’s first full season in Formula One which he embarked with Toro Rosso. His season started badly when he was involved in first lap collisions in each of the first four races. As the season progressed, and the Toro Rosso improved, Vettel’s season turned around. Becoming the youngest ever pole sitter and F-One winner in the Italian GP was the highlight of his coming of age year.

It rained all weekend long and Vettel dominated qualifying for the race. In the race, he drove away from Kovalainen and nobody could touch him. This was the performance of a driver well beyond his years.

“For sure the best day of my life," said Vettel after the race. "These pictures, these emotions—I will never forget."

“Sebastian proved today he can win races but he is going to win World Championships," claimed Gerhard Berger. "He is very good."

This was the weekend when the fans and media alike fell in love with the unassuming German kid, and his profile as a driver sky-rocketed. By the end of the season, he had scored 35 points and finished eighth in the Championship.

In 2008, it was confirmed that Vettel would replace the retiring David Coulthard in 2009 at Red Bull.

Until this point, Vettel had never been under huge pressure in F1. In a lower team, there isn’t as much pressure as there is in a top team.

If you are in the bottom half of the grid in a slower car, nobody cares. However, if you are at the front punching above your weight, you suddenly become a hero. It’s fair to say Vettel punched well above his weight in 2008, particularly in the last third of the season.

Vettel find himself under more pressure in 2009. Would he still be able to thrive when big results would always be expected? How would he fare against a much tougher teammate in Mark Webber?

So far, 2009 has been tougher for Sebastian, which has shown he still has quite the way to go. However, there are still those same signs, which show that he is a champion in the making.

He won the second race of his career in a soaking Chinese GP, in a very similar fashion to his victory at Monza. He dominated from the beginning, and never put a foot wrong in a drive, showing incredible maturity.

“For sure, in coming years, Seb is going to be one of the dominant drivers in F-One,” said Christian Horner, the team boss. "His qualifying record has been very strong and consistent. He has been on pole twice, and only qualified out of the top three once so far this season."

In the races, he hasn’t seen the results he should have. Bahrain and Spain were both races where he could have challenged for victory. On both of those occasions, he lost too much ground behind KER's cars. There wasn’t much he could do about that. He was more let down by poor team strategy.

“It was a shame that Felipe ran out of fuel, but obviously I was happier to pass him than I had been for the previous 63 laps stuck behind him,” said a frustrated Vettel after the Spanish GP.

In Monaco, he destroyed his tires very early on. After pushing too hard to try and recover lost ground, he went on to hit the barrier at St Devote.

Istanbul was another disappointing race. He knew he needed to create a gap to Jenson but made a mistake in turn nine on the first lap and Button got ahead and went off into the distance. His three stop strategy didn’t work and he ended up finishing behind Webber.

“It was my mistake," said Vettel. "It was extremely difficult there and I nearly did the same on the second lap.”

He is now 32 points behind Jenson Button in the title race and now has a very tall mountain to climb. It doesn’t help that Button has been perfect all season long, not putting a foot wrong.

Lewis Hamilton won the title in his second full season, but made many mistakes along the way. Had he been up against someone of Button’s current form, he may have ended up in a similar position.

It’s likely that there will be some who start criticizing Vettel after these recent errors, but it needs to be remembered that he is still only 21 years old. He has got at least another 10 to 15 years in F-One still. He has yet to reach his peak by some margin. He still has more learning and maturing to do. He will learn from these mistakes and become even stronger.

He has achieved an awful lot already in his short F-One career, starting further down the grid, as opposed to being put straight into a top car as Hamilton was.

It would be true to say that he has already achieved more than other champions at this time in their careers. Mika Hakkinen, for example, didn’t win his first race till his seventh season. Vettel has notched up two victories already.

Vettel is an incredible young driver with plenty of natural talent. If he can keep his feet on the ground while working hard on improving as a driver, then he has a great chance of winning titles. If he keeps that smile on his face and continues to make fans laugh, he will get plenty of support behind him.

A lot will also depend on whether he can stay in competitive cars. Making the right career moves will be critical for Vettel.


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