The media room at Monza looks right onto the track’s famous pit straight, and the grandstand which stretches alongside it. This means, among other things, that you get a cracking view of the many banners that are erected there by the assembled tifosi.
As you’d probably guessed, just about all of them at the recent Italian Grand Prix were in support of Ferrari. Many of those which were for an individual driver were for Jules Bianchi as you’d imagine. A few were for Michael Schumacher.
But even with such peculiar circumstances I thought it conspicuous how few banners there were for the new Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel. I counted only two banners just for Seb, and of those at least one looked more German than Ferrari based. And to provide context this was one fewer than I saw for his team mate Kimi Raikkonen as well as one fewer even for the ex of Maranello Fernando Alonso, and the same number as afforded for Lewis Hamilton. It’s a crude measure of popularity of course but in that way that can be so tempting I got ahead of myself and assumed that I’d discovered something. That the Ferraristi hadn’t quite taken to Vettel yet.
What the heck do I know. The same grandstands backed Seb with loud and impassioned cheers throughout the weekend, noticeably larger than for any other competitor including Kimi. A moment which rather confirmed who was the tifosi’s presumptive lead came in the second part of qualifying, when Seb swept around to claim P2 at the time the pit straight crowd roared its voluble approval both as he approached the line and after he’d set the mark. Then seconds later when Kimi a little further down the road came by and took the second place for himself it seemed to take the fans a while to notice…
Then of course we had the podium celebrations after Seb’s very fine race drive to runners’ up spot, in which the reception he got from the gathered hordes can only be described as rapturous, and the fevered chant of ‘Sebastian, Sebastian…’ removed whatever doubt was left.
What the heck do I know, as I said. It’s fair to say he’s won them over.
But I have the odd excuse for going down this mental blind alley. In his home country of Germany it’s the case that Vettel has barely begun to match the vast popularity of his mentor Schumacher. This has been evidenced to some extent by poor crowds at recent German Grands Prix (and manifested by extension, again to an extent, by the gaping German Grand Prix-shaped hole in the calendar this year). Apparently only somewhere in the region of 50,000 were in attendance for last season’s race at Hockenheim; on the Friday and even on the Saturday that weekend the grandstands had the look of there having been a recent evacuation. And this was no outlier – it merely marked the latest point of a long term decline. All in stark contrast to the jam-packed spectator areas we used to see at Hockenheim and the Nurburgring in the days of Schumi’s pomp.
A passionate Ferrari fan (© Octane Photographic)
On the Thursday of that Hockenheim round I also had a wander through one of the fans’ campsites and even 18 months on from his retirement (and several years on from leaving the Scuderia) Michael Schumacher and Ferrari bunting dominated. There was a bit of Kimi; hardly any Vettel; no Nico Rosberg at all that I could see, and all of it was dwarfed. While come race day Red Bull colours for Seb got more noticeable at the circuit I still reckon they were outnumbered by those in red. Granted some of it will have been tribute to Schumi after his accident, but I don’t think it was all of it.
This might though be peculiar to Germany and its attitude to its sportspeople. German F1 journalist Michael Schmidt noted once that in Germany, football aside, the tendency is to like its breakthrough sportspeople much more than the next wave. In golf, Martin Kaymer does not get close to Bernhard Langer’s following. In tennis, Boris Becker’s popularity was never approached by Michael Stich.
While Joe Saward recently, sounding more sociologist than hack, added: “Michael Schumacher, who was the catalyst for a lot of the success of the German Grand Prix, came from a very specific background at a very specific moment in time, and to put that in perspective he was a working class German guy at a time when the two Germanys had reunited. And I think he became a social phenomenon, a sort of indication of confidence for the future for Germany, a united Germany. And all the working class people said ‘yeah, this is how it should be’. And I think that they have no interest in the Nico Rosbergs and the Sebastian Vettels who are not working class heroes in the way Michael was. And I think also the world has changed and Germany doesn’t need that focus of confidence that they did at the time.”
But even outside of Germany it has been apparent for much of Seb’s time as an F1 front-runner that he is rather the Marmite driver – i.e. one to love or hate. This applies also it seems both in judging him as a pilot and in judging his character. Almost like it’s cyclical, that the doubts over either reinforce the other. Even as his on track statistical achievements were built to towering levels there has for the most part been a persistent chattering choir of doubters, starting sentences about him with ‘Yeah, but…’
And it’s something I’ve never entirely understood; as a result I’ve spent an awful lot of time defending Vettel both as a driver and person.
So what are the most likely explanations? Vettel often has been subject to negative comparisons with his contemporaries at the top of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. And further that according to some views he was sweeping up the honours at the expense of those more ‘deserving’. We can argue all day about whether he’s as good as that pair, but he’s at the very least nearly as good, and in the sport’s top three, and has been for a while.
Throughout his run of four drivers’ titles Vettel displayed extreme pace, confidence and commitment, and just about every time. His brain power when behind the wheel is thought to be unparalleled. No one in F1 works harder at their game either, nor leaves less to chance. For a time I and plenty of others wondered with this just what he had to do to convince those who stuck resolutely to the view that he in fact was some kind of imposter.
And while he benefitted from the best car in winning his championships just look through the history of F1 world champions and count how many didn’t have the best car at the time. You probably won’t need the fingers of more than one hand. In recent decades they become as rare as hens’ teeth. Plus the whole time Seb had a team mate.
I always harboured a pet theory as Seb struggled for credit as he racked up his championships. Few F1 drivers have been as synonymous with their team as Seb was with Red Bull in that period of triumph, and it struck me that driver and team were often viewed as Johnny-Come-Latelys or worse as ‘arrivistes’. And possibly as with such groups those around them were (unfairly) reluctant to view them as members of the club; would struggle to warm to them; would feel obliged even to invent reasons to discredit them. Perhaps this contributed to some people’s determination to view the Vettel-Red Bull success as an aberration.
A sea of red, but very little support for Vettel (© Octane Photographic)
As for his personality, I don’t quite get the criticism there either. Vettel to me almost always strikes as not only friendly, engaging and witty but also well brought up, polite and conscientious. If asked a question he will answer it in full, to the best of his ability and steer clear of snark (not always the case for F1 drivers). In set piece media conferences plenty modern drivers are guarded. Some, such as Alonso and Raikkonen often, give the impression they would rather be anywhere else. Seb is one of the few that in his behaviour appears to believe that he has an obligation in such things. Perhaps even that he enjoys them.
He has in the past been accused of brattishness. Perhaps, on occasion, I can see this one. In times gone by he used to remind me a little of the young Schumacher, with this from Alan Henry written of Schumi at the end of the 1994 season seeming apt to Vettel on occasion in the past too: “he…displayed an innocence which was usually rather attractive, less so when he chose to flavour it with a dash of arrogance”. To give one outstanding example after the 2012 title decider at Interlagos in which he’d collided with Bruno Senna (and which no one thought was Bruno’s fault) Vettel said something to the German media to the effect that Bruno should go to his uncle’s nearby graveside to explain what he did. But even with these it doesn’t strike me as nearly enough to hang the criticisms on.
A few have in a similar vein pointed to his tendency to rant on the team radio, something replicated for the rest of us on the world TV feed. But he’s not the only one, plus I’m much less keen than some are to hammer F1 drivers for what’s said therein. They’re in a highly stressful situation with every blurt available for potential broadcast to millions. My only surprise is that we don’t hear fruity stuff from the drivers via this avenue more regularly.
Maybe part of it is that despite everything the feeling lingers that we don’t know Vettel? Or at least – with our usual weakness for short cuts – we struggle to pigeonhole him? Most of his front-runner contemporaries come with clear, simple personas (even if they in all probability don’t precisely reflect the person). Alonso the brooding enigma. Lewis the showy freehand artist. Kimi the devil-may-care rebel. Daniel Ricciardo the perma-smiling enthusiast. Can Seb be bracketed nearly as easily?
And with Seb we hear almost nothing from him between races, to the point that even his mucker Bernie Ecclestone was inspired to grumble that “people hardly recognise him on the street” and that he should be doing more to present himself to the world for the benefit of the sport. To the point too that any questions asked of Seb about his family or similar are slapped down abruptly. To the point indeed that recently he managed to become a father for the second time without the rest of us finding out. It’s his right of course to plough this furrow, but maybe in this particular sense is doesn’t help him.
Perhaps he’s not helped by his personality contradictions, in that it makes it harder to know who the real Seb is? Malaysia 2013 and all that is a case in point. After the race Seb was all regret and ‘what have I done?’ Three weeks later in the next round in China suddenly he was in stark contrast utterly unrepentant. It seemed the smiling schoolboy and the ruthless competitor had finally reached the point where they could not be reconciled.
A Ferrari podium – something to celebrate (© Ferrari)
Other F1 drivers have had gaping contradictions of course, see Senna and Schumacher for two obvious examples, but their demarcation tended to be between when competing and not. And in Senna’s case his mysterious, almost other-worldly, personality meant his uniquely flawed modus operandi seemed in an odd way befitting. Perhaps Vettel like Schumacher suffers in an absurd sense that his personality in the usual run of things instead seems too, well, normal.
But still there is an awful lot that is right with Seb in the personality stakes, and his move to Ferrari for this year as with most flights of the nest has added yet more maturity almost overnight. This was on display at Monza. In the top 3 drivers’ press conference that immediately followed the podium the matter of the victor Hamilton and his tyre pressures had only just come to light, to the point that when James Allen told Lewis about this at the start of the conference he in fact was breaking the news to him. And as one of the journalist present sought (for some reason) to press Lewis on the matter Seb came to his opponent’s defence, gently reprimanding the journo. “I think it’s not fair to hand that question to Lewis because he doesn’t know what’s going on, so that’s that” he said.
He even sought to defend Lewis on the subject of whether he’d have got a performance advantage from the lower pressures: “In principle, the tyres last a bit longer, but as I said, I don’t think [there’d be much benefit].”
All of a sudden the realisation hit that in a room full of grizzled and (in some cases) getting-on-a-bit hacks the cherubic Seb was by far the most adult and dignified person in the place.
He indicated further that even as a Ferrari driver at Monza he would not be happy to win this one by default: “In a lot of respect and fairness he [Hamilton] did a very good job today and you have to accept that.
“[The prospect of being given the win] doesn’t change anything, emotions. I was second on the podium and that’s the emotions I got and I’m grateful for them. I had a great car today, not good enough to win but good enough to just finish second.”
It was something noted by Darren Heath post Monza too, him writing on his blog: “Sebastian Vettel is really impressing this year….that understandable outburst [post Spa about the tyres] aside he’s been a model of how a superstar multi-title-winning racing driver should be.”
Doubts over time have followed Seb like a dog. ‘He can lead but he can’t race’ was a common one for a while but he consigned that one to the rubbish heap long ago. Then of course it was ‘wait until he’s not in his cosy Red Bull enclave; not in the best car; without a blown floor’. Those who espoused these no doubt got succour from his 2014 struggle (when I don’t believe we saw close to the best of him, for a few reasons).
Well now he’s not at Red Bull, nor in the best car and blown floors are long gone. And it’s been almost impossible to fault him in his debut campaign at the Scuderia, being fast, consistent and scarcely making an error. He’s also left team mate Raikkonen behind about as decisively as Alonso did, and Kimi’s thought to have the car handling much more to his liking this year. Even his radio rants seem shelved.
And his new team adores him. Quickly upon seeing Seb in his new colours and with the fresh challenge many spoke of his rediscovery of his ‘mojo’ after his difficult 2014 – and this mojo being in effect in and out of the car with his ability to be constructive and motivating with the team fully on show. This was a theme his boss Maurizio Arrivabene explored at Monza: “The team is getting on very well together,” he said. “He [Vettel] brought to the team a lot of enthusiasm. Many times he has helped me to make sure that we are getting together and, most importantly, he is co-operating very well with his team mate.
“Seb is a fantastic champion but is also a person who is helping to stabilise the team together with Kimi. And is helping a lot for all of us to do that together. You saw after the race [in Italy]. You look at Seb. He is always smiling and positive and then I become a bit more flexible when I have to complain.”
Earlier in the weekend too when asked about his justifications for his 2016 driver line up Arrivabene noted that “I don’t need to say a word about Seb.”
This year almost certainly will not deliver title number five for Vettel. But we can be as assured as one can be that it will bring something that is perhaps an even greater prize. Sebastian Vettel surely has ended any credible argument that he isn’t actually all that.