Monday 18 December 2017

Vettel in slipstream of another German machine

The world champion is following an eerily familiar path to F1 domination, writes David Kennedy

What makes a multiple World Champion? Sebastian Vettel won back-to-back titles last weekend not least because his Red Bull team is the collective efforts of four principle protagonists: Vettel, the driver; Adrian Newey, the designer; Christian Horner, the team manager and Dietrich Mateschitz, the team owner.

Add to that heady mix, great engineers, dedicated mechanics, a solid back-up at their base in Milton Keynes and you have the proverbial recipe for success.

Vettel is the type of driver who works late into the night with his engineers, eking out the last drop of advantage that will set him apart from his mortal adversaries. His burning ambition is the fuel that propels him to greatness.

Like Michael Schumacher before him, they share common traits of the uncommon man -- those who achieve more than one title.

Germany has pretty much had the lion's share of F1 championships since 1994, when Schumacher won the first of his two consecutive titles for Benetton. It's almost impossible not to draw comparisons between the current double world champion and the seven-time world champion, there are so many parallels.

Incredibly, they still share an F1 grid -- despite the fact that Vettel was just seven years old when his idol won his first title.

Schumacher and Vettel were born 18 years apart in small German towns that are within a couple of hours' drive of one another, Hurth and Heppenheim, population 58,000 and 28,000 respectively.

Even their town's coats of arms are strikingly similar. Hurth's is an eagle, a cross and a wheel. Heppenheim, a lion, a cross and a wheel -- like metaphors for champions who are blessed with mythical driving abilities.

The two went on to race for teams with more animal symbolism: Schumacher the prancing horse, Vettel the Red Bull.

Schumacher's father was a bricklayer, Vettel's a carpenter.

They cut their teeth at the same Kerpen karting circuit near Cologne.

And they both now live in Switzerland, where they go yodelling together (okay, the last bit I made up). Anyway so far so spooky. Except it's not really.

Schumacher as an F1 driver gathered the best talent available and moulded the Ferrari team into his unique brand of perfection.

Vettel honed the existing talent that Red Bull had in place and got everyone singing from his Freddie Mercury 'we are the champions' songbook.

After winning his first two titles, Schumacher endured a four-year hiatus until the dawn of a new millennium, when a clean run of five consecutive championships put him into a stratosphere that no driver had reached before or since.

Many people believe Vettel (pictured) will go on to overtake Schumacher, who is statistically the greatest driver the world has ever seen. Vettel is truly an outstanding talent but that scenario is both depressing and improbable.

Vettel's ascent has been as rapid as it was flawless. Wind back to 2007 when he led the World Series by Renault. After seven races and one victory, BMW nabbed the 19-year-old when they needed to replace an injured Robert Kubica and Vettel made his F1 debut in the USA Grand Prix, becoming the youngest driver to compete in F1.

From there he went to Toro Rosso and was the youngest driver to score a point. In 2008 at Monza, he was the youngest driver to win a race. In his three years with Red Bull he became the youngest runner-up, then champion and now double-champion.

To sidestep a little here, I frequently encounter drivers who dedicate their young lives (as I did myself decades before) to overcoming improbable odds to get to F1. It is a hallowed world where a privileged few get to dip their toe in the cockpit of quixotic dreams.

When you are young, everything seems possible through the eyes of the naive. But reality dawns in the labyrinth of life as path after path is filled with failure and disappointment. Before you know it, after a few years in the doldrums, you are consigned to the 'where are they now?' file.

Vettel and Schumacher were lucky. They come from a country that boasts powerful car manufacturers who support their drivers early in their careers.

These two drivers may have been born into working-class families but when their extraordinary talent came to the fore, Mercedes or BMW were waiting for them with the silver spoon.

Mercedes paid for Schumacher's first race with Jordan and once you muscle your way through those gilded doors anything is possible. To complete the full circle, Schumacher has once again returned to the Mercedes mothership.

Loyalty and trust are important to them. After a ten-year collaboration, Schumacher stayed faithful to his manager Willie Weber and renewed their contract. He bore no resentment against the man who gave him his first break and in turn picks up 20 per cent of the hundreds of millions of dollars earned.

Vettel's unofficial manager is Helmut Marco, an intrinsic player at Red Bull, a team that tightly controls the commercial activities of its drivers, which consists mainly of the selling of the eponymous drink.

So, having a face that fits, the right nationality, a strong personality, excellent PR skills, prodigious talent, and more than a bit of luck, counts for a lot in this game. Then the serious work begins.

Last weekend in Barcelona, on the same day Vettel became world champion in Japan, a Status Grand Prix driver, who finished runner-up in last year's GP3 championship, won the tile that Vettel was chasing when he got his F1 break -- The World Series by Renault. Kubica was a previous winner.

When Robert Wickens came to us to help him fulfill his F1 dream, we saw hunger in his eyes, and fire in his belly. Now he is Marussia F1's reserve driver and his prize for winning the Renault championship is a Lotus Renault F1 test drive in Abu Dhabi later this year. The foot is in the proverbial door.

Muhammad Ali captured it best when he said: "The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses, beyond the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights."

How right he was. But while becoming world champion is ineluctable for some, it remains a bloody hard slog for others.

Sunday Indo Sport

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