- Andretti on Vettel
High praiseChris Medland December 20, 2013
"He's something special."
Three words on Sebastian Vettel which have been heard before but carry more resonance when coming from the mouth of Mario Andretti; a man with more reference points than almost any other ex-grand prix driver.
Andretti won his world championship in 1978, but his Formula One career spanned three decades and saw him race alongside the likes of Sir Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost - all of them multiple world champions. When I'm talking to Andretti in Austin, Vettel is 10 days away from making it nine consecutive victories at the end of his fourth title-winning season. The topic of conversation is the strength of the current grid, but once Vettel's name is mentioned the admiration for the current drivers' champion is clear to see.
"He's one of those rare talents to come along once in a while and he's also blessed with the fact that he probably has the best team behind him at the moment too," Andretti says. "We all know the value of the likes of Adrian Newey and so on and so forth, and you need that. You need all of those ingredients going for you and I see Vettel's make-up being mature beyond his age. I think he's shown that not just now but for a few years already.
"He's very relaxed, and when you're confident and relaxed you are very dangerous to the rest of them because you're probably going to make the least amount of mistakes, and that's the position he's in now."
12 months ago, Fernando Alonso topped many lists as the best of the current crop following a scarcely-believable season in which he ran Vettel to within three points of the championship in an inferior car. However, Vettel's progression over the last four seasons prompts Andretti to make the marked comparison with the most successful driver of all time.
"It's hard to say [he's not the best right now], really hard to say not. I think we've clearly seen him improve. You don't see Vettel's performance decline at any time. Probably, the best of Vettel is yet to be seen, and that's sad news for the competition; it's a scary thought. It's not that there aren't others close to the same level, but it's just that his make-up and everything around him is really working. It's like when Michael [Schumacher] was at the top."
For Andretti, though, Schumacher remains ahead of Vettel. He always saw Schumacher as "a God", but his return to Formula One in 2010 cemented a connection for Andretti that has nothing to do with results and records.
"I always saw myself and my love for the sport in Michael Schumacher. Why do I have such a great respect for him? It's for coming back, even though it wasn't the comeback that he hoped or anyone had hoped to see. But his love for driving superseded any other reasoning. Before he re-entered, Michael Schumacher was not human. Anybody would have said that nobody would ever equal him, but he became human because he took a big risk. Why? Because he loved the driving. That gave to me the biggest admiration, because that's what I love; I love driving to a fault.
"So, I see Vettel as another one where I think that's all he thinks about, that's all he cares about. That's the most important thing in his life and I see myself there in that level, just really loving driving. That's why I have a certain appreciation, when I see that commitment - total commitment - which is what it takes."
Even as a clear fan of Vettel's, Andretti admits his dominance has been tedious from a spectator's perspective. But as a driver who has had his own spells of great success, he thinks Vettel should enjoy every negative reaction as much as the positive ones.
"Sebastian says he's taking an issue with the fact that he's being booed, I say: 'You know what? Relish those boos.' Because I look at my career and when I had the best runs of my life, that's when I was getting booed. And I miss the hell out of those boos!"
As far as Andretti's concerned, next year's regulations won't stop Vettel from continuing towards an undisputed place as one of the greats. Why?
"He's something special."
Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1