One week on from the events of Suzuka, and with the Korean race looming, this is probably the latest one can leave it to pay tribute to the achievements of Sebastian Vettel, confirmed as 2011 world champion with four races to go last time out. In clinching 3rd place on the podium, Sebastian not only put the crown beyond the mathematical reach of anyone else but in so doing became the youngest double world champion in the history of the sport – perhaps fittingly, taking the record from his compatriot and hero Michael Schumacher. Not for nothing perhaps was there a tremble in his voice over the radio to his jubilant team – who could soon follow up his achievement with the Constructors crown, sealing their dominance over what has been a close-fought season on track, if perhaps not in the points table.

As often follows such instances, many were quick to lay plaudits at the feet of the 24-year-old from Heppenheim, some going so far as to claim that Schumacher’s other records were even at threat. It is ironic that such comments should come after what was by Vettel’s standards a slightly underwhelming performance, unable to match Jenson Button (who was on imperious form, it has to be said) or catch Fernando Alonso towards the end. Yet to call 3rd place “slightly underwhelming” perhaps underlies the standard Vettel has reached this season, and the confirmation of the talent which made itself known back at Monza in 2008. All of this should be put in perspective, however, so as to fully appreciate Vettel’s season for what it is – and more importantly, avoid claiming what it is not.

What, then, has led to the superlative rise of Sebastian Vettel? Is he, as many claim, the standout star of his generation set to dominate the sport for years to come? Or is he someone gifted with an incredible car and one of the best teams on the grid who simply made the most of what fortune gave him? The reality is perhaps somewhere in the middle. There is no doubting that the strength of the RB7, and the Red Bull team in general, has played a considerable part in Vettel’s success this season. The car has appeared dialled in at practically every circuit, with only Germany and perhaps Japan proving something of a blip, and its outright pace is clear to see. With 14 poles and 9 race wins at the time of writing, the RB7 has cemented its place in the pantheon of great F1 cars – unsuprising perhaps given that Adrian Newey oversaw its design. Likewise, the whole team, from the design and engineering staff back at the factory to the mechanics and pit crew at races, have ensured the car is as reliable as it is fast (the team suffering zero mechanical failures thus far) and that pitstops have ranked among the fastest of the season. Without these, Vettel’s charge to the title would have been considerably harder than it proved to be.

Yet to put his success solely down to the team and the car, good as they are, is to do Vettel a great disservice. He is not, after all, the only quick driver with a top team this season – his teammate Mark Webber is a very fast, very capable driver, and both McLaren and Ferrari have shown form this season. Similarly, Vettel has not entirely had things his own way this year, one example being having to hold off both Button and Alonso at Monaco for some 20 laps with tyres past their best. It also fails to explain why Webber has not been able to match his teammate’s towering form, polling 194 points to Vettel’s 324 at the time of writing. Webber is no mug, after all, and yet Vettel has established a clear gap this season. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, Vettel has coped far better with the characteristics of the Pirelli tyres this season – reports indicate he was the only driver to visit Pirelli in the off-season, and although it is difficult to say what advantage (if any) this conferred it suggests his thought process on tyres was more advanced, and this itself may have given him the edge. Certainly, he has tackled the balancing act of exploiting grip versus saving tyres better than most. Secondly, his entire demeanour this season has shown incredible maturity, remaining calm under pressure (in contrast with the unfortunate Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa) and continuing to learn despite his title success last year. His racecraft has improved in particular, with some bold passes (Alonso in Monza) and more importantly an ironing out of most mistakes. Even when some are made, as in Canada, he has demonstrated the ability to recover from them and remain consistent – and it is this, more than anything, which explains his dominance this season. His lowest finishing position all season has been 4th, and while his rivals have had opportunities to close the gap or establish themselves as challengers none have done so successfully. McLaren’s drivers have struggled to overcome inconsistent car performance (and the occasional brain-fade), while Ferrari seem incapable of racing two cars effectively or making them quick enough to mitigate the problem. The way has therefore been left clear for Vettel to sweep up, and he has obliged.

So where to now? The best indicator for that will probably be the next four races; now that the pressure is off in terms of the championship, we should hopefully be able to see what Vettel is fully capable of. He will no doubt want to make the most of the pressure being off, particularly given the changes due in for 2012 and their potential to negate some, if not all, of the RB7’s strengths. Should he continue to maintain his superlative form, despite the title being a done deal, then that will certainly give some of his rivals a few sleepless nights going into 2012. On the other hand, should some weaknesses start to creep in then this may spur them on to give him a harder run for his money next year. Either way, the question of whether Vettel ranks as one of the true greats will take much longer to answer. What is certainly clear, however, is that he has thrown down the gauntlet for the rest of the field, and it will take some effort for them to rise to the challenge. Far from being a source of boredom, Vettel’s dominance this season could make 2012 the most interesting season for years…

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