Sebastian Vettel was chuffed when Sir Stirling Moss compared him favourably with the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, whose feat of four consecutive World Championships the German emulated in India yesterday.
The new champion and the brilliant Englishman, more famous for never winning the title, are both consumed by their passion for the sport. But where Moss was a fan favourite - he even left his telephone number in the book “because if fans were unhappy that I had taken the decision to drive foreign, they had a right to ask me why” - Vettel has succeeded compatriot Michael Schumacher (the other member of their unique four-in-a-row clique) as the man they love to hate.
Schumacher belonged to that modern-day genre that believes their sport started the day they began. But Vettel has a deep interest in its history.
“I'm not an expert,” he confesses, “but I love racing, so of course I know a little bit about it back in the day. But we also love our lives… Obviously safety is now a big thing and looking back it doesn't make me feel too comfortable!”
But the point is that he does look back. Isn't that enough to make him popular? Apparently not.
So what about his penchant for answering questions in an interesting fashion? Others make token efforts. Not him. He'll consider the question, no matter how asinine. And he thinks deeply. He can also be pretty self-effacing.
“THAT CAR’S FOR REAL MEN, NOT ME”
“When I was small I was dreaming about Formula One and honestly never thought that one day I would be able to test one of these cars,” he reveals. “The first time that I did, I shit myself the first couple of laps and I thought, 'All right, that's for real men, not for me.' When I sit in the car now I know what to expect. But the first time I sat in the car I was scared. It was much more than I expected. But then I got used to it and obviously wanted to do more.”
So how did he become the bad guy?
Stealing the Malaysia GP this year from team-mate Mark Webber was where an intelligent guy made a big misstep. First he was contrite. Later he tried to tough it out. He should just have put his hand up and declared: “I'm a racer and I'm here to win. If you want somebody who's going to obey team orders, I'm not your man.”
The ghost of “multi 21”, the order he ignored, haunts him. Most likely it's why he gets booed.
“Sure, that's not a cool thing,” he acknowledges, “because everyone wants to be liked, but I don't do what I do to please people. But we have to put these things into perspective. Not everyone is booing. In the end, the important thing is to be happy with yourself and do things the way that you believe is right. Honestly, I think this is a luxury problem to have.”
An easy mistake is to assume that he's only winning because he has the best car. But if that's so, why hasn't Webber, no mean driver, won a race this year? All of the big champions found their way into the best car; it's part of the art of racing.
“A lot of people don't realise just how good Seb is,” Red Bull boss Christian Horner insists. “He's a very technical driver who really understands the car and how to get the best out of it. Never underestimate him.”
Sky F1's Martin Brundle, himself a former F1 racer, is a big Vettel fan. “Seb gets the quallie lap in, he gets the start nailed and builds the gap, and he's brilliant at managing the tyres. He doesn't lock the fronts, he doesn't spin the rears. You can't fail to be impressed by that,” Brundle says.
VICTORY IN A BAD CAR
“People say he hasn't won in a bad car, but he won from pole at Monza in 2008 in a Toro Rosso. As far as I'm concerned he's ticked that box.
“With all the great drivers most of the work is done outside the car so what needs to be done inside it is easier. That's part of the skill, collecting and motivating the right people around you. That's not something to boo people for. You aren't looking for people to be mates with down the pub. The nicest guy is not going to be a four-time world champion at 26.”
And then Brundle adds something thought-provoking. “If you had him and Fernando Alonso in a Red Bull, I honestly don't know who would win.”
Vettel and Alonso have a strained relationship, but he and Lewis Hamilton get on well. “He's private and likes to keep a low profile,” the latter observes. “We often chill out and watch a few football games. He bought Roscoe [Hamilton's dog] a squeaky toy, which drove me crazy. We have a good laugh, and just relax.”
Vettel's success has a price. “It's a question of finding a balance and having the right people on your side who are happy to give up some things, either your girlfriend or your family,” Vettel says. “Who understand that you are not around all the time and even when you are, maybe your mind is busy. It's difficult for me, but it's also very difficult for them.”
As with Moss, part of him believes that winning races can be better than winning championships.
“When you're on the grid, that's what you think. Obviously there will always be a race at the end that takes you to yes, you won it, or to no, you didn't. In the end I guess titles are what you really want. You have a dream, and when it's over and you failed it's like hitting a wall. And when you win you are so tense, so focused, and suddenly you feel so relieved. It's fantastic!”
Not unlike the feeling you get from the driving…
“The coollest thing is taking a fast curve at 250, 260kph. You are on the edge, you feel the G-force, the power and the grip. That gives you such satisfaction. When you win, the feeling is fantastic. Of course, when you lose it's not so good…”
Does he ever contemplate what he's won? “No,” he responds. “Whenever I'm asked if this was the best day of my life, I say I hope that the best is yet to come. When I retire from F1 I hope the best days are still to come. Of course it will be a different life after that, but it would be sad to think at 26 that I'd had my best day.”
MOST WORLD TITLES
Michael Schumacher (7)
1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004
Juan Manuel Fangio (5)
1951, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957
Sebastian Vettel (4)
2010, 2011, 2012, 2013
Alain Prost (4)
1985, 1986, 1989, 1993