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Vettel, cucumbers and Karthikeyan

Laurence Edmondson March 27, 2012
Sebastian Vettel seldom shows the more serious side to his character © Getty Images

How a driver celebrates in victory reveals little about his true character, but defeat offers a genuine insight into the man behind the visor. Formula One's insatiable appetite for news and reaction means drivers are thrown into TV interviews just minutes after stepping out of the cockpit and often without the opportunity to decompress their thoughts. For the most part they automatically revert to their media training and give nothing away, but sometimes they struggle to hold back.

After stepping out of the 50C heat of his Red Bull cockpit in Malaysia, Sebastian Vettel saw no reason to hold back. With his hair still soaked in sweat, he reflected on his collision with backmarker Narain Karthikeyan, which shredded his tyre and ruined his race. Speaking in his native German he criticised Karthikeyan's driving and labelled the HRT driver a "cucumber" (or possibly a gherkin depending on your German translation). Speaking to the BBC he ruled out any ambiguity by simply referring to Karthikeyan as an "idiot".

Watching the BBC interview it was compelling to see the happy-go-lucky Vettel that we've come to know and love from top three press conferences transform into the deadly serious persona we've only heard exists behind closed doors in the Red Bull motorhome. It was an insight, albeit a very brief one, into the steely determination that lies beneath Vettel's polished veneer of humour and one-liners. That's not to say he isn't being genuine when he smiles for the cameras and jokes with journalists, it's just that his character is much deeper than that and his success has come from knowing when to be stern and when to be laid back.

By most accounts last season was a breeze for Vettel, and for the majority of the time we enjoyed the affable side of his personality as he collected poles and wins. However, his demeanour at the Belgian Grand Prix was notably different as he learnt that his car's suspension settings were putting undue stress on the tyres which had the potential to cause a failure. On the Sunday morning before that race the serious side of Vettel came to the fore as he held a heated and very open conversation with a Pirelli technician in the middle of the paddock. I was lucky enough to observe that conversation, out of earshot I might add, but it was clear he wanted to know exactly what he was up against and didn't care who knew about it.

His comments in Malaysia were much the same. Vettel knows just how important 12 points could be by the end of the season and in his mind Karthikeyan robbed him of them with a clumsy error. You may not agree with Vettel about the accident (although the stewards gave Karthikeyan a post-race penalty after reviewing all the evidence), but he got his message across.

Of course, Vettel is not the first driver to speak his mind following a race and he certainly won't be the last. Think back to Felipe Massa's incomprehensible rant about Lewis Hamilton at Singapore last year and the subsequent pat/thump on the back he gave the McLaren driver in the interview pen. Earlier in the year at Monaco, Hamilton was the one creating headlines when he slagged off not only his fellow competitors but also the stewards. Such displays of emotion often take TV audiences by surprise, but think back to the last time you were badly cut up on the road and the irrational anger that welled up inside and you start to understand the stress these guys are under.

But the trick is to pick the battles worth fighting and, ideally, pick ones you can win. By bad-mouthing the stewards Hamilton didn't do himself any favours and the McLaren PR machine went into overdrive to cover for their man. Equally Massa's pleas for the FIA to act against Hamilton did nothing to diffuse the growing animosity between the two drivers and ultimately it didn't do either of them any favours. However, the next time Vettel comes up to lap Karthikeyan the HRT driver will no doubt make extra room as, even if Karthikeyan didn't think the collision in Malaysia was his fault, another incident would damage his reputation far more than Vettel's. It may have cost Seb 12 points this time, but his comments after the race could help him towards 25 at the next race.