After two stunning seasons, in which he has established himself as leader of the pack, Sebastian Vettel may look over his shoulder – or, more accurately, in his rear-view mirrors – this year as he seeks to join a very exclusive club by winning a third successive Formula One drivers’ world championship.
No longer is he a lucky young pretender, or newly-crowned king. He is no longer the hunter – he is now the hunted.
At the tender age of 24, he stands at the threshold of true greatness. Only two men have confirmed their legend by adding a third success to two consecutive drivers’ titles – Juan Manuel Fangio from 1954 to 1957 and Michael Schumacher from 2000 to 2005. Both established an era of individual domination.
There have been other triple champions, who failed to win three in a row, and double-champions who aimed for a third, but slipped up. The latter include some of motor racing’s most famous names – such as Alberto Ascari, Jack Brabham, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and Fernando Alonso.
Vettel, therefore, is in illustrious company already, even if the odds against him are less favourable now than they were a year ago.
In a sport of great history, enriched by statistics, it is the smallest numbers that count – the milli-seconds that separate the winners from their rivals, in lap-times, power, speed and tyre-management.
By any measure, Vettel has proved his mettle as a champion, but he remains a boy-man, a racing assassin with the innocence of a choirboy, almost a child prodigy triumphant in a world of men.
If, in 2011, he won with easy élan (he finished with 11 wins and an all-time record of 15 pole positions from 19 races), he and his equally-supreme Red Bull team, who took a second constructors’ world championship in succession, both felt a warm presence breathing down their necks, reducing the advantage, as the year stretched out and reached its conclusion.
Vettel won five of the opening six races and finished second in the other, but in the next six won only twice and was off the podium at home in Germany, where he finished fourth, before finishing the season with four more wins in the final seven when he also failed to finish, for the only time, and was third and second.
If this shows anything, it is that his luxurious performance advantage was trimmed as the year went by and, in turn, the McLaren and Ferrari teams made gains with Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Alonso all taking wins – as did his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber. Seen another way, Vettel won six of the opening nine events, but only five of the final 10.
Analysis of the teams shows that over the same split periods, Red Bull scored at a rate of 36.4 points per race in the opening nine, but slipped to 32.2 in the final ten, while McLaren, notably, rose from 24.2 to 27.9 – and would have scored an even higher average if Hamilton had been less erratic and wasteful in his season of emotional torments.
Indeed, a re-focussed Hamilton, as former champion Damon Hill has suggested, could be the main threat to further Vettel-inspired Red Bull hegemony in a season bloated to 20 races, only eight of which take place in Europe.
McLaren, for whom Button won thrice and took runners-up position in the championship last year, have learned from their failings and the arrival of former Williams technical director Sam Michael, as sporting director, could prove invaluable.
McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale explained: “One of the things we measure is our did-not-score rate. If we had a good car that was capable of scoring good points in a race and we didn’t score, we go back and ask why.
“There were a number of operational issues that we’ve found that needed to be fixed and some of the changes we have made in our line-up, and some of our processes, are aimed at tackling those issues.”
McLaren’s remorseless and robust competitive spirit, coupled to their much-improved and much-earlier winter programme – they were the first top team to pass all the safety tests, launch their new MP4-27 car and be ready for testing – will encourage both Hamilton and Button, like hungry warriors, and persuade them it is their time again.
As successive champions (in 2008 and 2009) before Vettel, they are almost desperate to end his run, but wary too that twice-champion Alonso, in a revitalised Ferrari, will be a real threat again, particularly now that exhaust-blow diffuser systems – a technology that the Italian team struggled to master – have been banned.
“We don’t under-estimate McLaren and Ferrari. Nor does Sebastian. He is now the one the other drivers are shooting at. It’s a different type of pressure, but, at just 24, he is still evolving. I think the best is yet to come,” said Red Bull team manager Christian Horner.
On a more level playing field, with the technical regulations remaining relatively stable (except for the ban on blown diffusers) and no other major changes, the teams are expected to be more closely matched than ever. In this new season therefore, with six champions on the grid – Kimi Rakkonen having returned with Lotus-Renault to join Vettel, Button, Hamilton, Alonso and Michael Schumacher – inspired driving and slick teamwork may prove decisive.
This article was written by Tim Collings for Close Up, the world’s best informed sports and betting magazine. Click here to get a FREE version of Close Up for your iPAD.