In the mountains of Switzerland, there is a very special kind of marathon race held every year. In the morning competitors are bussed up to the top of a mountain, whereupon they proceed to run 26.2 miles back down to the picturesque Alpine valley where they started their day. Needless to say, competitors regularly post times several minutes quicker than they would otherwise be capable of.
They're still running a marathon, of course. It's still a long, gruelling experience that demands both physical and mental toughness, and during which things can go wrong. But nonetheless, it's a lot, lot easier than, say, running the same distance on the deceptively hilly streets of New York.
And that's very much how Motorhead sees Sebastian Vettel's achievement in winning four consecutive world titles. Sure, he's won another marathon. He did so in incredibly impressive fashion. But we need to look closely at the race he was actually running - because when considered objectively, there's no doubt that Vettel had so many advantages that he might as well have been driving downhill.
It's always seems very bad taste to use the occasion of a sportsman celebrating their greatest glory to point out that their achievement isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Yet that's exactly what this blog is about to do because the trouble is, in the case of Sebastian Vettel, the opposite is true at the moment. Everybody is loudly declaring him a genius of unimpeachable historical significance, without stopping to consider properly what it is that he's done.
Even as he crossed the line to win the Indian Grand Prix and secure a fourth consecutive title, Red Bull chief Christian Horner came onto the radio to tell his man that "you're one of the greats now". Around the world, newspapers and website published their painstakingly-prepared hagiographies of a driver who has been hailed as one of the greatest in the history of motorsport.
The three men before Vettel who had won four world titles are Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Juan Manuel Fangio.
Schumacher won seven titles, including an unmatched five in a row. In all but one of those seasons he did so in a car that was by far the quickest in the field, so much so that he won more than half the races. In one of those years he won 12 of the first 13 races. (At the one he missed out on, Monaco, he was leading until he was involved in a crash with Juan Pablo Montoya.)
Prost won four titles, including back-to-back titles in 1985 and 1986. In three of those seasons he had by far the best car; in 1993 he faced no serious competition elsewhere on the grid, and in 1985 his McLaren was the only car on the grid that didn't constantly break down (second in the championship that year was Michele Alboreto, whose Ferrari was forced to retire in the final four races of the season). In 1989, however, his team-mate at the all-conquering McLaren was one of F1's greatest ever drivers, Ayrton Senna. And in 1986 he won a title despite Nigel Mansell driving the arguably superior Williams (though Mansell wasn't helped by a last-gasp blow-out).
In addition, Prost was denied the 1984 title by Niki Lauda (by half a point, the closest-ever finish to a season); he missed out on the 1988 and 1990 titles because of the genius of Senna; and he fell short in the 1983 title when his turbo blew on lap 35 of the final race of the season.
As for Fangio? He didn't even enter Formula 1 until he was 39 years old. He won the title in 1951 in an Alfa Romeo despite the Ferrari being acknowledged as the better car; missed most of the 1952 season as his Alfa team had been banned for using superchargers; watched helpless as Ferrari won seven out of nine races in 1953; won the title easily in an almost unbeatable Mercedes in 1954; then scrapped his way to the next three titles in an era when the cars were either perfectly evenly matched, or (as in 1956) when fellow legends such as Stirling Moss were driving an identical machine.
All this was played out against a background of constant death and incapacitation: 13 F1 drivers were killed during Fangio's time in the series, and Fangio himself carried on racing at the age of 42 despite breaking his neck while driving in a different racing series during the off-season. He did all this, and retired in 1958 having won an unmatched 46 per cent of his races. His retirement, incidentally, came soon after he was kidnapped after setting the fastest practice times at the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix. (He was released after the race.)
Vettel, by comparison, won tight 2010 and 2012 championships after epic seasons battling with Fernando Alonso, whose Ferrari was generally not quite as quick, but tended to be more reliable. Particularly in 2012, Alonso had to wring his Ferrari's neck to keep it competitive for most of the season; he was acclaimed as the driver of the season by most pundits, and said himself that he felt his second place in the title race was a greater achievement than either of his titles.
In 2011 and 2013, however, his Adrian Newey-designed car was untouchable, and with all the development time poured into making it as good as possible for Vettel, team-mate Mark Webber was generally made to look pretty incompetent by comparison. (Ferrari took the exact same path with Michael Schumacher in the late 1990s, incidentally, and made the very-talented Rubens Barrichello seem equally silly.)
Vettel can't do more than beat the people around him and win the races he's in. The same went for Schumacher, whose dominant spell at Ferrari produced a similarly untouchable and reliable driver-car combination, something that simply wasn't seen on an extended year-in-year-out basis for most of the careers of Prost and Fangio.
How many more titles would Fangio have won had he got started aged 19, as Vettel did, instead of age 39? The answer is unthinkable, but double figures seems certain.
How many consecutive titles might Prost have won had he had more reliable cars in those near-misses in the early years of his career? Or if a driver less talented than Senna had been alongside him at McLaren? Or if that late 1980s technical dominance McLaren enjoyed had lasted the best part of a decade rather than a couple of years?
For that matter, how many titles would Ayrton Senna have won had he not been tragically killed?
And how many titles would Alonso have by now if he'd been driving that Red Bull car for the last four or five years? How many titles would Jenson Button have by now if the Brawn F1's vast advantage over the field in 2009 had lasted five years instead of 12 months?
Motorhead isn't saying Vettel isn't good. He IS good. He's excellent.
But he's had it easy. He's been lucky. Things have gone his way.
Or, to put it another way, the marathon he's been running has been downhill all the way, while Alonso - to pick just one example - has been running uphill, and doing himself immeasurable credit even keeping Vettel in sight.
So pat Sebastian Vettel on the back, or buy him a drink. Just don't kid yourself that he's fit to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Fangio or Prost among the legends of the sport.
Maybe he will be one day. But not yet.
- Sports & Recreation
- Motor Racing
- Sebastian Vettel
- Alain Prost
- Juan Manuel Fangio
- Michael Schumacher