In 2004 Michael Schumacher won the drivers’ championship for a record-breaking seventh time.
Few might have imagined that just ten years later another driver would have a chance to emulate his unique achievement of winning five titles in a row.
The 2004 season marked the zenith of Schumacher’s domination of Formula One. In the first 13 races his Ferrari F2004 was only beaten once.
That same year in Germany’s Formula BMW championship a 17-year-old racer who’d cut his teeth on Schumacher’s karting track in Kerpen dished out a similar thrashing to his rivals in a one-make series.
Sebastian Vettel, then a fresh-faced high school student with train-track braces, won an astonishing 18 of that year’s 20 races – and finished on the podium in the other two. From that point his Red Bull-propelled ascent to Formula One took just two-and-a-half years.
Given their shared nationality and Vettel’s growing dominance of Formula One it’s no surprise comparisons are often made between Schumacher and Vettel. To that we could add their committed work ethic that galvanises teams around them. But their similarities only go so far.
Schumacher’s ruthless streak was notorious: he barged into rivals to win championship showdowns and once tried to claim pole position at Monaco by parking on the racing line.
Vettel has not gone to these extremes. Certainly he can be uncompromising – in Malaysia his urge to win overrode his obedience to his team. But this was some way short of Schumacher’s excesses, and it bears pointing out that Vettel’s championship-winning peers such as Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso have not been above taking matters into their own hands when it suits them. Nor has his own team mate.
At the end of his career, Schumacher admitted that his “win-at-all-costs” impulse had driven him too far. On his retirement last year Schumacher said he’d learned “that losing can be both more difficult and more instructive than winning – something I had lost out of sight sometimes in earlier years”.
Perhaps the most important difference between Schumacher and Vettel is that the current champion has grasped that point sooner.
Vettel’s enthusiasm for the sport’s history runs deep – this too was not a Schumacher strength. Asked ahead of Sunday’s race to pick a ‘top five’ F1 drivers, Vettel evinced a sincere appreciation for Formula One’s heritage:
“I don?óÔé¼Ôäót think it?óÔé¼Ôäós fair to only name… for sure there is more than five. There are different times in Formula One so if you look back recently, you?óÔé¼Ôäóve got a couple of drivers racing now but obviously if you don?óÔé¼Ôäót look too far back, drivers like Mika [Hakkinen], Michael, Ayrton [Senna], Nigel Mansell dominated their times in a way, [Alain] Prost…”
“So you cover quite a lot of the last couple of years. After that, there?óÔé¼Ôäós guys like [Niki] Lauda, [Nelson] Piquet. I don?óÔé¼Ôäót think it?óÔé¼Ôäós fair to highlight one-two-three because Formula One has changed.”
Vettel may be rapidly demolishing records which once belonged to great names like these, but he possesses the perspective and humility to refrain from judging himself alongside them. Could the same be said of his dwindling number of detractors, so slow to acknowledge how many of Vettel’s multiple-champion predecessors also had the benefit of some very potent machinery?
When this season began it was still possible to argue Vettel and Red Bull were not yet dominating the sport. That is no longer the case: since his late 2010 charge to his first of four titles Vettel has won 29 of the last 59 races: a 49% hit rate.
In a championship which keeps getting longer, up against a field which includes four world champions, that sustained success is truly remarkable. He is not without his critics – no driver is – but with incremental improvements he has become a driver with few weaknesses in his game. He is not the only top-class driver out there, and going four years undefeated further underlines his status as one of the sport’s greats.
“When I started, all this was not even… we didn?óÔé¼Ôäót even really dream about it,” said Vettel. “I had a hobby and I started together with my father to go racing with the whole family as well.”
“Obviously it became a little bit more serious, a little bit faster, a little bit more serious.
“In the end, I think it?óÔé¼Ôäós passion that drives us all,” he reflected, “the love that we have for the sport, the love we have to challenge ourselves, challenge the cars and nowadays instead of racing with go-karts we just end up in bigger cars on bigger tracks with more people watching.
“I think the core hasn’t changed.”
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