Sebastian Vettel’s fourth world title came last weekend in a race which required him to drive from the back of the grid. This is usually unnecessary for the German, and although there are many arguing now about Vettel’s true worth in a historical context, his Indian performance adds more lustre to his already glowing reputation. The allegation dogs him, however; it’s Newey the genius.
The case for the defence. To paraphrase a famous evaluator of Shakespeare: in what area of our sport has Vettel not shown himself worthy? In what situation has he faltered? How has he not proven himself? The detractors must answer convincingly.
It is to be conceded that usually (mark it, not always) he has enjoyed the benefit of the most dynamic and effective machinery. In F1 as perhaps in few other top level sports, this confers a significant advantage and with it comes suspicion. Regardless of the effort or talent of the driver, his competitors and their fans carp in the first instance and then mutter. Glib as their conclusion may be, pitch sticks. And Vettel is tainted.
But it is in looking more closely at these rivals that we find redemption for the young German. Then: while Schumacher had Hill, Villeneuve and Hakkinen, Senna had Prost, Mansell, Piquet and Schumacher. While Ferrari had Williams and McLaren, now: Red Bull have McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and effectively Renault. And Vettel has Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Webber, to say nothing of Rosberg or Massa or pre-2011, Kubica.
Arguments to this end are often rendered null and void by the assertion that it is impossible to compare and contrast sportsmen from vastly different eras. That holds true, and it is not this column’s intention to contend that Vettel is better in any obvious sense than were the aforementioned greats. But as sport evolves, so too do sportsmen: one only has to look at the swiftness of movement, deftness of touch and preternatural understanding of today’s Bayern Munich or Barcelona to see that it constitutes a significant step up from yesteryear.
It is in this category that Vettel belongs. He has taken the game and absorbed it, processed it, spat it out with such nonchalance that is almost disdain. He has evolved the nasty, too, as Mark Webber knows. From his initial promise when he entered the sport in 2007, his regular showing is now simply a masterful performance that embarrasses the opposition. For that reason alone he must be among the greats, but it is very easy to argue he must be very high among the greats. We shall see this weekend in Abu Dhabi what type of Vettel fits into this new dawn where he really is the best.
And because that whiff of Newey still lingers, Vettel will have something to prove in 2014 and onwards. He won’t be giving up just because he has ground the opposition into the dirt. That’s yet another characteristic of the very great. Watch and see just how good he will get.