GREATER NOIDA, India (Reuters) - Sebastian Vettel can legitimately claim to be one of Formula One’s all-time greats after securing a fourth successive title that highlighted his genius as well as a darker side to his character.
The Red Bull driver is his own man, no longer the ‘Baby Schumi’ of old even if the smiling 26-year-old displayed some distinctly Schumacher-like traits on his way to becoming the sport’s youngest quadruple champion.
The German was dominant but his uncompromising determination, some would say ruthlessness, shone through in 2013 - the same stuff of champions displayed by the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher.
Only the third driver, along with compatriot Schumacher and the late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, to win four titles in a row, Vettel is now one of the absolute elite.
Winning one title is tough enough and only four drivers have ever won four (the other being Prost) and Vettel, with 36 wins from 117 races, is the only one to have taken his first four consecutively.
“Phenomenal” is the favorite word of team principal Christian Horner in his regard.
Others, less admiring, see a man whose Adrian Newey-designed car has no rivals and whose behavior this year seemed to have hoisted a metaphorical banner declaring ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’.
If Vettel’s raised single finger gesture from the top of the podium was already starting to get up some people’s noses last year, what happened in Malaysia in the second round of the season was a watershed.
Australian team mate Mark Webber was leading with Vettel behind. The team gave instructions for the two to hold station and turn down the engine. Webber complied, Vettel defied - overtaking and winning the race.
The German, whose relationship with Webber was never warm but now shivered somewhere between glacial and permafrost, later apologized for putting himself above the team but was otherwise unrepentant.
”I don’t apologies for winning. I think that’s why people employed me in the first place and why I‘m here,“ he said as the row rumbled on. ”I love racing so that that’s what I do.
“I don’t consider myself the ‘bad guy’. I don’t think I did something that was particularly bad.”
Vettel is no pantomime villain, despite the boos following him around in the second half of the season as he racked up the wins and the Ferrari and Fernando Alonso fans grew frustrated with his dominance.
“Of course he’s got the best car and the best people around him but that’s part of the skill. The best drivers end up in that situation. They’re like magnets,” said Martin Brundle, former F1 racer turned television commentator.
The same could be said of Vettel’s boyhood hero Schumacher, the seven-times champion who racked up five titles in a row with Ferrari from 2000 to 2004 and whom he now counts as a friend.
Schumacher’s team mates chafed at being cast in a supporting role, with the older German also accused of sending fans to sleep with his stranglehold on the sport.
Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, compared this season to his recollection of the Schumacher era as one in which European fans woke up to watch faraway races, turned the television on, saw Vettel was leading and went back to bed.
Those who know Vettel well reject talk of any ‘dark side’. They argue that he remains remarkably unaffected by his celebrity even if driving better than ever.
He and his girlfriend, who rarely attends races, have been together since their schooldays and he is just as likely to be seen at the wheel of a Volkswagen van as a luxury sportscar. He lives in Switzerland and does not do social media.
“It’s incredible what’s happened over the last couple of years but nothing has changed in the way that I still love racing,” Vettel, who has a detailed knowledge of the sport’s history and remains charmingly in awe of the greats of yesteryear, said after this month’s Japanese Grand Prix.
“I love the challenge. I‘m still nervous when I wake up on Sunday, still excited when I walk on the grid and tense, looking forward to the race.”
He is one of the most driven of racers. Like Schumacher, he leaves no stone unturned in his mental and physical approach.
“He is only 26 but he works so hard at it. What you guys don’t see is the amount of effort behind the scenes that he puts in. In his preparation, in his training, in the application that he has in the job that he does,” said Horner.
“He is hugely self-critical. He is always looking at areas where he can improve... it is that inward looking that keeps propelling him forward.”.
Vettel, four years old when Schumacher made his F1 debut in 1991, was hooked on the sport from an early age.
In India, after qualifying on pole, he spoke of the day in 1992 when he witnessed for the first time a wet Hockenheim practice session: “It was a great feeling just to be there and hear them (the cars) coming through the forest and feel it through the ground,” he recalled.
“When I was small, I was dreaming about Formula One and honestly never thought that one day I would be able to test one of these cars,” Vettel said earlier this month.
“First time I tested the car... I thought ‘Alright, that’s for real men, not me.’ Then I got used to it and obviously wanted to do more.”
As BMW-Sauber’s third driver in Friday practice at the 2006 Turkish Grand Prix, he was penalized for speeding in the pitlane just seconds into his first race weekend appearance.
He made his debut with the team in 2007, and immediately became the youngest driver to score a point, before returning to the Red Bull fold.
His debut win from pole, with unsung Toro Rosso at Monza in 2008, set more records and remains one of the most stunning achievements of his career.
Those who once swore Schumacher’s records would stand the test of time have been forced into a rethink. With at least another title-chasing decade ahead of him, Vettel could obliterate them.
The German is already six years ahead of schedule. Schumacher had to wait until he was 32 for his first four.
Whether Vettel stays at Red Bull, with Ferrari making no secret of their admiration, remains to be seen but an eventual move would convince those holding judgment about his place in the pantheon until he has won titles with more than one team.
“He had an advantage in car performance all these years, so we will see how good he is later in his career,” Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, his closest rival, commented recently.
In his early days in Formula One, Vettel was dubbed a ‘Crash Kid’ but such talk is ancient history.
He won his first title in 2010 as a dark horse, leading the standings for the first time only after the last race in Abu Dhabi, while 2011 was a display of dominance with 11 wins and a record 15 pole positions.
Last year was the triumph of consistency, this year a return to domination.
A carpenter’s son from Heppenheim, Vettel has given all his cars female names, progressing from ‘Kate’ to ‘Kate’s Dirty Sister’, ‘Luscious Liz’, ‘Randy Mandy’, ‘Kinky Kylie’, ‘Abbey’ and this year’s ‘Hungry Heidi’.
He is fiercely independent, negotiating his own contracts, while enjoying a firm friendship with Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, with whom he sometimes plays backgammon.
Ecclestone, who managed and was particularly close to German-born Austrian champion Jochen Rindt up to his death in 1970, has spoken of the parallels between the two.
“Seb will always stay grounded, no matter how big the success. That is what makes real champions. That was also Jochen’s strength. Plus both are lousy losers,” said the 82-year-old.
Editing by John O'Brien