Saturday 24 February 2018

Formula 1: Leading man likely to keep understudies waiting a long time

Sebastian Vettel is in the pantheon now but he still has records to chase, writes David Kennedy

‘In 2010, Sebastian Vettel was 23 when he clinched his first title. Can he stay motivated at Red Bull?’
‘In 2010, Sebastian Vettel was 23 when he clinched his first title. Can he stay motivated at Red Bull?’

David Kennedy

Germany not only produces beautifully engineered road cars, namely Audi, Mercedes, BMW and VW, but they're very proactive in using motorsport to promote sales. Audi as a case in point has won Le Mans 12 times since 2000. In F1, there's the same dominance. Two German drivers have won 11 drivers' titles in 20 years. That's automotive supremacy on a grand scale.

Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel share those 11 titles between them, like kids dividing up sweets. For the most part they kept interlopers away, although a few managed to slip through the net, like Hill, Villeneuve, Haikkonen (2), Alonso (2), Raikkonen, Hamilton and Button.

Vettel looks particularity avaricious with nobody getting a look-in since he began plundering the trophy cabinet. At least Schumacher had the good grace to take a sabbatical after his first two titles.

Now that Vettel is 2013 world champion, it's the fate of lesser mortals to dwell on what the 26-year-old needs to do now in order to keep the historians busy.

He still has to win another title in 2014 if he's to match Schumacher's record of five consecutive wins, and again in 2015, to beat it. To stand on the plinth of equality with Schumacher, he needs three more. Even from Vettel's victorious cockpit that must look like a steep upward curve.

Although Vettel now shares the hall of fame of drivers who have won at least four titles with legends like Fangio, Prost and Schumacher, if we really want to nit-pick, the others did so with more than one team. So Vettel will have to move on if he's to tick that particular box.

The rest of Vettel's competitors wait in the wings, like frustrated understudies who have learned their lines but never get to play the lead because he's never off sick.

Some new faces are coming into F1 as Vettel straddles two generations. Others are languishing in the fading embers of a career that promised much, only to fall on the battlefield when faced with a younger, hungrier combatant, who also had the brilliance of designer Adrian Newey on board and the might of a global empire to bolster his armour.

Looking at his fellow world champions' records, they seem a bit dated. Alonso in 2005 and 2006, Raikkonen in 2007 and Hamilton in 2008 Have these guys missed their chance? Some new recruits next season were only born in 1995.

If you compare the four maestros who collected four or more titles and the age they were when they achieved this, you wonder how much younger they can go.

Juan Manuel Fangio, the legendary Argentinean, won the first of five titles in 1951 at the grand old age of 40. In 1954, he began his march to four consecutive championships. As if to prove it wasn't the car, he won with four different manufacturers, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, Maserati and Ferrari. Although not the winner of the most titles, Fangio stands alone, incomparable with any modern record-holder and acknowledged by many to be the greatest racing driver ever.

In 1985, Alain Prost was 30 when he won the first of four titles, three with McLaren and the final with Williams. His wins-span covers nine years.

In 1994, Michael Schumacher was 25 when he won his first title and 35 when he won his last. The first two were with Benetton the last five with Ferrari.

In 2010, Sebastian Vettel was 23 when he clinched his first title. Can he stay motivated if he remains at Red Bull? Can he win in mortal cars? Will he still be at the top of his game after 11 years, as Schumacher was? Is the 'Infiniti' sponsor on his rear wing a clue to his intentions? He'd probably tell us all to shut up and rightly so. He's only beginning to enjoy being a quadruple world champion. Away with the 'what if's'.

Abu Dhabi may have just missed out on the crowning of a new Formula One world champion, which happened in the preceding race in India, but in two other support categories new stars were aligned in the firmament at the Yas Marina circuit.

The latest GP3 champion, Daniil Kyvat, has a rosy future. The Russian teenager will replace Daniel Ricciardo at Toro Rosso next season who in turn moves into Mark Webber's seat. In a surprise move by Red Bull, Kyvat usurped the favourite Antonio da Costa for the coveted seat. They were set on choosing the former Status GP winner but they opted instead for Kyvat, even before he has secured the GP3 title.

The GP3 season has drawn to a close now. Status GP had a lacklustre 2013, the best result was second. Conor Daly flew the Irish/US flag by finishing an impressive third in the championship. To run in GP2, the formula that's closest to F1, can cost an additional £1m compared to GP3 yet GP3 has proved to be fertile ground for leapfrogging to F1. Some drivers must wonder why they bothered wasting their money.

Newly-crowned GP2 champion Fabio Leimar won't necessarily secure a drive in one of the few seats left in F1. The 24-year-old Swiss driver may find that timing isn't only vital when it comes to lap times, it is the key in a successful drivers' career armoury.

The Yas Marina complex defies description. Like a mirage that sprang from what used to be desert, it's as if aliens in search of a headquarters on planet Earth came to set up shop. If the Starship Enterprise landed nobody would have blinked because everything looks futuristic and buildings pulsate with ever-changing neon lights. Added to that, a race that takes place at sunset and goes into the twilight zone, it all makes for a surreal experience.

Amid all the glitz, there were more Irish about than you could shake a shillelagh at. Richard Cregan is the boss of the Yas Marina circuit and has successfully overseen its immense growth in five short years. Ronan Morgan was clerk of the course. Ronan used to co-drive with Mohammed Bin Sulayem, the immensely successful former rally driver from Dubai and a serious candidate for Jean Todt's presidency at the FIA. Former Lotus F1 driver Martin Donnelly was FIA steward for the race. Derek Daly was overseeing the exploits of his son Conor. Derek McMahon, who supported Derek's early career, was there. Richard's son Robert Cregan, Ryan Cullen, and his father Patrick, as well as Alice Powell were part of the GP3 contingent. Eddie Jordan and Gary Anderson were strutting their stuff for the BBC.

The final two Grands Prix of the season are back to back, commencing next weekend in Austin, Texas. North America is followed by South America and a farewell from Ferrari driver Felipe Massa in his native Brazil.

McLaren were the victors in both races last year when Hamilton won the inaugural GP in Austin and Button won in Brazil. Not much chance of a McLaren victory this year at either venue. In Brazil the preceding two years, Red Bull drivers swapped first and second. Webber was triumphant in 2011 and Vettel in 2010. So who's it going to be this time around? Hamilton for Mercedes in the US followed by Vettel in Brazil, or how about Webber? It's anyone's guess but the V sign will probably feature in at least one of them.

Sunday Independent

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