Sebastian Vettel takes his place among the greatest in Formula One history, and he's only 25 years old.
The German driver for Red Bull Renault grabbed his third World Driving Championship in a row on Sunday in the Brazilian Grand Prix, besting Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso by three points. Vettel is now the youngest driver to win three championships in a row, a feat only equaled by Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher.
This adds to Vettel's already impressive run of records, including youngest driver to participate in an official F1 practice session, youngest driver to score F1 points, youngest driver to sit on the pole for an F1 event, youngest driver to win an F1 race and the youngest driver to win the championship.
Vettel came into Brazil with a 13-point lead in the driver's championship; Red Bull had already secured the manufacturers' title. But conditions during the Brazilian Grand Prix were challenging, to say the least, and a live tally of points during the race indicated that Vettel was behind much of the day.
Intermittent drizzle made tire choice a premium. At one point it even appeared the lowly Force India team with talented Nico Hulkenburg had a chance at the win, simply by staying on slick racing tires as other teams changed to intermediate wet-weather tires. Hulkenburg eventually finished fifth.
The race wasn't without its controversy, much of which surrounded Vettel. On the first lap, Vettel chopped off Bruno Senna. The ensuing accident ended Senna's day, as well as others, but miraculously Vettel -- who spun and faced the wrong way on the track as cars split him on both sides -- continued on. Some believe Vettel deserved at least a drive-through penalty for creating the collision, and cite penalties given to drivers such as Lewis Hamilton in prior races as an example.
Then on lap nine, Vettel passed Kamui Kobayashi, and many felt he made the pass under yellow conditions. The FIA stated that Vettel's pass was legal because the "yellow" during the time he passed was a "track condition" yellow alerting drivers to the slippery surface (as if they needed to be told). As Speed Channel's David Hobbs observed, we "haven't seen that before." But it doesn't mean Vettel's pass was illegal.
Watching the video replay, Vettel drives behind Kobayashi as the cars pass a blinking yellow light. Also displayed under the light are a solid yellow flag, and a yellow flag with red stripes (slippery track condition flag). The blinking yellow light signifies that the cars cannot pass. There is also a yellow light on the display in Vettel's car.
Kobayashi and Vettel then pass a green light on the side of the track, and the yellow light inside the car disappears. But just a few hundred feet away the cars pass a solid yellow light, then another as Vettel passes Kobayashi and the Japanese driver peels off to pit.
The explanation is that the solid yellow light is the track condition warning, and the blinking yellow light indicates the area in which Vettel was not allowed to pass. The controversy would have been eliminated if the FIA made it clear during the race; instead they dismissed the issue entirely, which made it appear they either missed an infraction or were covering it up.
Despite the evidence there was no infraction, many maintain FIA favoritism. But Vettel drove his heart out to get back in the points after his first-lap crash; even if he had received a drive-through penalty for passing under a yellow, chances are he still would have finished far enough up the running order to win the world title.
A more controversial call would have been the decision to penalize Hulkenburg with a drive-through after his car broke lose as he attempted to pass Lewis Hamilton for the lead. The contact ended Hamilton's day. In fact, Hulkenburg should not have been penalized as it was simply a racing incident. These are races, correct? Don't we want to see the drivers battle for the lead?
Lost in all the commotion was Jenson Button's victory, his third of the year.
Vettel stated that he will stay with Red Bull at least through 2013. Is a fourth championship in a row in his future? It won't be handed to him -- he had to fight to win his third. But don't bet against him; he may only be 25 years old, but Sevbastian Vettel clearly ranks among the best to ever drive in F1.
-- Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.