||11-16-2011 02:20 PM
Sebastian Vettel: The Kid Who Smoked Everybody - WSJ.com
The Kid Who Smoked Everybody
Juan Manuel Fangio
The history of sports is an endless parade of precocious talents. They burst on the scene. They fall. They retire to make a living hawking hair dye.
But on rare occasions, a competitor will arrive to do what's never been done?to plow through all the traffic cones of history. Sometimes these athletes get anointed immediately. Sometimes it takes a while.
As Formula One steers toward season's end, it's probably fair to ask the following question about Germany's Sebastian Vettel: Is this kid the greatest driver in the history of drivers?
The 24-year old Vettel, who races for the Red Bull team, has had a brutally dominant season, winning 11 of 18 races. In a sport where the stopwatch never lies, Vettel has qualified fastest 14 times?tying the all-time record. He's long since wrapped up his second world championship. In Sao Paulo at the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, which is Nov. 27, he'll attempt to break the record for poles in a season.
"The exciting thing about Sebastian is he's getting better," said Vettel's boss, Christian Horner, the head of the Red Bull F1 team. "He's still improving. He's still developing as a driver and a young man."
While Nascar has seen its marquee talent, Jimmie Johnson, sink back into the pack after a five-year Sprint Cup championship reign, Vettel is pushing F1 in the other direction.
In motorsport, F1 is the biggest stage. Its teams have the largest budgets and the wildest technology. It also pulls from the world's largest talent pool.
Vettel, who is still in the formative years of his career, has already padded his resume: He's the youngest to drive in an official F1 practice (age 19 and 53 days, at the 2006 Turkish Grand Prix), the youngest to set a fastest lap time in a Grand Prix session (that same day), to score a point, to lead a race, to win pole position, to make the podium at an F1 race and win an F1 race (a spectacular effort in the rain at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix). In 2010 he became the youngest-ever world champion.
He set a record nine seconds into his F1 career when he got fined $1,000 for speeding in the pit lane. "He was a star right out of the gate," said Steve Matchett, a commentator who calls F1 races for the Speed channel.
Is he the best ever? Matchett said the rules and regulations have changed over the years, so it's hard to compare him to other generations, "but what he's done is absolutely phenomenal."
The son of a carpenter from Heppenheim, Vettel came up through the usual path in Europe: karting, followed by the minor leagues of open-wheel racing. By 21 he was already being compared to his childhood hero, Michael Schumacher?the most accomplished racing driver who has ever lived. The fans started calling Vettel "Baby Schumi."
F1 insiders rave about Vettel's ability to bond with his team, his technical savvy and his natural skill and commitment. He's a terrific starter, and he's proven to be a force on all types of tracks, having won this year at Monaco (a slower track with lots of corners) and Monza (F1's fastest circuit with lots of full-throttle straights).
Naysayers counter that Vettel wins consistently because he has the best car. Red Bull, which won the constructors championship this year and last, is leaps and bounds ahead of others.
So where will Vettel stand in the pantheon of greats? Here's a look at seven drivers whose legacies he's chasing.
World Championships: 1951 (Alfa Romeo), 1954 and 1955 (Mercedes), 1956 (Ferrari), 1957 (Maserati) In the cockpit: Known for his courage and skill, no one has won a higher percentage of races entered than El Maestro.
World Championships: 1963, 1965 (Lotus-Ford) In the cockpit: The Scot is the only man to win the F1 title and the Indy 500 in the same year. His career was cut short by a fatal crash in 1968.
Sir Jackie Stewart
World Championships: 1969 (Matra-Ford), 1971 and 1973 (Tyrrell-Ford) In the cockpit: The Flying Scot quit in his prime to protest the number of deaths in F1 during his time.
World Championships: 1975 and 1977 (Ferrari), 1984 (McLaren-TAG)In the cockpit: After a 1976 accident at the German Grand Prix, the Austrian regained consciousness to see a priest reading his last rites. Six weeks later, he raced at Monza.
World Championships: 1988, 1990, 1991 (McLaren-Honda)In the cockpit: A recent documentary has revived talk of Senna's greatness. He died in a crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
World Championships: 1985 and 1986 (McLaren-TAG), 1989 (McLaren-Honda), 1993 (Williams-Renault) In the cockpit: Nicknamed the Professor, the analytical Frenchman's first win came in a French car at the 1981 French Grand Prix.
World Championships: 1994 (Benetton-Ford), 1995 (Benetton-Renault), 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 (Ferrari) In the cockpit: Still racing with the Mercedes team at age 42, the German holds the F1 record for most victories, most poles, points, world championships and money.