Formula One: Two-time champion Vettel joins elite ranks
Sebastian Vettel's second-worst result of the season was enough to secure the Formula One world title in Japan yesterday and make him the youngest two-time world champion in the sport's history.
After nine wins and finishing runner-up on four occasions ahead of yesterday's race, Vettel could only manage third behind Jenson Button who has now chalked up a hat-trick of victories for McLaren this season.
It was not the result Vettel had been hoping for, but, as he only required one point in this race, he actually managed to claim 14 more than was needed.
Unsurprisingly, the champagne flowed in the Red Bull Suzuka paddock, where the team members wore commemorative T-shirts proclaiming the 24-year-old German's feat as the 2011 champion.
More importantly, Vettel is the youngest driver to win back-to-back titles, eclipsing the mark set by Fernando Alonso in 2006 by a few days short of a year.
Vettel also joins an elite club that is now nine strong in winning in consecutive years, his name alongside some of the greats in Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jack Brabham, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Alonso.
Alonso finished second yesterday, with the podium trio separated by just two seconds come the end of the 53-lap race, with Mark Webber fourth and Lewis Hamilton a dejected fifth in his McLaren.
A slow puncture early on compromised Hamilton's race which also included another collision with Ferrari's Felipe Massa, who was seventh behind Michael Schumacher in his Mercedes. So, just what makes Vettel such a special talent?
He can race as well as drive
If there is one issue on which the jury is still out regarding Vettel, it would be overtaking. That is largely because he has not been forced to race regularly from further back in the field, but there have been occasions in 2011 when Vettel has shown his mettle in this department.
After his pit-stops in Barcelona, for instance, when he could not afford to lose time to the faster McLaren of Lewis Hamilton, Vettel made crucial passes in double-quick time, allowing him to maintain track position and hold off a late Hamilton charge.
His 185mph pass around the outside of Fernando Alonso at Monza, meanwhile, was simply brilliant: bold, opportunistic, a champion's move.
His race craft is improving
This year's regulations have thrown up plenty of challenges. Chief among them was the new fast-degrading Pirelli rubber which has meant loads of pit-stops and therefore the opportunity for different race strategies.
This favours drivers such as Jenson Button, who is adept at thinking on his feet and reacting to what is happening during a race.
Button met his match in Monaco, where Vettel made a bold call to stay out for 56 laps on a set of balding prime tyres, gambling that no one would be able to pass him. He was right. A late accident meant Vettel was able to switch to a set of soft tyres before the end anyway. A very intelligent drive.
He has blown Webber away
Some people forget that Mark Webber went into the final race of 2010, in Abu Dhabi, with a better chance of winning the championship than Vettel. The Australian had fought all year with the young German and had won numerous on and off-track battles. This year, Vettel has been on a different planet.
Crucially, he was quicker getting up to speed with the new Pirelli tyres and the 12-3 qualifying record tells its own story.
Webber has not become a slow driver overnight. In fact, he was always known as something of a one-lap specialist. Vettel has simply upped his game and blown the Australian away.
Red Bull threw away a mountain of points last year because of issues of car reliability and driver error. Vettel was not blameless in the latter department; he made several poor starts, lost concentration in Hungary behind the safety car earning a drive-through and got involved in enough collisions for McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh to dub him 'the Crash Kid'.
How ironic that name sounds now in light of Hamilton's recent travails. Vettel has been largely faultless this year. He has crashed three times in Friday practice but came back to win two of those grands prix, while his brief 'off' on the final lap in Canada, gifting the win to Button, was just about his only notable in-race mistake.
Vettel was only 23 when he became Formula One's youngest world champion. And while he has not grown up in quite the same goldfish bowl as the previous holder of that record, Hamilton, Vettel was groomed for stardom since the age of 13 so it would have been easy to get a little big-headed.
There were occasions in 2010, notably when Webber was enjoying a purple patch, when Vettel lost his cool, culminating in him waving his finger around his head as if to say Webber was crazy after their collision in Istanbul.
Yes, he has been under little pressure this year but he has at all times appeared grounded, humble and good humoured. A worthy world champion. (© Daily Telegraph, London)