Sebastian Vettel: Brutal, Childish, Ruthless; Superb.

The great Ayrton Senna once uttered the now immortal words of “We are competing to win. And if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.” And those words seem to have resonated with no one more so than Sebastian Vettel. His defying of team order “Multi 21” (to bring the cars home in formation) behind team-mate Mark Webber showed that there is a difference between simply driving a Formula 1 car and racing one. Quite a few incredibly fit athletes can drive a car in formation and happily amble around a track to the finish, but I could probably count on one hand from the archive of past drivers that would actively disobey their employers to go and get the result for themselves. Not that I’m condoning what Vettel did at all, the 25-year-old shouldn’t have won that race. Like a naughty child, when he was told not to do something, the first thing he does is to go out and do it.

Thanks to the coverage that is available to us, the humble fans of racing, we were able to hear most of the communication in the pit lane surrounding the fracas that was the Malaysian Grand Prix. “This is silly, Seb, come on.” Was the call from Christian Horner on the pit wall, after he passed his team-mate for the lead. This was instead of the more obvious “Give the place back, you were told to stay behind and that’s what we expect you to do.” Way to assert your authority, there. Vettel had the front after the race to plead miscommunication, but we all heard it from Francis ‘Rocky’ Rocquelin (Vettel’s race engineer) “Okay, Sebastian… three-second gap, save your tyres”. The response slightly later on: “Mark is too slow, get him out of the way.” sheer ignorance if nothing else. It’s not as though he could have misheard all of the transmissions, for example “Careful, Sebastian, careful” (when the two cars were close together). Also, to preserve tyre life the drivers are often asked to stick to target lap times, Vettel was asked for a 1:42.0, he went out and set a 1:40.446 on the lap before he passed Webber.

To rub salt in the already gaping wound, Vettel then took to the radio to attempt to justify his taking of the lead “I was really scared, all of a sudden he was swooping and I had to lead the line”. No wonder he got the one-finger salute from the Australian across the garage. But this was going to happen. Sebastian sensed an opportunity. Fernando Alonso (whom he would consider one of the biggest rivals to the title) was out of the race with a spectacular front wing failure at the start of the second lap, and Vettel wasn’t going to let anyone get in his way of another seven points, even his own team-mate. The general consensus of this has been ‘He shouldn’t have done it, but that’s the mark of a champion’.

While his championship qualities were shining through, as ‘Rocky’ told him immediately after the race “You wanted it bad enough, but now you’ve got some explaining to do”. Mark Webber had just as much right as Seb to go out and win that race. And seeing as team orders are currently allowed in F1, that’s what the team wanted as well. Even though Seb broke the in-house rule, Mark could have just as easily have gone ‘You want a war? You’ve got one…”, turned up his engine again and fought him to the finish. But he didn’t take the chance. Fuel saving may have had something to do with it, but while Vettel wasn’t wanting to cast himself as the Number Two, Webber seemed almost content with second place, among the seething that would’ve undoubtedly been happening under the helmet.

I’m going to be honest with you here, I don’t like Sebastian Vettel. While he has a chirpy, affable exterior, his will to win (while admirable) borders on Schumacher levels. And that’s dangerous. His target has always been known: he wants to become a legend. His mentor and friend the Seven-Time World Champion himself is a legend. But whenever you talk about the career of Michael Schumacher in retrospect, amid all the brilliance there’s always going to be a ‘But’. Surely, Vettel doesn’t want that for himself? His almost enthroned position within Red Bull and the eyes of Helmut Marko have led him to have these outbursts of Spoilt Child Syndrome moments. I’m sure that, at the age of 25, he has many victorious years ahead of him. But if he continues in this vein, he’s not going to be a legend with many friends left.

F1 2013: My Championship Prediction

As the 2012 season proved, Formula 1 is in rude health. Close racing, a title battle that went down to the last race, and (of course) the statistic of seven different winners to start the year. With everything that went on last year, it would be easy for racing sceptics to say that the sport can’t reach that kind of height for a very long time, right? From a personal view… Wrong.

Stability in regulations in the past has usually had the effect of cars ‘bunching up’ in terms of lap times (2008 springs to mind here, with most of the pack running within a second of each other for a large part of the year), and I can’t see a reason why 2013 should be any different. Testing is reliably unreliable in the sport, but whether teams are sand-bagging the cars or not, the lap times do tell a story. The so-called ‘new’ teams of Marussia and Caterham have shown in testing that they were merrily lapping around a second off last year’s Spanish Grand Prix pole lap. But such is the level of development in the sport, Nico Rosberg’s lap of 1:20.1 in Barcelona was a full 1.6 seconds faster than the pole lap set by his now team-mate Lewis Hamilton last year (before he was sent to the back of the grid for insufficient fuel levels, but let’s gloss over that…) So the cars are expected to be running closer together at the front, while going faster at the same time. What’s not to like?

Because the cars are expected to be incredibly competitive amongst each other, this means that we now have more genuine world title contenders. But the big question is this: Who can build a fast car and have the ability to drive their way into stopping Sebastian Vettel winning a fourth consecutive title? It’s a tough one to call. The raw engineering nouse of über-brain Adrian Newey has built championship-winning cars that span the decades, and not many among the paddock can see why this year will be an exception to that rule. The favourite for the Championship, without too much doubt.

The obvious answer to the question, though, would be Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. He was the choice of the majority among surveys and pundits as ‘Driver of the Year’ last year when he wrestled his often off-the-pace Prancing Horse to within three points of the title. Not that testing is a good indicator at all (as previously mentioned!) but on the face of it, the team back at Maranello have seemingly got their act together from the start to build a car that has been on or very close to the front running pace throughout the winter. And now that Alonso has a rejuvenated Felipe Massa alongside him to seriously back up his title charge, Ferrari can be seen to be in serious title contention in both championships.

So, what of Mark “Not bad for a Number Two Driver” Webber? He’s a multiple race winner, mounted proper title charges in the past, but it’s never quite come together for him over the course of an entire season. On his day, he has been unbeatable. To win twice each at the traditional “Driver’s Circuits” of Silverstone and Monaco is no accident. Now the oldest driver on the grid, whether he will have the capabilities to put together a run of performances to rival and out-score his young German team-mate remains to be seen. Nonetheless, still a World-Class driver.

McLaren have taken some hits in the past few years. Losing Adrian Newey, Fernando Alonso , Lewis Hamilton, Ron Dennis and now Paddy Lowe have had some doubting whether they can still attract big names to the team in the same way that they used to. That being said, Sky F1’s Natalie Pinkham believes that 2009 Champion Jenson Button will take the crown this year, and early indicators have shown that McLaren have built a solid base to start the year; with the MP4-28 being among the favourites to grab pole position in Melbourne. Many eyes will also be tracking the progress of young Sergio Pérez to see if he can handle the pressure of driving for a big team. He probably won’t realistically put in a title challenge this year, but the team will definitely want a strong showing from him.

Lotus had shown their ability to build a race-winning car last year (with the threat to have won more, in Bahrain in particular), but their season culminated in the returning 2007 Champion Kimi Raikkonen taking the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi, after two years in the WRC. Leave him alone, Lotus, he knows what he’s doing. And The Enstone Team (as those working within the factory prefer to be called) will be looking to build on that for 2013 after the Finn took an impressive third place in the Championship in 2012. After being branded a “First-Lap Nutcase” by Mark Webber, and being given another chance by Team Principal Eric Boullier, Romain Grosjean knows where he needs to improve. This isn’t through lack of speed, though, as Grosjean has proven himself to be more than capable of challenging his more experienced team-mate; in qualifying in particular. Lotus will certainly fancy their chances of pushing for both titles this year, if they can keep up with development, and in the case of Grosjean, finish consistently and finish well.

Lastly out of the main contenders, and perhaps the most interestingly, Mercedes. Signing Lewis Hamilton was certainly a major coup for them, and along with Hamilton’s old karting team-mate Nico Rosberg outperforming the great Michael Schumacher over the course of three seasons; some would argue that the Silver Arrows have the strongest driver line-up in Formula 1. Also, the sheer development of the car over the winter testing alone has put Mercedes right up among the big guns. Hamilton and Rosberg have been good friends for a number of years, and if Nico does outperform Lewis, like he is definitely capable of, that relationship could well be tested. Hamilton had said towards the end of last season that he expects to win the World Championship with Mercedes, but not this year. This could be his way of taking the pressure off of himself for this season, but being a driver of his calibre, he won’t want to settle for a mediocre year.

If I’m going to be brutally honest with you, dear reader, as a huge fan of the sport and someone who follows it almost religiously, I can’t tell you who is going to win the 2013 World Championship. I can’t even tell you who’s going to be in the top five for sure… So in true X Factor judge style, I’m going to keep my thoughts a secret. I’ve written my top three Driver’s Championship predictions and my thoughts on who will win the Constructor’s Championship and placed them in a sealed envelope, to be revealed at the end of the season… But in the mean time, I probably won’t be the only one setting my alarm at a ridiculously early time for First Practice on Friday. We could be in for a treat this year, I’m looking forward to this slightly…

So it all comes down to Brazil, again…

Motorsports: FIA Formula One World Championship 2011, Grand Prix of AustraliaFormula 1 isn’t exactly new to the concept of a last-race showdown. Anyone that knows the sport will agree that the 2012 season will deserve the grandstand finish that this year’s racing has merited. Two of the sport’s finest drivers, two World Championships each, both looking to become the youngest triple World Champion in history.

Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel are two of F1’s supposed “Big Three”, along with Lewis Hamilton (whom without reliability problems throughout the season, would almost certainly have been in this battle, too).

Vettel is gunning for his third consecutive title, but this situation will be new to him. This is the first time he will be leading the Championship going into the last race of the season (without having won it beforehand, by a mile…) so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the different kind of pressure. The points situation has been played out many times already, but here it is anyway, in case you missed it:
Vettel: 273 Points
Alonso: 260 Points

This is almost the exact polar opposite situation to 2010, in which Alonso was leading by 15 points going into the final race at Abu Dhabi, only for a strategic problem leaving him stranded behind the then Renault of Vitaly Petrov. Vettel sailed home to a comfortable, almost trademark win, and swiped the title from under the Spaniard’s nose. Who’s to say that that won’t happen again? The track at Interlagos is famous for providing changeable weather conditions, a fast layout and elevation changes that have caught out so many in the past. It’s even decided a Championship on the last corner of the last lap, so don’t go counting your metaphorical chickens too soon…

Some observers have rated Alonso’s consistency and his ability over the season to wrangle his car way beyond its limits as nothing short of staggering. His Ferrari was (now rather famously) 1.5 seconds off the pace in qualifying at the first race in Australia, but he still managed a podium out of it. At the next race in Malaysia, he showed his inherent calm under pressure from a flying Sergio Peréz to take the win in the wet. This relentless consistency has seen him at or around the top of the table all season, and many saying deservedly so. However, this hasn’t come without its problems. At Spa, Alonso was caught in the crossfire of Romain Grosjean testing whether a McLaren could fly into La Source. He was also dumped out of the race at the first corner in Japan, courtesy of a tussle between the sister Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen. Without those, needless to say he would’ve been far better off in the points tally.

The Red Bull of Vettel has had a mixed bag this season. He started the year in the third best car behind the McLaren and the then competitive Mercedes, and it’s safe to say that Vettel’s results reflected that speed early on. But he’s infamously meticulous with his team and he will push them as hard as he possibly can until they have a solid pace. This paid dividends when he had a pit-stop sized lead at the European Grand Prix in Valencia, only for an alternator failure to stop him in his tracks. Ironically, a charging Alonso came from 11th on the grid to take the 25 points there. The RB8 has been improving considerably every race, and they reaped the rewards under Vettel with four wins, a second and a third in the last six races, dropping just 17 points.

For Vettel to win the title, he needs to finish 4th or higher, regardless of where Alonso finishes. If he would be to finish 4th and Alonso won, he would win the title on account of having more race victories this season. So Alonso has to at least finish on the podium to stand any chance at all, a win would need Vettel to finish 5th or lower, a 2nd placed finish would need Vettel to finish 8th or lower, and a 3rd place would necessitate a 9th place finish or below for Vettel.

Unlike previous seasons, there are relatively few title permutations, so watching the race for the result should be relatively simple, for a change…

Alonso himself has said that he has “Nothing to lose”, and for a driver of his obvious pedigree, that is a pretty scary prospect for the rest of the grid. A Fernando Alonso on a mission is a driver that should strike fear into anyone that threatens to get in his way. Sunday will be the greatest test of Sebastian Vettel’s nerve as a driver, and of his overall character. Sceptics of his driving have said that he can only win from the front. Abu Dhabi would have disproved that wholly, to reach the podium from the pit lane is never easy, no matter how many strokes of luck you get.

So the stage is set for a weekend that will see one man placed among the all-time greats. If the rest of the season is anything to go by, prepare for a classic. I’m quite looking forward to this.