Sebastian Vettel cannot yet be called a great

Red Bull Racing, Getty Images

19 October 2012 by Daniel Chalmers

As the possibility of a third straight title beckons for Sebastian Vettel, the question of whether he can yet be called a great has been raised.

There is no doubt that along with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, Vettel can quite rightly be classed as one of the best on the grid currently. Statistically he is already right up there with some of F1’s all time greats.

He has shown plenty of brilliant qualities over the last few years. He is exceptionally fast over a single lap. He appears to be able to find an extra tenth or two from nowhere, just in the same way Ayrton Senna used to be able to.

Watching one of his qualifying laps onboard is incredibly exciting, and you can tell just how committed he is to every corner. Let’s not forget that Webber is a fast qualifier too. Therefore to beat him convincingly as Sebastian has done in recent years is quite a feat.

When he leads the race from the front he controls the race effortlessly. Once he has created a gap at the front, his rivals know it’s very unlikely that they will be able to stop him.

Of course Vettel has had the luxury of having very quick cars at his disposal. However he has still had to go out there and extract the maximum from his equipment. Not all drivers who have found themselves in a great car have managed to go out there and dominate like Sebastian has.

Although his race craft has been seriously questioned in the past, he has produced some good moves recently. That includes that brave move around the outside of Alonso in Monza last year. He executed a great move around the outside of Nico Rosberg in the2012 opener at Melbourne.

At Spa this year he put a number of good moves on drivers, as he fought back from a long way down to get on the podium.

Many regard Jenson Button as the best when it comes to tyre management. However Vettel is perhaps underrated in this area. He somehow made a one stop strategy work in Monaco last year (albeit with a bit of help from the red flag). Button made a one stop work beautifully in Spa earlier this year, but let’s not forget that so did Vettel behind him in second place.

Whilst some drivers have struggled in this current generation of Pirelli tyres, Sebastian has adapted himself to them perfectly right from the very start.

What he has achieved for somebody so young is quite remarkable. However it would be wrong to call him a “great” as things stand. We have to be careful not to use the term “great” too loosely.

Only a few drivers in F1’s history should have the right to be called a great. Simply call every world champion a great then you could argue that the tag is somewhat devalued. Only the very best drivers of all time should have the accolade.

At the moment Vettel is only 25. He has many years ahead of him in his career yet, presuming he stays motivated and injury free. Only at the end of his career, should it be decided whether he can be classed as one of the greatest drivers of all time.

Although statistics play a part they are far from being the only factor that decides which drivers are considered greats. Sir Stirling Moss never won the F1 championship, but many will agree that he is one of the all time greats of the sport, and rightly so.

Clearly Vettel is likely to have done very well in the statistics department by the time he calls time on his career.

However he needs to tick at least two or three of the boxes in the list below, to be considered a great when he hangs up his helmet. At only 25 years of age there is every possibility that he will be able to tick them, and chances are he will.

Win races from further back on the grid

So far in his career all his race wins except for two have come from the front row of the grid. Those two wins came from third on the grid (Malaysia 2010 and Singapore 2012). In the 2010 Malaysian GP he was already in the lead by the time he got to turn one. In this year’s Singapore GP Vettel inherited the win from Hamilton, who looked in control of the race.

Whilst winning races from further back isn’t easy in the modern era of F1 due to the difficulty of overtaking, a few of Vettel’s rivals have managed it. This year Alonso has won from 8th and 11th on the grid (Malaysia and Valencia respectively). Let’s not forget Kimi Raikkonen’s incredible victory from 17th on the grid in at Suzuka back in 2005.

When you look back at Michael Schumacher’s career he got more race victories than pole positions (91 to 68). He didn’t rely on pole position to win races. He could challenge for race victories from anywhere on the grid.

Win races in a car that isn't the quickest on the grid

Apart from that impressive victory for Toro Rosso in the wet in 2008 Vettel’s race victories have generally come in the best car on the grid. Since the middle of 2009 Red Bull have had the quickest car most of the time. 2012 is the first time since then, when the Milton Keynes squad have gone through a sustained period of not having the best package.

Vettel’s last three race victories have come since Red Bull significantly improved their car. He has only won one other race this season which was back in Bahrain.

Excluding that win with Toro Rosso he is yet to win a race in a car which you could say was definitely slower than his rivals' cars. This year we have seen Alonso win three races in a car which although good at times hasn’t ever been the pacesetter (apart from Monza). In 2009 McLaren produced a poor car but yet Hamilton still managed to win two races.

Go much further back to the 1961 Monaco GP and Moss held the superior Ferraris at bay, for a race which lasted nearly three hours.

Only the really great drivers have the ability to transcend the abilities of their cars, and win races when they shouldn’t. Vettel will certainly win over his harshest critics, if he can achieve that regularly in the future.

Produce that one iconic moment of brilliance that defies belief

All greats and most world champions have that one incredible moment which leaves fans in utter disbelief, and has them running to youtube years after it first happened.

For Senna, his moment would almost certainly be his first lap at the 1993 European GP at Donington. For Nigel Mansell it has to be the 1987 British GP, where he came back from half a minute behind Nelson Piquet to overtake him and win the race.  For Mika Hakkinen you have his spectacular and equally clever pass on Schumacher (using backmarker Ricardo Zonta) at Spa in 2000. Arguably Sir Jackie Stewart’s moment is when he won by four minutes in the atrocious conditions at the Nurburgring in 1968.

Looking at the present day champions Alonso’s moment has to be that incredibly brave move around the outside of Schumacher at 130r in 2005. For Kimi it has be his final lap pass on Giancarlo Fisichella on the last lap of that same race. Then for Button you have that incredible Canadian GP victory last year when he was at one point running last, but fought his way through the field to win.

Although Vettel has produced some very good moments in his career so far, he hasn’t quite done something of the magnitude of the examples above.

The closest to an iconic moment for him would probably be his win for Toro Rosso at Monza in 2008. However the team did have a very good car that year.

Win the championship in a different team

For far in his career Vettel has benefited hugely from having Adrian Newey as one of his sidekicks. Newey is the one who has made the most of the sweeping rule changes brought in back in 2009. Since Brawn GP’s triumph in the first year of the rule changes, Red Bull has been the car to have.

If he goes through his whole entire career just winning championships with Newey inspired cars, many will say his success is just down to him.

At some point he needs to take the challenge of moving to a different team and show he can win elsewhere, without the genius designer.

After winning two championships with Benetton Schumacher moved to an underperforming Ferrari, and helped turn them into one of the most formidable teams in F1 history.

Hamilton has now decided that the time is right to try and win with a different team.

Beat a formidable team-mate

Whilst Mark Webber is an extremely competent team mate, it’s quite clear that Vettel is a class above him.

An opinion shared by most fans is that in equal machinery Hamilton and Alonso would both beat the young German. Whilst he is in a Red Bull that is quicker than the opposition, Sebastian is never going to prove that theory wrong.

However if he were to join Alonso at Ferrari in 2014 it would present a huge opportunity. Alonso is the driver most rate as the best in F1 currently. If Vettel could go to Alonso’s own team, and beat him it would blow that theory completely out of the water.

Sebastian beating Alonso in the same car would certainly go a long way towards making him an all time great.

Looking back to the late 80s and McLaren was the dominant package. However Senna and Prost still had each other to beat to win championships.

In the last three seasons Button has boosted fans’ opinion of his ability, by measuring up admirably alongside Hamilton at McLaren.

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