Four titles in four years puts Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull amongst the statistically great F1 partnerships – but how good are they really and can they become the best ever?
In the modern era, only two other team/driver combinations have really had such continued success – McLaren with Ayrton Senna between 1988 and 1991 and Ferrari with Michael Schumacher between 2000 and 2005.
The former, of course, saw Senna having to do battle with Alain Prost, first in the same team and then against Ferrari, and while they missed out on one of the four drivers’ titles in that period, the win, podium and pole rates make the partnership worthy of inclusion.
Red Bull’s approach to domination, however, has more focused on the Ferrari model of taking one top driver, one top designer and a strong team leader and forming a unity around a three-way relationship built on trust and mutual admiration.
At Ferrari, it was Schumacher and Ross Brawn under the eye of Jean Todt, with chief designer Rory Byrne also key but most often kept out of the headlines. At Red Bull it is Vettel and Adrian Newey overseen by Christian Horner, with other great designers in the shadows.
Ferrari’s success was a slow burn, with Todt, who had enjoyed success with Peugeot in world rallying, taking over at the helm in 1993, luring Schumacher and Brawn in at the end of 1995 - after they claimed back-to-back titles for Benetton - and then taking four years to won the constructors’ crown, in 1999, to begin a period of dominance.
At Red Bull, the process was two years quicker, with Horner taking the helm in 2005 and bringing in Newey one year later in February 2006. It took four seasons to apply the formula from Ferrari and Newey to sprinkle his magic over the car, with Vettel only arriving in 2009 as the final piece in the jigsaw.
They lost out to Jenson Button and Brawn that year – despite having the faster car for much of the season – so their success truly began, just like Schumacher and Ferrari, right at the start of the decade.
So how do the three compare over a like-for-like period of four years?
The recent era has had more races – giving more opportunities to win but making it harder to keep up the averages – and the Vettel/Red Bull combo has managed to deliver more or less on a par with Senna/McLaren for wins and podiums, but is not quite up to Schumacher/Ferrari levels.
In terms of poles, the Vettel/Red Bull hit rate is nowhere compared to Senna/McLaren – the Brazilian was a legend on one lap – and although it beats Schumacher/Ferrari that comparison is invalid because during that era race fuel weight was carried in qualifying, often making pole position irrelevant due to different approaches in strategy.
The thing that held Vettel/Red Bull back compared to Schumacher/Ferrari is tyres.
From 2001, Ferrari built a strong relationship with Bridgestone in what was a tyre war era, competing against French rivals Michelin. The Japanese manufacturer ultimately gave Ferrari almost sole focus and was often singled out as a major factor in the team’s success – so much so that when Bridgestone left F1 their tyre manager, Hirohide Hamashima left to join Ferrari.
Vettel, meanwhile, has always been in a one-make tyre championship – first with Bridgestone and then Pirelli. And in the Pirelli era, the focus has been on tyres that hamper performance, limit dominance and create entertaining racing, making it extra hard for Vettel and Red Bull to achieve the Zen-like perfection that Ferrari often enjoyed.
So in conclusion for Vettel and Red Bull it’s good, but not that good.
But this is only the start.
When Schumacher and Ferrari started their run of success, Schumacher was already 31 years old (and already had two titles and plenty of wins). Vettel was 22 when he joined Red Bull (having had just one previous pole and one win with Toro Rosso) and at just 26 years old, he is still 13 years younger than the age at which Schumacher retired.
As a stats-driven driver, Vettel is champing at the bit to knock Schumacher off every summit he’s ever topped - and Red Bull are well placed to help him deliver.
Newey is clearly buzzing with the success and also with his established status in the team alongside Horner – a relationship that seems almost a dual leadership at times – and has unsurprisingly committed his long-term future to Red Bull. Horner is going nowhere. And now Vettel, contracted with the team until 2016, is the complete package, having shaken off the mistakes of his earlier title campaigns.
Vettel and Red Bull have every chance and plenty of time to better Schumacher and Ferrari’s statistical achievements – but to do it, they need to do something few have ever achieved.
They need to transgress eras.
Schumacher/Ferrari, Senna/McLaren and Vettel/Red Bull are all one-era success stories. Next year is the start of a new F1 era. The new hybrid regulations will be the biggest change the sport has seen in decades. It will be a challenge. It will level the playing field.
But to a certain extent, it’s out of Red Bull’s hands.
Newey admitted last weekend: "The engine regulation changes are massive and it's not at all clear whether one engine manufacturer will steal a significant advantage over the other two.”
They may have spent the last year and a half working on the 2014 car and integrating the new engine technology into it in the best possible way, but Red Bull still needs their engine supplier, Renault, to get it right if they are to continue their era of dominance.
But if they do, it’s a fair bet that Newey and his team can deliver a car that enables ‘Team Vettel’ to keep on rolling.
And if so, they should be able to stand above all as the greatest.