Will Gray

Gray Matter: What makes Vettel a true champion

Will Gray

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Sebastian Vettel became the eighth driver in history to retain his F1 crown at last weekend's Japanese Grand Prix - so what are the crucial ingredients that make him a true champion?

At just 24 years of age, Vettel joins Alberto Ascari, Juan-Manuel Fangio, Sir Jack Brabham, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso as the sport's only back-to-back title winners, and he is the youngest to have achieved that feat.

In just 77 races, he has started from pole 27 times and finished on the podium 33 times, with 19 race wins. He's the youngest driver to score a point, the youngest winner and the youngest champion. This year, a composed campaign has seen him eliminate the mistakes and demonstrate why he has what it takes to keep going for years.

NATURAL TALENT

To clock up the achievements Vettel has enjoyed so far is impossible without a nurtured natural talent.

The German attributes his motor racing genes to his father, Norbert, who competed in hillclimbs and karting and first put Vettel in a kart at the age of just three and a half. He's been demonstrating his raw speed ever since - and despite his dominance at the front this year, that raw racing talent has still shone through.

Right at the very start of the year, Vettel put in a thrilling move on Jenson Button, passing him around the outside of turn four at Albert Park just after his pitstop to make sure he did not spend precious time stuck behind the McLaren.

And 12 races later in Monza, with a massive championship lead, he was still fighting hard - making a nail-biting pass on Fernando Alonso for the lead, taking to the grass at 160mph and having the talent to get away with it.

HARD WORK

Early in his career, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2007, Vettel named Michael Schumacher as a personal idol, explaining that it was "not because he won 90-something grands prix... but because he loved winning and sacrificed so much in his life to get there".

That is a path Vettel has followed, committing all he can to get every element of performance out of himself and his equipment - and that commitment was clearly demonstrated by his approach to learning the new Pirelli tyres this year.

First of all, just five days after his debut title success, he was back in the car for two days and 144 laps of running on the new rubber - while his rivals from McLaren chose to sit out the test.

He followed that up with a secret but now well-highlighted trip to Italy in the winter to learn about the new Pirellis from a detailed engineering perspective. No other driver did that, and Vettel has reaped the rewards.

TECHNICAL UNDERSTANDING

In F1 there is more to winning than just driving, and Vettel has shown an important commitment inside the garage with a clear interest to learn more, to understand what makes the car tick.

In similar style to the Michael Schumacher of old, he will stay into the early hours of the morning looking over the engineers' shoulders as they analyse the telemetry if he needs to, asking and answering any question to find a solution that might gain a tenth here or there.

Early this year, for instance, he and his engineers recognised the importance of protecting the tyres and he understood how his driving affected the performance. By adapting his style to reduce the forces going through the tyre whilst still maintaining the car's momentum, he reduced the tyre wear and gave himself a crucial advantage.

QUICK LEARNING

Vettel was quick to take an intelligent approach to this year's new challenges, picking out the key elements that would make the regulation changes work to his advantage.

The switch to Pirelli tyres and the arrival of the DRS system changed the strategic approach to racing, and right from the start Vettel and his Red Bull engineers spotted a clear formula: qualify on pole and maintain the lead into the first corner and if you can put in some fast early laps without pushing the tyres too hard, you're on your way to victory.

The first part of achieving that was learning to push the boundaries of the DRS to maximise qualifying performance, and that was something Vettel did right from the opening tests. The immense aerodynamic grip produced by the underfloor of the Red Bull made it easy to open DRS quickly when exiting a corner and Vettel proved a master in doing this, with unrestricted use allowing him to gain fractions of a second in every corner for qualifying - and that all adds up.

In the races, meanwhile, his performance in the first few laps was stunning. At the first race of the season, he took 2.4 seconds out of second-placed Lewis Hamilton on the opening lap, while his opening stints in Malaysia, Turkey and Monaco all saw him build a four-second gap within in five laps. Later on, in Singapore, the tactic was at its most dramatic, with Vettel 2.5s faster on the opening lap and a massive seven seconds clear after five.

COOL UNDER PRESSURE

If there was one thing that Vettel used to be criticised for it was his weakness under pressure - as demonstrated perhaps most noticeably in Germany last year, during his mid-season struggles, when a ragged opening lap destroyed his race.

This year, he has not been faced with such intense situations but in the closing stages of the Monaco Grand Prix he did get the chance to prove he has learned how to handle a stressful situation.

With Alonso and Button behind on better tyres, he remained unflappable while being hounded by cars behind, driving intelligently to manage his pace and keep his car as wide as possible, slowing before the straights to stop his pursuers maintaining the speed to overtake.

Whether he would have kept it up had the safety car not intervened will never be known, but the important thing was he did all he needed to do to secure his first victory in the famous principality.

DETERMINATION AND RUTHLESSNESS

Vettel has demonstrated a relentless determination on his way to the title this year, caring little for the points advantage he has built and racing hard every time to get the most out of every situation.

This was demonstrated in Germany where, in his worst race of the season so far, he dropped back after a spin chasing Alonso but pushed hard to jump Massa in a last lap tyre stop and claim an extra couple of points - even though he already led by 80.

Two races later, Red Bull faced what was expected to be their worst two races, Spa and Monza. By then, there was little threat to Vettel's inevitable title, but he and the team still pushed hard. When an aggressive camber setting saw him take pole but blister his tyres in qualifying, they risked taking the start rather than the safe option of changing the set-up and starting from the pitlane.

And the determination continued right up to his championship-winning race last weekend, when a ruthless move on Button at the start saw Vettel edge the McLaren driver onto the grass and force him to back off, rather than opening the door.

It's that latter ultimate ruthless streak, seen in Schumacher before him, that shows Vettel has the true unflinching determination of a champion.

REALISM

Last but not least, Vettel has not allowed himself to be changed by his success. He may always have seemed a little cocky in his nature, but it is self-belief rather than arrogance. His personality - chatty, fun and entertaining - makes him a popular member of the paddock and despite his domination this year, it's hard not to respect a champion who has such eloquence.

In the dominant days of Schumacher and the Jean Todt-run Ferrari, the methodical manner in which they approached the sport, while ultimately successful, left everyone calling out for a personality. People looked to Valentino Rossi, who was dominating MotoGP at similar levels to Schumacher in F1, but managing to keep it entertaining.

At least, then, if Vettel does indeed have all the ingredients to continue his domination, he and Red Bull have the personalities to make it fun.

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