By Chetan Narula
Formula One is a circus, with its inane off-the-track life, including a jam-packed travel schedule. To find success herein is easy and to live with failure is equally tough. For someone like Sebastian Vettel, the former has come quickly. At the other end of the stick is his compatriot Michael Schumacher, who is now waiting for his three win-less years with Mercedes to end.
"I know my records will be broken some day and I will be very pleased if Sebastian Vettel is the one to go past my seven championships," said Schumacher in the build-up to the 2012 Indian Grand Prix. As Vettel prepared to take to the Buddh International Circuit in search of his fourth successive win, it dawns that he is already well on his way to that marker. Even so, he didn’t make it very obvious.
"I am not a strong believer in numbers. Everybody has ups and downs, and the important thing thereafter is the ability to improve. This is exactly what everyone is trying to do in Formula One, improve yourself and improve the car. It is no different in my case’," he said.
Going into the race on Sunday, Vettel is a mere six points ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. Both need a strong result from this race to gain an advantage. Anything else will be nothing short of a disaster.
"It is very important to start the weekend well and qualifying is very important. If we are on the pace, I would like to be ahead of Mark (Webber) obviously. After that, waiting for the lights to go off at the grid, there is nothing much to think about except doing a good race. That is the bottom-line at any weekend."
The question of Mark Webber comes in because Red Bull are now very strong in terms of both qualifying and race-pace, and are expected to be front-runners if Friday practice seasions are any indicators. This reversal in fortunes has come about at the Singapore GP, when they introduced their double-DRS.
The Aussie has been quoted this weekend as saying that ‘he will not move over for Sebastian.’ Even Vettel himself ruled out anything such. "We will cross that bridge when we get to it. Hopefully the need won’t arise, like it didn’t at Korea (where Webber got off to a customary slow start and lost the lead in the first corner)."
But it is general knowledge how team orders play out in F1. Nothing is more important than bringing that trophy home, and as long as you can make it two trophies, why not?
In that light Ferrari might have an advantage, for they only ever have one driver who is in the lead. All their strategies are combined to give him maximum benefit, even when Felipe Massa is quicker than him. At Korea, he was told to hold his gap to Fernando Alonso, despite having a whiff of the podium.
Vettel however still doesn't think it is something that could affect the championship battle. "It doesn’t really matter what Ferrari or anybody else is doing. What matters is that we don’t make mistakes! I don’t like making too many mistakes, but everyone makes mistakes. So I try not to repeat the same mistake or commit them more than once. Otherwise it will be a very steep learning curve."
If it is indeed about doing your own thing first and foremost, then Red Bull perhaps have an advantage going into the last four races of the season. Vettel won emphatically in India in 2011, and the Bulls have been strong in both Abu Dhabi and Brazil ever since their arrival at the sharp end of the grid. Only Austin with its new race will be a bit of an unknown quantity.
"It doesn’t matter if you have won the last race or you finished in the points or you crashed out at the first corner. It is important to take each weekend as it comes and keep on pushing all the time. Obviously we have had some good upgrades recently and that has improved our race pace, but probably Ferrari will also bring something new and might do better than us. So again, we cannot wait for them to get ahead of us and then catch up. We have to do our own thing."
From his first points finish in F1 at the United States GP in 2007 for BMW, to his first win at Monza (Italian GP) for Toro Rosso (2008) and then to the first world championship in 2010, it has been a long journey for Vettel. All the same, at age twenty-five he has a very long way to go, given that drivers are nowadays pushing the envelope when it comes to retirement. Schumacher is now only going away, at 42, and Rubens Barrichello had to be pushed out because Williams wanted a pay driver this season.
The simple fact that stands out in his case though is not the time he has got left in Formula One. It is a given that he will always be in the mix for championship battles and probably will be closer to Schumacher by the end of it, as the legend himself predicted.
"When I won the first championship, it was a big relief. That was a great feeling," he said, now on the cusp of his third title in as many seasons.
His first title victory was about getting there, but the second one was about dominance in machinery that had no match from amongst the competition. The thing about Vettel though is that he has grown from the kid who once banged Webber’s car in 2007 to the champion who now drums his team-mate, all things being equal.
Yes, Red Bull has been the best car for three years running now, and indeed, Vettel has been lucky to find himself in the race-seat. But there is an old saying in Formula One. To finish first, first you have to finish. Vettel has only diligently done his part in bringing the best machinery to the chequered flag ahead of everyone.
(Chetan Narula is the author of India’s first book on Formula One, titled History of Formula One: The Circus comes to India.)