From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.34 :: NO.41 :: Oct. 13, 2011

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COVER STORY

An open and shut case?

Sebastian Vettel is just a point away from a second successive world championship. And the next race is at Suzuka, one of Vettel's favourite circuits… Over to G. Raghunath.

AP

Seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher is Vettel's idol. And these days Vettel is being compared favourably more and more with the great man.

Most Formula One drivers say that the experience of driving on the 5.807-kilometre long Suzuka Circuit, with its high-speed bends and challenging ‘S' curves, is beyond compare and that they are ever eager to get back to this demanding track. As the 2010 world champion, Sebastian Vettel, put it: “Suzuka is one of my favourite tracks; it really couldn't have been built any better.”

The Japanese Grand Prix, scheduled to be run here on October 9, will be a special, though solemn, occasion for the drivers and their teams as the Formula One community will rise as one to show its support to the nation that was pounded by earthquake and tsunami earlier this year. However, on a joyous note, especially for Vettel and his team Red Bull Racing (RBR), Suzuka appears to be all set for the anointment of the 24-year-old German as the youngest driver in history to win back-to-back world titles.

Vettel would have us believe that the one point he needs to land his second world title — and thereby join the elite band of drivers (Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jack Brabham, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Fernando Alonso) who have won two successive world championships — is right now the farthest from his mind as he prepares for the Japanese Grand Prix. “Obviously we are very close to the title win, but let's stay cool and talk about it if the mission is completed. Statistically it definitely is not too far off, but we also don't want to cause any bad luck by talking too much about it. Don't praise the day before the evening,” the defending champion was quoted as saying by formula1.com, the sport's official website.

A cagey Vettel desperately trying to push his ‘logic' through? It's quite understandable given the superstitious nature of the German, who is known to race with his lucky coins placed underneath the eyelet flaps of his shoes, enter and exit the cockpit of his car from the left-hand side and use names of girls to call his cars (his current RB 7 is called Kinky Kylie). So, it's only rational — from his point of view — that he believes nothing is over until it's all actually over.

Red Bull, though, has already set in motion its celebrations in anticipation of Vettel's title-triumph in Japan. It has designed a line of T-shirts with a photo print of Vettel and the legend ‘2011 World Champion'. The team also has another reason to celebrate. Its parent, Red Bull, the energy drinks company, according to The Guardian, has registered a pre-tax profit of GBP2.8 million last year following its Formula One championship victory.

Vettel's domineering presence this season brings back vivid memories of Michael Schumacher, the winner of a record seven world championships — five of them in succession from 2000 to 2004 — and one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all-time, in his prime. If 2004 saw Schumacher (Ferrari) win 12 of the first 13 races and capture his last world title with five races still to be run in the season, the German ace's run two years earlier was far more compelling, when he did not finish outside the podium in any of the 17 races. In all he had 11 victories, five second-place finishes and a third place. But he sewed up the championship with six races still to go, confirming that the Schumacher era was well and truly underway.

Nearly a decade later, we have experts like the former F1 driver, Gerhard Berger, talking of a Vettel era. He believes Vettel has the talent and drive to emulate Schumacher.

Right from the day he drove the not-too-competitive car of one of the back-marking teams, Scuderia Toro Roso, to his maiden victory in the 2008 Italian Grand Prix and became the youngest winner in Formula One history, the Vettel-Schumacher comparison has been getting louder year-on-year. And minor facts such as both were from Germany and came from a similar background, that they had identical car numbers (No. 5) when they started out in Formula One and that they both won their first world title as underdogs in their third full season all fell in place conveniently for the analysts to embellish their theories.

One striking similarity between Vettel and Schumacher (Vettel's childhood hero), is their eye for detail. And their work ethic isn't very dissimilar too. Like Schumacher, Vettel belongs to the modern school of drivers — men who oversee every detail that goes into the preparation of their cars. Vettel is reported to be the first to enter his team's garage and the last to leave, and that too only after he is completely satisfied with all the aspects of his car, from engine management to polishing it to a slipstream finish.

His transformation from ‘Baby Schumi' to ‘New Vettel' was complete last season when he became the youngest world champion, a record he prised out of another talented driver, Lewis Hamilton. His victory, seen in the light of the fact that he had to battle against a very competitive field that comprised among others four former world champions (Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Schumacher), in a way, outweighs Schumacher's achievement in 1994. Though the grid then had some fine young talent, the death of Ayrton Senna following an accident in the third race (San Marino GP) and the retirement of Prost the previous year meant there was only one world champion, Nigel Mansell, in the field, rendering the 1994 championship that much more open.

And what can one say about Vettel's domination this season? Of the 14 races run so far, he has finished outside the podium just once (fourth place, German Grand Prix), while hammering out nine breath-taking victories and finishing a strong second in four races. He is already in sight of two other records: most wins in a season (Schumacher, 13) and most pole positions in a season (Mansell, 14).

Vettel's domineering performance this year has in no small measure been due to his clever and skilful handling of the Pirelli ‘options' (super-soft and soft tyres). He has shown a rare ability to nurse these rapidly abrading tyres over longer spells during a race, a quality that is normally associated with purebred racers. His days of mindless driving, when he imprudently blew away chances of winning races he should have wrapped up even driving at 25% below his pace, are well behind him.

The other big factor in Vettel's imperious runs this year has been Adrian Newey, the RBR designer. His upgrades and aerodynamic packaging have been matchless. The cars designed by the man, who has a First Class honours degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics, have won over 125 races, six drivers' championships and seven manufacturers' titles. Besides, he is the only one to have designed championship-winning cars for three different teams, Williams, McLaren and RBR. It's not for nothing that Adrian Newey is called ‘The Genius' in the Formula One circuit.

As Vettel stands at the doorstep of his second world championship, McLaren's Button will be racing in the remainder of the season with a mathematical chance of beating the German to the title. The Briton could lift his second world title if he logs 125 points from the remaining five races and Vettel fails to score the much talked of one point.

So, what if Vettel suffers five successive shunts? And what if Button wins the next five races? Then hell might freeze over.

Vettel statistics

19 years, 53 days

The age when Vettel became the youngest driver to set the fastest lap time in an official Grand Prix session (2006 Turkish Grand Prix, Friday Practice 2).

19 years, 349 days

The age when Vettel finished eighth at the 2007 United States Grand Prix (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) to become the youngest driver in Formula One history to score a point.

21 years, 72 days

The age when Vettel finished first in qualifying — at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix — to become the youngest driver in Formula One history to win pole position.

21 years, 73 days

The age when Vettel won the 2008 Italian Grand Prix to become the youngest Grand Prix winner in Formula One history

22 years, 121 days

The age when Vettel became the youngest World Drivers' Championship runner-up (November 1, 2009).

23 years, 135 days

The age when Vettel became the youngest Formula One World Drivers' Champion (November 14, 2010).

26

The total number of pole positions won by Vettel so far. Only Michael Schumacher (68), Ayrton Senna (65), Jim Clark (33), Alain Prost (33), Nigel Mansell (32) and Juan Manuel Fangio (29) are ahead of him.

11

The number of pole positions won by Vettel so far this season. Only Nigel Mansell (14) and Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost (13 each) are ahead of him. And Vettel has five more races to go this season!



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