A funny thing happened on the way to the Korean podium: nobody booed when race winner Sebastian Vettel appeared.
Asian courtesy, perhaps, or maybe the gang of barrackers who Vettel says have organised a special tour just couldn’t afford the Korean air fares.
Maybe it all started back in Malaysia.
In only the second round of this season’s World Championship Vettel blatantly disregarded team orders to ‘steal’ victory from Red Bull Racing teammate Mark Webber. The Australian’s indignant “Multi-21, Seb” comments in the podium preparation room went round the world – and Vettel’s reputation went sharply downhill.
Recently, though, as Vettel embarked on another string of race victories – four in a row up to and including Korea, five in the last six – the German driver became the target of persistent booing from a section of the race crowds.
Even Webber felt obliged to leap to his defence in Italy, where Vettel’s victory went down like a lead balloon with the Ferrari hordes. Interviewer Martin Brundle did the same in Singapore.
The German himself insists that it doesn’t bother him, in fact he’s happy to hear the boos because that means he and his team have done a job the other teams’ fans don’t like. He even joked that there is a tour group paying for the privilege of following F1 around the world just so they can keep jeering at him wherever he appears.
In Singapore, however, he added comments that have irked some of his fellow-Grand Prix drivers, notably Nico Rosberg and Jenson Button. Vettel said the root of success was the hard work he and his team did on Fridays when others might be dangling certain parts of their anatomies in the local swimming pool.
“I wanted to express that our success is not coming from nowhere, but that we are willing to do what it takes to be successful, even if that means working until late,” said Vettel, stamping hard on the back-pedal.
“Because there is always something that you can do better, something that you can learn. If you’re on a winning streak and start to take things too easy, this might be the surest way to terminate it.”
Like the wagging finger, clearly calculated to poke a little more salt into his opponents’ wounds, some of Vettel’s comments are now seen as arrogant, while Button has labelled him ‘disrespectful’.
Others, like former Minardi team owner Gian Carlo Minardi, have ventured further, claiming that Red Bull must have built banned gizmos like traction control back into their car to give Vettel the dominance he has shown in recent races.
If that’s so, why isn’t Webber walking all over the opposition as well? To be fair, the Aussie was doing just that in the closing stages at Singapore and again in Korea until fate ended both races early, but he hasn’t won a race this season and Korea was Vettel’s eighth victory of 2013.
Grudging admiration, to put it mildly, has been Vettel’s lot since the start of his career, much as it was with his illustrious predecessor and compatriot Michael Schumacher.
Seb started the 21st century as European junior karting champion. By 2004 he was single-seater title-winner too, taking out his country’s Formula BMW crown with 18 wins from 20 races, with 15 poles and 16 fastest laps – does that dominance sound familiar?
Strange to relate, Vettel didn’t manage to win the F3 Euroseries despite taking two cracks at it, but by 2006 he was grabbing headlines as the fresh-faced test and reserve driver for BMW Sauber from the Turkish Grand Prix on.
In 2007 he was given his F1 debut for BMW Sauber at Indianapolis when Robert Kubica was injured in Canada, scoring a maiden World Championship point in the process for finishing eighth. By Turkey that year he was a fully-fledged Grand Prix driver for Scuderia Toro Rosso.
The German upstart, as some saw him, went and won that team’s first Grand Prix from pole position at Monza the following season, the youngest man ever to win a Grand Prix at the age of 21 years and 73 days.
In 2009, seamlessly slotting into the senior Red Bull team, Vettel gave them their own first GP win in China in a 1-2 with Webber. By the end of 2010 he was the youngest World Champion in F1 history at 23 years and 134 days, 167 days younger then Lewis Hamilton in 2008.
Now he is poised to become only the third man in history to win four Drivers’ World Championships in a row. The others, of course, are Fangio (1954-57) and Schumacher (2000-03, Michael adding a fifth straight success in 2004). He will be the fourth man to win four world titles as we must add Alain Prost (1985-86, 1989, 1993) to that list as well.
Along the way there have been incidents and accidents that failed to endear him to some F1 watchers. Turkey 2010 and his “loose screw” gesture when he and Webber collided, putting Vettel out on the spot… Malaysia this year, of course… but most of all the feeling persists that any dislike of Vettel is for his dominance, not for the man himself.
After all, 34 wins from 115 starts is some strike rate, behind only Schumacher, Senna and Prost, as is 42 poles, behind only Schumacher and Senna.
In his earlier days Vettel was popular because of a sense of humour seen as more British than European. In personal memory he was being ferried around Melbourne by an AGP staffer who complained virulently about a driver who was an idiot (a stronger term was actually used) for driving on the wrong side of the road.
Back like a flash came Vettel: “So you Australians are all idiots, then – you all drive on the wrong side of the road!”
It’s the kind of jocular comment we don’t hear so often these days, probably because he’s too busy dragging world titles around behind him and doing the work to make sure he adds yet another to his collection before it’s too late – he is, after all, a 26-year-old veteran these days.
But Vettel has been savvy enough to mould a team around him, one that includes a team principal perceived as weak and malleable but also a German mastermind who is clearly as close to Vettel as a second skin.
And that’s what F1’s great champions have always done: sacrificed everyone and everything else to their own ruthless ambition.