Formula 1's greatest drivers. Number 8: Sebastian Vettel

 

This year, BBC Sport is profiling 20 of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time. The BBC F1 team were asked to provide their personal top 20s, which were combined to produce a BBC list. Veteran commentator Murray Walker provides his own reflections in a video of their career highlights and chief F1 writer Andrew Benson profiles the driver. This week is number eight - Sebastian Vettel.

Any list that attempts to rank the greatest Formula 1 drivers over a period of 60 years, comparing those of the post-war era with those whose careers are still active, is bound to be controversial.

In the case of this one, which has no pretences to be definitive, few things will provoke debate more than Sebastian Vettel's ranking in eighth place.

The Red Bull driver has undoubtedly had a stellar career so far - 22 grand prix victories, at a rate of more than one in four races, 33 pole positions and the youngest double world champion in history. All by the age of 25 and in just five seasons in F1.

Vettel becomes the youngest F1 world champion

Statistically - and such things matter to Vettel - it is a record that puts him up among the very best.

Yet statistics are meaningless without context and in this case the fact that Vettel has had the fastest car for at least three seasons of his short career cannot be ignored.

However good his machinery, though, a racing driver still has to deliver and Vettel has certainly done that.

Like Jim Clark and Alberto Ascari before him, Vettel is most comfortable leading from the front. Put him on pole position in a competitive car, give him a lead into the first corner and Vettel is close to unbeatable.

This ability - employed to most devastating effect in his second championship year in 2011 - is founded on the German's remarkable talent to produce qualifying laps that defy belief.

Vettel's Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber is no slouch on one all-out lap - in fact, qualifying has always been considered one of Webber's outstanding qualities.

But there have been times when Vettel's searing pace on his final lap in qualifying, his ability to dig deep and find time that even the team did not think was there, has had Webber shaking his head in admiration and honestly admitting that speed was beyond him.

Vettel's special qualities on a qualifying lap have drawn admiration up and down the pit lane. "When was the last time he made a mistake in final qualifying?" one rival said recently. "About three years ago."

Vettel wins the 2011 Monaco Grand Prix

So consistently has Vettel proved this ability, especially through 2010 and 2011, that he has drawn comparisons to the man many consider the fastest there has ever been.

"Give him a car that can qualify at the front and my personal opinion is Vettel is as good as and might even be a midge better than Ayrton Senna was," said BBC F1's technical analyst Gary Anderson.

Similar - if less conclusive - views can be heard up and down the pit lane from drivers and team bosses. Usually they will agree that Ferrari's Fernando Alonso is the best all-round driver but add that on a one-off qualifying lap and in a front-running car, Vettel is probably faster.

It was from pole position that Vettel got his first win, an immensely impressive drive in the wet at Monza in 2008 at the wheel of a Toro Rosso.

His maiden victory has been taken by some to prove that he does not always need the best car to win.

After all, it came for a team that for most of its life has been midfield at best and, in its previous incarnation of Minardi, usually at the back.

But while the win undoubtedly marked Vettel as a man on the cusp of special things, the facts do not fit that interpretation as closely as might initially seem to be the case.

Vettel factfile

Sebastian Vettel
  • Races: 93
  • Wins: 22
  • Championships: 2
  • Pole positions: 33
  • First race: 2007 United States Grand Prix
  • First win: 2008 Italian Grand Prix
  • Last win: 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix
  • Last race: 2012 Belgian Grand Prix

Stats up to and including the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix

Toro Rosso are Red Bull's junior team and in 2008 the cars were effectively identical apart from their engines - and with its Ferrari one the Toro Rosso was faster than the Renault-engined Red Bull.

By two-thirds of the way through 2008, the Toro Rosso was a car capable of qualifying and racing in the top six at virtually every race.

For the first half of that season, Vettel had not looked much better than his team-mate, the journeyman Sebastien Bourdais.

But, according to Toro Rosso's technical director Giorgio Ascanelli, something changed at the European Grand Prix in Valencia.

Suddenly, Ascanelli said, Vettel understood something about how to drive an F1 car quickly. It made a huge difference - not only to the speed he could unlock, but also to his ability to do so consistently.

He has not looked back since.

Victory at Monza that year was followed by more impressive drives for Toro Rosso in the remaining races of 2008.

And in 2009 he was a title contender, following a move to the senior team to drive a car that after a handful of races was the fastest in the field.

Some mistakes that year, however, stopped him challenging Brawn's Jenson Button more strongly for the title than he might have done - and those errors continued in 2010.

In the fastest car, Vettel never led the championship until he crossed the line to win the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi - and even then he had to thank a terrible strategy error by Ferrari for scuppering Alonso's chances.

Vettel wins the 2011 Italian Grand Prix

Vettel took some impressively dominant victories and his chances were hit by reliability problems in three races he should have won - Bahrain, Australia and Korea.

Likewise, though, he would have taken the title more easily had he not crashed into his team-mate in Turkey, given himself a puncture trying to sit it out around the outside of Webber in Copse corner at the start at Silverstone, misjudged the safety car in Hungary and crashed again in Belgium.

An apparent vulnerability under pressure was also evident in a mistake in qualifying in Singapore that year that allowed Alonso to take pole and from there win the race. This characteristic of Vettel's driving has continued to rear its head from time to time.

Vettel's title in 2010 ensured he displaced Lewis Hamilton as the youngest champion in history and when he repeated the feat in 2011, it put him ahead of Alonso as the youngest double winner.

The second championship was very different from the first - Vettel utterly dominated the season, taking 11 wins and 15 poles in what was clearly the fastest car.

He did it with such control and consistency that many felt he had moved up to another level from 2010 - and the fantastic skills and bravery he showed in, for example, overtaking Alonso around the outside to take the lead at Monza certainly dismissed any notion that he could not race.

Vettel seals back-to-back world titles

This season, though, has seen a different Vettel again - making less mistakes and more consistent than in 2009-10 but less convincing overall than in 2011, when his own success in adapting to Pirelli tyres and the characteristics of Red Bull's car were in marked contrast to Webber's struggles.

Vettel has been a constant presence close to the top of the championship, but he and Webber are more evenly matched again. His qualifying skills have been in evidence from time to time - think of his stunning pole laps in Canada and Valencia - but not as consistently as in 2010 and 2011.

And one particular statistic continues to stand out - only one of Vettel's wins has not come from the front row of the grid. And for the one that did, he started third.

Having achieved so much so young, all F1's records are within Vettel's reach but it will take more time before a fully rounded understanding of his talents and position in F1's pantheon can emerge.

Great Vettel undoubtedly is, but just how great will become apparent only in future seasons - if and when he produces more wins against the odds, excels in a difficult and uncompetitive car or goes head-to-head with either Hamilton or Alonso in the same machinery.

Number 9 - Niki Lauda

Number 10 - Fernando Alonso

Number 11 - Alberto Ascari

Number 12 - Gilles Villeneuve

Number 13 - Nigel Mansell

Number 14 - Mika Hakkinen

Number 15 - Lewis Hamilton

Number 16 - Nelson Piquet

Number 17 - Emerson Fittipaldi

Number 18 - Jack Brabham

Number 19 – Graham Hill

Number 20 – Jochen Rindt