On a rainy day in September 2008 my best friend called me asking if I wanted to buy a ticket for the Italian Grand Prix in Monza from a colleague of his. The price was affordable and the race was a promising turning point in the championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa. Unfortunately the seller decided that was a good opportunity to watch the race himself and he kept the ticket. On the Saturday morning of the Grand Prix weekend, when I watched the overcast weather, I thought I was lucky not to be in Monza that day because Massa would have screwed it again in the wet, and Hamilton would have won. I was wrong.
The championship battle became totally insignificant when I saw with much surprise Sebastian Vettel taking pole position: he had just had turned 21, he was in his first full season in Formula 1, driving a Toro Rosso (formerly Minardi). He had consistently been the fastest driver in the session at a flooded Monza. His times looked very strong and considering that rain levels up the cars’ differences, it was clear that Vettel’s talent had started to shine.
Vettel had been a very well known name since he won 18 of the 20 races of the German Formula BMW 2004 championship. After that he became the standard bearer of the Red Bull Junior program and quickly rose up the ranks, winning European F3 championship before being lent to F1 team BMW Sauber as a Friday test driver in 2006. His sensational Friday times at his first F1 event at Turkey in 2006 were praised sufficiently, but many thought that BMW were using him as a publicity stunt to impress the media. However when his Grand Prix début came at Indianapolis the following year, he immediately scored an 8th position finish, becoming the youngest driver ever to score a point.
The race for BMW was a one-off, however he was drafted in at Toro Rosso from Monza onwards to replace the disappointing Scott Speed. Despite struggling in the first races and receiving negative comments by his new team mate Liuzzi who was trying to play down the German’s driving abilities he almost won the Japan Grand Prix. An accident with Red Bull driver Mark Webber behind the safety car while in 3rd led to him being called an “idiot”, while Vettel kept his mouth shut, learning from the lesson. It was demonstrated later that the accident had been caused by a sharp braking manoeuvre by Lewis Hamilton.
A year later, watching the wet qualifying session of the Italian GP, it was clear that Vettel was the fastest driver on the track and his pole position did not come as a gift from heaven. On Sunday, providing he didn’t screw up the start, nobody could have stopped the young German, who was raised on Michael Schumacher’s kart track, in becoming the youngest driver to win a race. And so it happened: he was lucky to have the race started under safety car and he led the race like it was the most natural thing to do that day, while behind him, everything happened. Moreover it looked like he had still a big margin and that he was not using all of his ability. He looked like a kid driving like the big men.
From that day only 2 years have passed and Sebastian Vettel has already become a world champion, the youngest ever. In this lapse of time he has returned to the fold, the Red Bull Racing team, finding the best car designer of the last 20 years, Adrian Newey, who provided him with a supercar to put on pole every Sunday. And despite being the one who made the most pole positions this year, most of the observers have been focusing on his mistakes, the biggest being the Spa incident with Button, forgetting that he suffered several car failures at some of the most crucial points of the season. Vettel has been able to shrug the pressure and do the most natural thing he could do, again, go fast and win the races. None of the allegations that he was being favoured by his team while his team mate Webber was leading the championship could change his focus of taking the world championship home this year.
At Abu Dhabi he was the driver with the most pressure: he had chance to win the championship yet he was called to help his team mate in case of need, a rather difficult position to accept for a racing driver. He only put his car on pole and led Alonso and Webber into their sporting suicide, taking the win that has crowned him. Once again luck gave him a helping hand, the circumstances were all on his favour, but is that a misdeed?
Before his arrival in F1 Sebastian Vettel had been described being “better than Hamilton” and after his first win in 2008, the comparisons with Michael Schumacher have been quite obvious in his home country. In the year of Schumi’s comeback Vettel was scoring pole positions and victories blurring the mythological status that the star of Michael Schumacher had achieved. In Germany Vettel is already an icon. With Schumacher he shares the pure talent, the speed, and also the dangerous aptitude to tilt under pressure. Also like Schumacher he was not so successful in feeder formulae, because both never stayed for more than a season in the same series. His rise to Formula 1 greats was as quick and natural. The same adjectives that portray his driving style. Being only 23 and considering that his mistakes were only due to lack of experience Vettel can only improve; the glow to Hamilton has been thrown, the challenge on who will be the first multi-champion among the two is open.