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Is this the dawn of the Vettel era?

There were still four races left to run in the 2011 Formula 1 season, but Sebastian Vettel had already secured his second World Drivers’ Championship title. If this came as a shock to you, I’m guessing you haven’t been following this season too closely. The result was so unsurprising that I was even able to save myself some time over the race weekend by writing parts of this article days ahead of the chequered flag. That’s because there had never really been any question about whether Vettel would win the title; it was only a matter of when and where.

It finally happened last weekend in Suzuka — a circuit that has crowned many World Champions (Hakkinen, Hill, Schumacher, Senna, Prost, Piquet) and has seen some very famous crashes. This year there was nearly another one, when Vettel edged Jenson Button onto the grass running down into the first corner. The close call showed just how hard both drivers wanted to win. Japan is like a second home to Jenson Button, and his eventual victory meant a huge amount to him, but sadly his great drive was dwarfed by Vettel securing the title. He only needed a tenth place finish — but it was clear that he wanted all the points he could possibly get. Only team radio intervention stopped him hunting down the win that he did not need.

2011 has certainly not been a down-to-the-wire championship battle. Although just 16 points seperate Button, Alonso and Webber, Vettel has never lost the lead he gained at the very first race of the year and is light-years ahead of his rivals. If you cast your mind back to the 2010 season, you might remember that six different drivers led the championship standings at various points. Going into the very last race of that year, four drivers were still in contention for the title. Vettel was only the third favourite to win. It feels like a whole different era, doesn’t it?

The leap he has made in the past year has been astonishing. There is no denying that Vettel has massively matured since last year when a string of mistakes gave him the dubious title of ‘Crash Kid’. His mistakes have been few and far between this year. Even when he looked off pace in practice sessions, he more than made up for it in his qualifying performance, securing pole positions at all but three of the tracks this year. Nine race wins, and only one non-podium place — these are the kind of results that Lewis Hamilton can only dream of.

But Vettel is certainly not impervious to pressure; it is no coincidence that his lowest result of the season was fourth at his home Grand Prix. But a win in his own country is one of the few accolades to have evaded him so far. If you’re not already aware, Vettel has stacked up quite an impressive collection of records now. He’s the youngest driver to: drive at a Grand Prix, set a fastest time, score points, lead a race, get pole position, score a podium, win a grand prix, become runner-up in a championship, win a championship, and now secure back-to-back titles.

With that kind of record, we could be seeing the dawn of a new Formula 1 age. Vettel used to be called ‘Baby Schumi’, but he’s outgrown that nickname. His career is developing at the same rapid pace as Schumacher’s — but Vettel is years ahead. Schumacher was 25 when he won his first championship. Vettel was only 23. Rather than seeing ‘Schumacher 2.0’, we’re witnessing something entirely new. So could this be the decade of Sebastian Vettel?

That depends. Vettel is a phenomenally good driver, but he’s not a perfect one. To ensure future titles he can’t afford to get complacent and he’ll need to maintain his phenomenal pace of improvement. I don’t think his racing style is fully formed yet. We know that he is fast, precise, efficient, and is capable of some very smart, smooth drives. But he does not have as much experience as other drivers, and we may see that come into play in the future. He is capable of being very ruthless. I wonder just how far he would go to continue smashing records.

The main question mark that still hangs over Vettel is whether he can win races from further back on the grid. In other words: how would he fare under more difficult circumstances? For me, he has already proven that he is capable of some stunning overtakes. If you need an example, have a look at his impressive overtake of Fernando Alonso in Monza this year — at full-speed and with two wheels off the road. But we don’t get to see such moves very often. He so often starts from the front of the grid that most of his overtakes are made when lapping backmarkers.

Of course, one significant advantage Vettel currently has is the best car on the grid. That advantage means that we have no perfect way of comparing him to Button, Hamilton and Alonso — but we can compare him to his teammate. There is no getting round the fact that Mark Webber has the same car, and is trailing by a massive 130 points. Webber is a world-class driver, and for him to be made to look so average is no mean feat. The simple fact is that Vettel has significantly upped his game, in terms of both driving skill and attitude.

Throughout the season, Vettel has publicly refused to take his lead for granted, even when his rivals had admitted defeat. He has proven to be exemplary at staying grounded and keeping focus. We heard this in the radio message that followed the chequered flag this weekend. After composing himself (no public sobbing this time), he said: “Thank you so much. Every single one. We took nothing for granted. And we did it.”

His index finger celebration may get annoying, but there is something very exciting about the idea that we are potentially witnessing one of the greats of the sport emerging in front of us. He has earned this title. In fact, he’s made it look easy. He has completely dominated 2011, and shows no sign of stopping. And the scariest thing is that he’s still just 24 years old. Planet Earth will probably run out of fuel long before Sebastian Vettel does.

Fiona Crosby

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