Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Irrational Criticism

As you're all well aware by now, I'm a fan of Sebastian Vettel. I like how he drives, and, more importantly, his approach to racing in general. While you see some drivers sulking, moping or getting angry, this is somewhat rarer with Vettel, and it makes me have a whole lot more respect for him over some other drivers. I'm not saying he's ever had an off day (the infamous Turkey crash with Webber for example), but overall it seems to me that Vettel has an optimistic yet realistic approach to the races.

While I'm therefore convinced that Vettel is one of the greats in F1, others are not so sure. While watching Sky F1 recently for example, I noticed that the TV team are somewhat reluctant to give him credit for anything. It's always the car that got the job done, or the fact that he went off into the lead, while the others were too far behind. It's not just Sky F1 who have spoken like this before. Sir Jackie Stewart also said that Vettel is 'not yet a great' as he hasn't managed to get a championship in a non-dominant car. Indeed, the comments from many people on Twitter also reflect this: whenever Vettel wins, it's not due to his own merit, but it's simply due to the car. Although I agree that having a good car gets you better results, I don't think this is entirely the story with Sebastian, so let me set a few things straight.

First off, perhaps the most obvious evidence that Vettel is one of the F1 greats is his track record. At the age of 25, he already has two world championships, and is in with a great chance of a third. You have to remember that 2008 was Vettel's first full season in F1, so this is only his fifth year in F1 - 1 year less than Hamilton, 5 years less than Alonso, 8 years less than Button and 9 years less than Raikkonen (all the other champions, bar Michael Schumacher). Looking at it this way then, Vettel has much less experience than the other F1 champions. As well as Vettel's championships, you have to look at his standings in the all-time statistics. Recently, Vettel has hit several milestones of number of wins, consecutive laps led and number of pole positions. While he's not quite topping the boards yet, he's well on his way to beating most of the records held by Michael Schumacher. There are quite a few of these statistics, so I'll summarise below:
  • Vettel has overtaken Senna and Prost for percentage wins, almost level with Jackie Stewart
  • He's equal with Schumacher for number of wins in a season for 2011
  • In 2011 he won 58% of the races - more than Fangio, Mansell and Ascari
  • Vettel is equal with Clark, Brabham, Rindt, Senna, Prost, Schumacher, Alonso, Hill and Button for consecutive wins
  • He's the youngest winner of an F1 race
  • He's third on the all-time list for number of pole positions 
  • He got the most pole positions in a season last year
  • Youngest pole-sitter
  • Just under 50% of starts from the front row
  • 14 consecutive front row starts (Singapore 2010 to Britain 2011)
  • Third in the all time list for number of career points - 1013 (not bad for 5 years' work!)
So, quite a few records to be getting on with for such a young driver! Ok, I know not many of you will be convinced by stats - the age old cry of 'but he has the fastest car' can't be falsified with stats alone, so let me raise a few more points.

When you look at these all time records, Mark Webber (Vettel's teammate) isn't really in contention for any of them. Now, if it was just the car doing the work, surely Webber would be right alongside Vettel for these stats? If not, we have to argue that driver ability plays its fair share of gaining records and taking wins, poles and championships. Admittedly, if you stuck another driver like Alonso in a Red Bull, it would be interesting to see how Vettel compared, but I would think that there wouldn't be much between the two - you'd just end up with two drivers streaking off into the distance.

On this point, how many of you would be prepared to argue that Alonso wasn't a great driver just because the car is also good? While I know a lot of you aren't exactly Alonso fans, I doubt many of you would argue that he doesn't have serious talent in an F1 car. I'd be safe to say that Sky F1 wouldn't be putting Alonso's great performance down to the car should he be driving a Red Bull - so why the discrepancy with Vettel?

A great example of the car doing a lot of the work comes from the 2009 F1 season, where Button and Barrichello were in the Brawns. While both are good drivers and had suffered their fair share of bad luck, 2009 showed how much difference the car made. However, the difference between Brawn and Red Bull is the fact that BOTH drivers were performing relatively equally. This just isn't happening with Webber and Vettel at the moment. This isn't because Webber doesn't have talent - don't forget he was in contention for the championship in 2010 - but maybe Vettel just has that extra something that means he gets the better of the car.

Another argument arises based on the fact that Vettel's championships are simply due to the fact that he had the best car at the time, and streaked off into the lead from the start of the championship. I agree that this was the case last year, however this was not so in 2010, and neither is it the case this season. In 2010, Vettel took the championship at the very last race. He was completely unexpected to do this - while he had a mathematical chance towards the end of the season, the realistic chance wasn't there. If the car was the only element, then the championship should have been Webber's. This year too hasn't exactly been easy. While the performance of the Red Bull has stepped up in the latter half of the season, the first half wasn't as easy as 2011. So, if Vettel gets the championship, it'll be down to more than the car.

Finally, I want to remind you all about the early years of Vettel. While all of his full seasons have been with a Red Bull team, we must remember that the latter half of 2007 and 2008 he completed with Toro Rosso - hardly the best car out there. In the Toro Rosso, Vettel managed a 4th place finish after qualifying 17th in China in 2007, a 5th place from 19th in Monaco in 2008, 8th place in Canada from 19th on the grid, and Vettel also managed to win a race at Monza in the rain. It's been said that to be a great, you have to achieve something in a car that isn't the best. Surely this is a prime example?

So, overall to judge a driver's greatness you have to look at his past achievements in context. A lot of people seem a bit blinded to the fact that Vettel has achieved so much in spite of relatively little experience and - at times - not being in the best car. While it might be annoying that the same driver keeps winning, this doesn't mean that his performance is down to the car alone, and more credit is deserved by Vettel. I know not everyone will agree with me (Jackie Stewart?), but in my opinion, Vettel is one of the greats of F1, and I'm sure he'll carry on doing great things.