The young gun's won! Vettel’s title-winning season
When McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton won the 2008 drivers’ title, his entry into the record books was made all the more special as he became the sport’s youngest-ever world champion. Just two seasons later and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel has outshone even Hamilton, clinching his maiden championship in Abu Dhabi at 23 years and four months-old - a full five months younger than Hamilton was back in ‘08.
It’s a remarkable achievement, made even more remarkable because up until the Yas Marina race there were still four drivers in with a shout at the drivers’ crown. And not just any drivers - Hamilton, two-time champion Fernando Alonso and Vettel’s own team mate Mark Webber. To take a title at such a young age is an accomplishment, but to beat drivers of such calibre is a feat indeed.
Of course, one of the best weapons in Vettel’s championship-winning arsenal has been his car. The RB6 has been the class of the field right from the get go at the season opener in Bahrain, and the majority of teams have been struggling to keep up ever since. Vettel himself has been particularly quick on Saturdays - scoring 10 pole positions and a further four front-row grid slots.
Team mate Webber, equipped with the same car has five poles in his tally - and a further seven front-row slots. So it seems that although the Red Bull duo has the same excellent machinery at their disposal, Vettel has held the advantage, at least on a Saturday. But this season hasn’t all been plain sailing for the young German.
He may have taken pole position in Bahrain - and was set for victory - but a faulty spark plug intervened and ruined his chances. At the next race in Australia another technical gremlin - a defective brake disc - ruined what should have been another comfortable victory, sending him spinning into retirement.
In Malaysia his luck finally seemed to turn as he stormed to his first win of the year. The relief that his title challenge was finally underway was palpable, and leading home team mate Webber home struck just the right chord for the ambitious Vettel. But it wasn’t to be a lasting winning streak, as at the next round in China a mistaken tyre call cost him a second successive win and he eventually finished sixth.
He could easily have let it get him down. But he didn’t, and with maturity beyond his years, he fought back from yet more adversity in Spain. When his front brakes gave way at the Barcelona race, he nursed it carefully to a third-placed podium finish. A fantastic achievement. By then, however, Webber seemed to have the upper hand, winning the Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix in quick succession.
Vettel needed a victory. But instead he landed himself in hot water when a disastrous, and some said foolhardy attempt to pass Webber for the lead in Turkey saw the duo collide. Vettel retired; Webber continued to third. Red Bull’s PR machine moved to quickly diffuse the resulting acrimony, releasing a light-hearted picture of both drivers shrugging. In truth, the relationship was strained. And Ferrari and McLaren were ready and waiting to pick up the pieces from the fallout.
Canada saw neither Vettel nor Webber finish on the podium, as technical issues hit yet again. But back in Europe, Vettel finally returned to his winning ways, taking his second victory of the year in Valencia. But there was yet more controversy to come at Silverstone where Red Bull took a newer version of the RB6’s front wing off Webber’s car and handed it to Vettel for qualifying. An irritated Webber took the win regardless, although Vettel showed real spirit to fight back to seventh after a left-rear puncture.
In Germany, fate once again conspired against Vettel with a poor getaway leaving the Ferraris to a one-two, though third place was an efficient exercise in damage limitation which saw him draw level with Webber on points. Then in Hungary, despite starting from a dominant pole, his failure to notice the safety car return to the pits saw him receive a drive-through penalty for dropping more than 10 lengths behind. An almost certain victory thus became another third place.
The stewards weren’t done with Vettel, however, and when a reckless move on McLaren’s Jenson Button in Belgium took the Briton out of the race Vettel was again hit with a drive-through. A further collision with Liuzzi saw him finish a lap down in 15th. It was far from the race of a champion and earned him the nickname ‘crash kid’. But the 23 year-old didn’t let the bad press get to him, and instead knuckled down enough to drive round a brake-binding problem in Italy to finish fourth. And an aggressive drive to second in Singapore boosted his points further.
But it had been a good three months since his last win - despite his three poles - and successive victories for Alonso meant the Spaniard had become a definite title contender, just as Vettel’s own hopes were dimming. To stay in contention he had to win in Japan and he did just that, controlling the race from start to finish.
He was set to win again in Korea before a Renault engine failure just a few laps from home. Vettel may have been devastated, but with Webber also recording a DNF, he still had a chance - and he ran with it in Brazil. He missed out on pole, but after making it past Williams’ Nico Hulkenberg at Turn One, he was never challenged and led to the finish to secure Red Bull their first constructors’ championship.
But Vettel arrived in Abu Dhabi with a moral quandary to contend with. After Interlagos, Alonso had 246 points, Webber 238 and Vettel 231, and he knew that if they all finished as they’d done in Brazil (Vettel first, Webber second and Alonso third) it would be Alonso who’d take the title. And in the build-up to the race the media just wouldn’t let the question lie - would Vettel be willing to move aside for the sake of Webber and the team?
But he never needed to make the choice. From his dominant pole position on the Saturday to his commanding performance during Sunday’s race, Vettel controlled the entire Abu Dhabi weekend, and he did everything required to secure the title. But as he was well aware, it didn’t just depend on himself. With his points’ deficit, he needed Alonso and Webber to fall by the wayside - and they did. Webber secured just fifth on the grid in qualifying, whilst Alonso couldn’t find a way past Renault’s Vitaly Petrov during the race.
So the only contender not to have led the standings during the season is champion. Vettel would be the first to admit that it’s been a messy campaign. There have been several mistakes and he’s come in for a lot of criticism from both the media and, occasionally, the stewards’ room. Plus he’s also had his fair share of technical issues to contend with. But crucially he continued to score points - even when the chips were down. He’s not only the sport’s youngest champion - he’s also one of its greatest hopes. Congratulations Sebastian!