Kevin Garside: Vettel may have the best car, but he's also blessed by genius
Genius is a devilishly difficult commodity to capture, even by those said to embody it. Take the cricketing example in India, where Virender Sehwag, a serial angler outside off stump on English tracks, clips a ton off the same attack in Mumbai at a run a ball and Kevin Pietersen, the repatriated saviour of English cricket, is bowled around his pins for two.
Over on the football pitch Zlatan Ibrahimovic, dismissed by travelling fans in Sweden as a lesser Andy Carroll, morphs into an amalgam of Messi and Ronaldo to obliterate the English defence as well as footballing convention.
While the Sehwag/KP/Ibra mojo waxes and wanes according to who knows what, there was out there in the sporting universe this past weekend a young performer whose genius is fixed to more predictable reference points.
Sebastian Vettel is 25 years old. He was the youngest to win the Formula One world championship in 2010. Yesterday at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin he was invited to become only the second driver in the history of the sport to rattle off a hat-trick of titles in successive seasons. His second place in the US Grand Prix, however, means that this has had to be extended to next weekend's race in Brazil.
The first, Juan Manuel Fangio, achieved the standard more than 50 years ago in the infancy of the championship when, in times of trouble, a driver could flick a team-mate from his car mid-race, take over the wheel and record a win.
None of that for the young German, though some argue that he has an even greater advantage in the person of Adrian Newey, shaping the future with his magic pencil in the Red Bull design studio. This is the rather ungenerous view of Fernando Alonso, the deeply talented Spaniard marooned in a Ferrari lacking the mindboggling cornering of Newey's creation. Alonso observed that his most significant opponent in the title race was Newey, not Vettel. The response to that, Fernando, can be found on the other side of the garage, where Mark Webber sits in the same machinery.
If that is not the case, and Vettel is somehow favoured in the distribution of hardware, then it is fair to argue that Felipe Massa might be similarly cauterized by the same kind of institutional discrepancy at Maranello. We know this not to be true, of course.
As well as a mastery of his art, Alonso's own genius extends to an intuitive grasp of the value of mind games. He has trained this weapon on his own team in the past, squeezing an extra 10th of a second out of Renault in his gripping championship duel with Michael Schumacher in 2005, which effectively ended at the penultimate race in Japan after disaster had threatened with defeat at the previous race in China.
Vettel signposted his gifts with a pole-to-flag maiden win in the wet at Monza in 2008, and this in a Toro Rosso, which had neither Newey's input nor Red Bull's infinite cash resource. Alongside the superior machinery argument, the view lingers that Vettel, though a brilliant front-runner, is not so good when dealing with adversity or traffic.
A prominent voice among the anti tendency is Jacques Villeneuve, who saw a technical failing in Vettel's misjudgment behind the safety car in Abu Dhabi last week, and claims he reacts like a child in moments of distress.
Let kettles and pans rain from the sky. Villeneuve dismissed Jenson Button as more boy-band brand than racing driver when he joined him as team-mate at BAR. Button went on to floor the former world champion, ultimately driving him out of the paddock. Michael Schumacher had to put up with the same criticisms at Ferrari, despite the testimony of his team-mate Eddie Irvine that he was just too good.
Vettel started the season in a troubled car, nobbled by a rule amendment designed for the express purpose of slowing it. The aerodynamic shuffle required to adjust to life without the adhesive power of exhaust gases and blown diffusers meant Vettel started the season well off the pace of the McLarens. Though he eked out a win in Bahrain, his 11th, fifth and sixth place finishes in the opening five races were more representative of his car's performance.
Alonso has enhanced his reputation this season by the brilliant husbandry of an inferior car, nicking a win here and there. That is precisely what Vettel did until Newey found something on his drawing board in the latter part of the season that worked.
A chance encounter with Vettel during pre-season testing in Jerez before his Toro Rosso debut in 2008 revealed a 20-year-old of preternatural maturity.
A prospective podcast interviewee had been syphoned off elsewhere at the last minute, leaving a big hole to fill. Vettel emerged from the Toro Rosso garage bang into my stride path. Serendipity. Of course he would be happy to speak. And speak he did, in perfect English. It wasn't so much what he said but the way he said it. There was a degree of self-possession and calm, as if he were born in a racing suit. He did not impress upon me the uncertainty of a novice but the absolute assurance of a kid who knew what he was about and where he was heading.
The scary thing is, after 100 races that yielded 26 wins and 36 poles, he is not even halfway there.