When Michael Schumacher announced his first retirement in 2006, the sport lost a great figure. Whether you enjoyed the rain master’s period of dominance or not, there is no doubting his standing in Motorsport history.
Indeed, during a recent interview with Emma Buxton, she told me of the only time that she has ever been star struck in a thirteen-year career. It was meeting Mr Schumacher himself whilst working for Super Aguri in Japan.
“He made me feel special that day” she recalled in a moment I will never forget.
Now the new generation have arrived. 2005-2009 saw the end of the German’s reign with four different champions from those five years. Welcome a new decade and the rise of a different German hero – at twenty-five, Sebastian Vettel has enjoyed a career in the sport that most can only dream of. With 29 wins, 51 podiums and 39 pole positions to his name; I challenge anyone not to be impressed by his statistics.
The halfway point of the 2013 season is fast approaching and already three-time-champion Vettel has a commanding 36 point lead over his nearest rival, and rumoured 2014 team mate, Kimi Raikkonen. Fernando Alonso held a similar lead last year until the mite of the Red Bull fought its way back to the top.
Upon obtaining a pole position, the odd sigh is sometimes sent the German’s way. To quote my Motorsport illiterate brother, when I informed of the Canadian Grand Prix grid positions:
“Really? Vettel again?”
If my brother can identify Vettel effortlessly but still needs reminding that Hamilton is now with Mercedes, Nico Hulkenberg is in a Sauber and Sergio Perez is enduring a tough season at McLaren; that, to me, is testament to the dominance of Vettel and his partnership with Red Bull. There are very few people who do not know his name.
Therefore, is it possible that when this generation passes and the young hopefuls of GP3, GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 enter the sporting pinnacle, we will all wonder who the next Sebastian Vettel will be?
Perhaps. But arguably this is the golden era of Formula 1. No other racing period provided seven winners from as many races and an emphasis on technology that has taken the sport to dizzying new heights. 2012 saw more competing world champions than any other year in history and the back markers are beginning to close the gap to their higher placed rivals. Valterri Bottas’ brief moment of glory and Jean-Eric Vergne’s record placing in Canada are recent examples of how the sport’s unpredictability can create great moments.
In the mid field, there is no denying that the action can be enthralling. On occasion, the cameras fail to recognise the leader as the risky tyre choices and expert overtaking happens lower down the grid. At the front, there is one man who is firmly imposing his own mark on the sport we all love.
Sebastian Vettel has an aura about him that I struggle to articulate effectively. When he entered Formula 1, my instincts told me that he was going to be special – I had no idea of what was to come. Remove his helmet and a jokey Sebastian emerges, a young man who is really just focused on having fun. Put him in a race car and ruthlessness emerges.
To most, an extension of their championship lead and a pole to flag victory would be enough but, for Vettel, that is never enough.
The real impact of Vettel’s career will come when he leaves, whenever that may be. Vettel’s maiden victory at a sodden Monza in 2008, has plagued Toro Rosso and its drivers ever since. The gap between each team was less visible then thus creating an unrealistic target for Vergne and Ricciardo.
To really prove himself to the remaining doubters, a team change may be in order when his newly extended contract runs out in 2015. When pushed out of his comfort zone and away from the brand that has made him a household name, the real judgements will begin.
His dominance may not be on par with Schumacher (with the likes of Alonso, Hamilton and Raikkonen remaining consistently strong) but this is becoming a decade all about one young German whose victories, no one would have dared to predict.
Whether this is the era of Vettel, arguably the only person really likely to contest his great friend Schumacher’s record, I know I am enjoying every lap of every race. I really do mean that.