• GP Week

Pedal to the Vettel

Adam Hay-Nicholls
April 17, 2010
Sebastian Vettel, once known as 'Baby Schumi' © Sutton Images

Sebastian Vettel's pit garage shares a dividing wall with Michael Schumacher's. It's a scenario the younger man never thought would happen, when he made his grand prix debut after the seven-times champion had declared himself a man of leisure.

It seemed fitting that one German master should give way to the man the Deutsch press laughingly dubbed 'Baby Schumi'. Laughingly? Well while Vettel may go on to achieve success and Schumacher was his hero, the two have distinct difference, and a few key similarities too … German, driven, winners, obsessive, focused. Differences: One has a boyish charm, highly tuned sense of humour, and doesn't divide opinion.

Back in Vettel's karting days, Schumacher was talking to Gerhard Berger, the first F1 driver Red Bull ever backed. As Berger recalls: "I was one time in Mauritius on holiday and Michael Schumacher came to me. He said 'Gerhard, you have to look. There is this guy in go-karts, the name is Vettel.' I said 'Who?' 'Vettel, he is very quick.' And that was many years ago." But Schumacher was right, he was quick and in Monza in 2008 the very quick Vettel stunned not only the attending Tifosi, but pretty much the whole of Formula One with a commanding win in the wet.

For the small outfit from Faenza, it appeared too good to be true. Indeed, Sebastian Vettel appears too good to be true. He's the new face of Formula One - young, talented, dedicated and, refreshingly, knows what the media want. Sometimes you get the impression racing drivers can't think for themselves out of the car. Vettel bucks this trend.

Sebastian Vettel has been fast so far this season © Sutton Images

Early on in his career Vettel was interviewed for a satirical F1 paddock magazine. He was BMW's third driver at the time, had a great smile, a shaggy haircut and just knew how to say the right thing. He preferred vinyl to the iPod, he loved The Beatles, he could recite catchphrases from cult British comedy shows. In a sport which was in danger of disappearing up its own PR hole, here was someone who was not only interesting but had a wicked turn of phrase. He turned interviews on their head.

The expectant journalist wanted to know if the Monza win was the best day of Vettel's life. The F1-speak reply would have been: "Yes, for sure this is the best day of my life." And would have been forgotten the next day. Vettel's response was brilliant, funny, and is still quoted today: "The greatest moment in my life was when... ah but then you weren't there. It was when I lost my virginity."

But he manages to transcend the brand as well. The comedy beanie hat with the Red Bull logo is now one of the team's best-selling merchandise items, his trademark check shorts, his haircut(s), all reflect the brand he drives for, while marking him out as an individual. And everything he does he does it one better than your average Formula One driver. In Australia he ingratiated himself - in a potentially hostile arena - by faking the accent, sticking the word 'mate' at the end of sentences and singing Mark's praises. At the end of each autograph signing, he goes to the crowd and hands out cards to those who didn't get to meet him.

He fits Red Bull's philosophy to a tee. He could have been built in a factory in Austria.

When he won at Silverstone in 2009, he ingratiated himself again with the locals by describing himself as feeling almost British. A German driver beats Hamilton and Button in their own backyard and managed to win over their crowd as well. That's clever, calculated PR.

On track, he lets the driving do his publicity. And he's been rather successful in that too. Adrian Newey has had his fair share of success and worked with some half decent drivers. Yet, the normally reserved design guru becomes almost effusive when asked about Vettel: "You have to pinch yourself to remember how young he is, to be honest," said Newey, "because in the way he presents himself, the way he drives the car and then tells you about the car in his feedback in the debriefs and so forth, he has a much older pair of shoulders on him than is apparent."

And this older pair of shoulders, more than anything, is dedicated. Few other drivers could be found late on a Thursday evening not dining, down the gym or downtown, but watching his pit crew practice stops. He covers every aspect of racing, everything that could affect his plan for success. And he has continuously stressed that his one goal is to be world champion.

Sebastian Vettel is settled at Red Bull © Sutton Images

When he was unveiled as David Coulthard's replacement in mid-2008, some people were a little surprised. This was pre-Monza victory. Yet he and the team obviously knew that a Newey-designed car in the hands of a tenacious, dedicated young driver could challenge for the world title. Christian Horner knows he has a prodigious talent on his hands, and knows that success is what drives Vettel and gives him confidence too. Post the Malaysian victory, the Red Bull team principal summed up the German thus: "He's been remarkable - if anything he was more cool than a lot of other people in that he knows he's got a fast car and his motivation has been sky-high because of that."

Vettel keeps scant counsel. He has no entourage, no manager, no press secretary. His band consists of himself, his trainer Tommi and the Red Bull team: their Communications department, Horner and Red Bull's F1 guru Dr Helmut Marko. His father Norbert occasionally attends races, but not in the way Anthony Hamilton guided Lewis - more as low-profile support from the sidelines. Vettel makes all the decisions himself, from his almost Valentino Rossi helmet design to which interviews he does or doesn't do.

One of his less successful opponents described him as 'lucky'. But there is nothing lucky about hard work, dedication, an attention to detail and a burning desire to be the best you possibly can be. Bernie Ecclestone recognises that in Vettel the sport has a character who can, through his success and personality, generate a fanatical young group of supporters which will stay with the German driver wherever his desire for success will take him: "If I could design a superstar, the result would be Sebastian Vettel," said the F1 ringmaster. "He's just what F1 needs - young, supertalented, intelligent, but with no trace of arrogance. And he's popular with the public and good with the media." Yep, almost too good to be true.

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