Murto: Vettel makes F1 history, loses fans

By Craig Murto

Sebastian Vettel is on his way to making Formula One history.

The 26-year-old German driver won the Japanese Grand Prix last Sunday morning to take his 35th career win, fifth victory in a row and ninth so far in 2013. Though he has yet to officially clinch the 2013 title, there is little doubt that he will be the 2013 World Driving Champion.

Poised to be only the third driver — Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher are the others — to win four F1 championships in a row, Vettel is already fourth on the all-time win list behind Schumacher (91), Alain Prost (51), and Ayrton Senna (41).

And at only 26 he’ll become fourth on the list of titles won. Schumacher has seven, Fangio five and Prost four.

But it’s a strange time in F1. Despite the fact that we are seeing history in the making, F1 crowds all over Europe are starting to react as you’d expect American crowds to react when someone stinks up the show. Other than in Japan, where crowds reflect their polite culture, Vettel’s been booed while celebrating on the podium recently.

I think it has less to do with the fact that Vettel wins and is the lucky driver to be seated No. 1 at Red Bull while the Adrian Newey-designed cars are the best on the grid, and more to do with the fact that the team seems to coddle him and allow him to do whatever he wants, more so than any other team coddles its No. 1 driver.

A couple year ago Vettel clearly drove into the side of Webber, ruining the race for both drivers. But Vettel blamed Webber, and the team made excuses for him rather than show him where he was wrong.

Early this season, Webber clearly out-drove his teammate and was headed for a win. Teams must use their engines more than once, so the Red Bull team told Webber to take it easy once he had the race won, and they told Vettel to stay behind Webber. Instead, Vettel disobeyed team orders and passed Webber for the win.

Usually drivers are punished for disobeying team orders, but the Red Bull team chose to overlook the incident, despite the fact that it stole a clear victory from Webber. The race may have led to Webber’s decision to retire from F1 and go back to international sports car racing next season.

And now we have last week’s race. Of course, Webber’s leaving the team, so he may not be in the team’s favor. As a result, the Japanese Grand Prix was stolen from him by an orchestrated plan to put Vettel out front.

As Webber — who started the race from the pole — closed on Lotus driver Romain Grosjean for the lead, the Red Bull team brought him in to pit early. Too early, it seems, as Vettel remained on the track to get the most out of his tires. It forced Webber to make another stop late in the running that put him at a disadvantage he could not overcome. Clearly the team chose to rob Webber of the race win so that Vettel could continue setting records.

Vettel has amazing driving ability; he has the potential to break Schumacher’s records. But for the past couple of years he’s come off as a spoiled brat. And the way the Red Bull team coddles him — to his teammate’s detriment — does nothing to make Vettel appealing. Obviously the situation rubs the European fans the wrong way, or he wouldn’t get showered with boos while on the podium.

Modern racing is as much about advertising and corporate image as it is about sport. We only need to look at the Michael Waltrip Racing situation in NASCAR to see the importance of corporate image.

As dominant as Renault power has been in F1, does it do the brand any good if its star driver is disliked? There are a lot of caffeine-spiked sugary beverages parading as energy drinks on the market that taste a lot better than Red Bull; will the public’s increasing weariness of Vettel affect Red Bull sales?

There are four more races on the 2013 F1 calendar. If Webber wins just one of them, it’ll go a long way toward mending the public’s bad feelings about the Red Bull F1 team and Sebastian Vettel. Webber’s moving on at season’s end; Vettel has plenty of time to make more history.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.