It’s often easy to lose realisation with the fact that F1 drivers are in fact, humans. Sure, they achieve super human feats but strapped in, bound in synergy with and piloting the amazing machinery built by hundreds other humans is a driver. Far too often in Formula One, we give too much credit to the technical achievement of the car whilst neglecting the most crucial component – the driver itself. This has happened multiple times throughout history and the most recent case is that of Sebastian Vettel. On twitter, there are loads of comments made around “Newey’s the reason Red Bull is winning” not the primary, principle component – the driver itself after every race victory and especially after every pole position. If that were the case and Newey was in control, we would never have had Turkey 2010 and arguably, never had the sheer number of pole positions and victories Vettel has amassed. In this article, written over weeks of research, thought and editing and published on the day Vettel equal the world record for most pole positions in a reason (14, with Nigel Mansell) I discuss the reasons for his qualifying dominance:
A Formula One driver, just like any other human, is affected by his own self belief, emotional state and confidence. There has been a lot written about the problems Lewis Hamilton has faced and how that has contributed to his lacklustre season. The very opposite is true for Sebastian Vettel. He ended 2010 on an immense high, coming from behind to clinch and steal the championship away from his team mate and double world champion Fernando Alonso. He made mistakes aplenty and never once lead the championship, until the very last race. Let’s remind ourself Vettel’s end to 2010:
Singapore – P2 after following Alonso all race long. He qualified seconds thanks to a mistake which saw his brush the wall.
Suzuka – Dominant display of pole position and race win.
Korea – Dominant pole position and continuous lead in conditions Fernando Alonso described as “the worst conditions I’ve ever driven a car” until his engine failed.
Brazil – P2 qualifying behind an inspired and applause worthy performance from Nico Hulkenburg on a tricky, drying track and race win.
Abu Dhabi – Pole position, race win and world championship.
Vettel must have got such an incredible boost in confidence from the result, it’s hard to describe or put into words. He must also reflected and realised that 2010 was definitely not his best. He made rookie and downright silly mistakes like trying to overtake Webber in Turkey and crashing into Jenson at Spa. Neither did he have the best reliability from his car. He lost 3 potential victories on races he was leading down to problems – Bahrain, Australia and Korea. Surely, Vettel would be more determined than ever to cut out silly mistakes and with some reliability luck to march to another championship in 2011? He’s ridden the crest of the confidence wave and that’s exactly what he’s done.
As a corollary of the confidence he posses, he is also a remarkably brave man, as all F1 drivers have to be. Two occurrences repeated throughout the year highlight this-
- DRS Usage: DRS added another challenge to 2011. Who can get it initiated the earliest out of a corner and who can take extremely fast corners like Blanchiomont at Spa with DRS wide open? We saw in the very first qualifying session of the year Adrian Sutil spin out on the final corner on a hot lap by trying to engage DRS early off the corner. Looking at his pole position laps (which sadly I can’t link to because of copyright issues but YouTube is your friend) he has engaged DRS before the third apex of Turn 8 in Turkey, ever before halfway of Turn 10 hairpin in China and fully in Blanchiomont at Spa. Engaging it that early on under the pressure of a hot lap takes supreme bravery.
- Wet weather qualifying: In every single wet qualifying session, Vettel has actually increased his usual advantage to P2. The best example of this I found was at Spa and I highly recommend you watch this particular pole lap (again, YouTube). Coming down the long Kemmel straight to Les Combe with slick tyres on for the first time, Vettel takes the whole wet kerb full throttle without any hesitation. This weekend in Abu Dhabi we’ve seen what can happen when you take too much kerb, forget wet kerb. Again, the most impressive bit, like with the DRS usage is the bravery to do this under pressure on that one, crucial lap in Q3.
Precision and Perfection
Vettel and his race engineer (Rocky) go into qualifying with a set plan. Like this weekend, we’ve seen Mark Webber complain how at times his qualifying plan doesn’t work out as planned but we haven’t had the same from Vettel. Notice how he is always either the first driver of the “pole challengers” to take the chequered flag in Q3 or the last. By going first, like he did in China and Turkey, he sets his marker and puts pressure on the other drivers. By going consistently last and always getting pole position he gets two advantages -
- He gets to cross the track when it’s got the most rubber on it, at it’s most grippiest and most “ideal”.
- He’s now imbedded a mental note in every driver – I’m coming to beat you. This has been slowly done through many, many session when a driver might thing he’s done his very best, only to be pipped and beaten by Vettel on the last few seconds of qualifying. It’s what has happened to fans and even commentators. Qualifying has now become into a show of “Who can beat Vettel?” instead of “Who can get pole position?”. It’s a psychological advantage Vettel holds over the rest of the field and probably most so over his team mate, Mark Webber, who lead the championship for the longest time last year.
Other small, perfectionist, but vital detail is taking the shortest line to the chequered flag in qualifying. This is not necessarily the normal racing line. It’s faster in places like Canada, Spa and Suzuka to not follow the “straight” racing line down to the first corner and instead take a “diagonal” line, which will be the shortest distance to the line. The best example of this is Suzuka this year. If you looked at the BBC comparison video (YouTube), Jenson was ahead until the final Casio chicane but then took the normal racing line, not the shortest line to finish the lap. Vettel took the shortest line. The result? Vettel took pole position by 0.009 seconds, or 50/60 cm on the track.
The best part of the qualifying coverage in Abu Dhabi was the shot of Sebastian Vettel’s eyes (visible because of the clear visor they use under lights) showing him absolutely absorbed and his concentration on the lap itself. He wasn’t even blinking! Maybe he has the chance to quell his competitive spirit by taking on the World Staring Contest (there has to be one!) once he retires from F1.
Here’s a question that was touched on in FP2 yesterday by Karun Chandhok that made me think as if he read this article/my mind earlier! Since this bit was written about a week before now: The question was “When was the last time Vettel made a mistake in Q3?”
Perhaps the most remarkable bit about Vettel taking all these risks in Q3 and continuously coming in on top without being undone is the fact the has hardly ever made any mistakes under pressure when he needs to deliver. Drivers only have that one lap where you’ve got the trio of absolute bare minimum fuel, ideal tyre grip and track conditions.
I looked back, researched and found that it was the infamous race weekend of Turkey 2010. Vettel was 3 tenths up in the first two sector, on way to set pole and with only the tricky slow turns of the final sector to deal with, Vettel blew away the lap to hand his team mate Webber pole. He was clearly agitated with himself and made it clear in the post qualifying press conference. Webber even admitted that he perhaps didn’t deserve pole! By “mistake” I mean a serious error that would destroy a challenging lap time, not “not perfect” laps. Incidentally, we haven’t really Vettel recite “That was the best lap of my life and I got everything out of the car” which has sadly become some what of a phrase of Lewis Hamilton.
Inherent Ability and Dedication
With the myriad of tyre features Martin Brundle has filmed for BBC F1 this year, you’ll know that tyres are arguably the most crucial important factor when it comes to delivering lap time. Who was the only driver to visit Pirelli before the season started? Vettel. That shows the kind of dedication and determination he has for the sport. He even stayed back for the Pirelli tyre test last year in Abu Dhabi instead of celebrating his world championship victory!
Natural talent and ability also comes into the question. Some drivers are just gifted and have an ability to do super human things that shadow others around them. Whilst I’m certainly not making a comparison here, but the ability to squeeze every last bit in qualifying to keep getting pole position was last only seen by the great Ayrton Senna.
Vettel’s ability to set a fast time was obvious from his very first entry into Formula One limelight. On his testing debut for BMW Sauber in the 2006 Turkish Grand Prix he set the fastest time in the Friday free practice. On his second test session at the 2006 Italian Grand Prix, he set the fastest time in both the friday test sessions! One can clearly see he loves being fastest and has goals in mind when he goes onto the track.
Whether it’s the ability to slow speed and time down, which Nigel Mansell discussed in The Flying Lap, the ability to relentless go fast, or to have the mental capacity to be a thinker in the car, Vettel certainly seems to have something that others lack. [No, please, if you've read this article this far: it's not just the car]. His ability to slow speed and time down was evident this season when he was radioing his team information of the state of blistering on his tyres at Spa and how he noticed Team Lotus’ pit release red light in Singapore. As for thinking whilst driving flat out, after todays’ (Abu Dhabi 2011 pole) qualifying he said how he tried to go as clean and fast in the first two sectors to gamble and buy a cushion of time to take risks in the third sector. The fact that he’s thinking like that is just astounding to know.
Out of all these things, perhaps the thing that impresses me most about Sebastian Vettel is his love for the sport which is evident whenever he speaks. He’s a F1 history buff and knows the records by heart. A heartwarming moment was his interview after he won his second championship in Japan this year and later when he got tears in his eyes as the gravity of his achievement hit him as he saw a BBC F1 montage on double world champions. His respect towards Michael Schumacher and F1 idols is great to see. He hasn’t indulged in any controversy like some of his fellow world champions and above all, he’s a fair, likeable and thoroughly nice guy, as everyone in the paddock will agree.
If you think about, there haven’t been many “likeable” dominant drivers in history of this highly competitive sport. I’d like to end on that note.
Hope you enjoyed reading this article. I’ve done my best to be unbiased on this article and backed any comments with stats and facts from history to take a holistic view on Vettel and his dominance.
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