Tuesday 16 January 2018

Vettel genius rooted in kart track years

MOTORSPORT

Tom Cary , in suzuka

To the wider world there is nothing remarkable about Kerpen; a small and not particularly attractive town in former mining country roughly 30km west of Cologne where the land runs flat towards the Belgian border.

Yet in motorsport, and particularly Formula One, the place is a byword for excellence; known to every petrolhead.

Michael Schumacher, born a stone's throw away in Hurth-Hermulheim, was a junior champion at the celebrated Graf Berghe von Trips kart track at the age of six. We all know what he went on to achieve.

Barring a seismic shock, another graduate of the Kerpen kart club will become a multiple Formula One title winner at Suzuka tomorrow.

Sebastian Vettel may hail from Heppenheim, 200km further south, but Kerpen is where he started racing as an eight year-old in 1995.

Kerpen is where Red Bull's blond-haired, blue-eyed wunderkind first made a name for himself, both on and off the track, hanging around the charmingly rustic paddock "pestering" his hero Schumacher for an autograph.

Perhaps most importantly, Kerpen is where Vettel met Gerhard Noack, president and part-owner of the circuit. The man who 'discovered' Schumacher. A former hobby karter himself, Noack recalls that first race in 1995.

"Suddenly it started to rain," he says. "Everyone else went on to wet tyres with only Sebastian driving on slicks. He really stood out."

As well he might have done. Vettel had been karting since the age of three, when his father Norbert gave him a 60cc machine to "keep him off the streets." In one of those quirks of fate which enter into sporting folklore, Vettel Snr had to douse the front drive with water since the only way to get around one of the corners was by skidding around it. All those hours spent lapping an artificially-soaked courtyard had paid off.

Noack kept a close eye on Vettel, making sure he got the right equipment and met the right people, just as he had for Schumacher. It was Noack who facilitated Vettel's meetings with Red Bull, for whom he signed as a 13-year-old, and BMW, for whom he first raced in 2007 before they let him go to Toro Rosso.

"I put a lot of time and effort, 10 years, trying to pave the way for Sebastian," Noack recalled after Vettel claimed his maiden title in Abu Dhabi last year. "In 1997, I even rented my business to have more time for Sebastian. I was convinced that he would be a world champion.

"It is a moving moment when you say: 'Yes, the investment was worth it.'"

And had he become rich off the back of it, he was asked. "No and nor do I want any (money). Because then it's business, then perhaps it's no fun."

Vettel visits less often these days, Noack says, but not because he is a big shot. Yes, he lives in Switzerland now, but he has not forgotten his roots.

He stayed in a camper van with his dad, his brother and a friend at winter testing earlier this year. And he still attends Eintracht Frankfurt matches, incognito, with old school-mates.

Vettel was back in Kerpen this summer for the first time in two or three years to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the club. Schumacher beat him in a 10-lap exhibition race. "I guess Michael showed me who's boss," Vettel said afterwards.

"He hadn't changed a bit," Noack smiles. "Very humble. That is a product of his family. They were always there -- father, mother, sisters -- at every race, in the family camper van. They never had any airs."

Japanese Grand Prix,

Live, tomorrow, BBC 1, 7.0am

Irish Independent

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