Sebastian Vettel - without doubt an all-time F1 great

Sebastian Vettel did not quite know what to do with himself after clinching his fourth consecutive Formula 1 world title in India on Sunday.

He fought back tears, then admitted he was struggling to find the right thing to say. His speech veered seemingly at random from the inevitable congratulations for his team, through recollections of his time with his family as a young boy, to almost philosophical discourses on the nature of his success and the wonderful contradictions of the country in which he sealed it.

Vettel has a right to feel "overwhelmed", as he put it.

To win four titles in a row is a magnificent achievement, and statistically it puts Vettel in rarefied company.

Only three other drivers have won that many - Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher - and only Fangio and Schumacher have won four in a row, as Vettel now has.

At the age of just 26, in the best team in F1, the sky is the limit for Vettel in terms of the statistics he could potentially rack up.

He is a likeable man and a rare talent, who has achieved great things in a fantastic car for the last five years. He works tirelessly with his team to create a car tailored to his skills, consistently does the job in qualifying, controls grands prix expertly from the front, makes few mistakes, and can race superbly, too, as he proved in his victory on Sunday.

He is, without doubt, an all-time great driver. But just how great remains an open question.

Vettel's records

Sebastian Vettel in 2006
  • Most points scored in a season: 392 (2011)
  • Most poles in a season: 15 (2011)
  • Most laps led in a season: 739 (2011)
  • Youngest driver to compete at a grand prix: 19 years, 53 days (Turkish GP, 2006 free practice)
  • Youngest driver to score an F1 point: 19 years, 349 days (US GP, 2007)
  • Youngest pole-sitter: 21 years, 72 days (Italian GP, 2008)
  • Youngest race winner: 21 years, 73 days (Italian GP, 2008)
  • Youngest podium scorer: 21 years, 73 days (Italian GP, 2008)
  • Youngest F1 world champion: 23 years, 135 days (2010)
  • Youngest double world champion: 24 years, 99 days (2011)
  • Youngest triple world champion: 25 years, 146 days (2012)
  • Youngest quadruple world champion: 26 years, 117 days (2013)

As the main architect of Red Bull's success, their genius design chief Adrian Newey, said on Sunday, statistics are not the only measure of greatness.

If they were, the likes of Jim Clark (two titles), Gilles Villeneuve and Stirling Moss (no titles) would not consistently figure in lists of greatest-ever drivers, and Schumacher (seven) would be considered more than twice as good as Ayrton Senna (three). Which he isn't.

The big debate is whether Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton would do as good a job as Vettel in a Red Bull, even beat him? Who, in other words, is the best driver of this era?

As Hamilton's team-mate Nico Rosberg says: "For sure it would help his [Vettel's] perception if he had - and nothing against Mark [Webber], who is a fantastic driver and a great person - a Fernando calibre driver next to him."

You can think yourself round in knots over this.

Webber is a world-class driver, but the only team-mate Vettel has had of that calibre. And the only other top driver the Australian has had as a team-mate is Rosberg, back in 2006 at Williams.

That was Rosberg's first season in F1, and he was on average 0.15secs slower than Webber in qualifying. This year, Vettel is on average 0.29secs quicker than Webber in qualifying and Rosberg is 0.01secs slower than Hamilton.

Cross-compare those numbers and they suggest Vettel is 0.28secs a lap quicker than Hamilton, who was marginally faster than Alonso when they were team-mates in 2007.

But no-one knows how valid are these comparisons between team-mates across the years, with different circumstances, different types of cars and tyres requiring different driving styles, drivers being at different stages of their careers and so on.

Webber has driven against Vettel in the same team, watched how he works, seen the computer traces of his laps, for five years now, but he still believes Alonso is better.

That's an opinion apparently honestly held as a motorsport fan who happens to be an F1 driver. After all, if he said Vettel was the best, it would make Webber himself look better.

The great might-have-been

Whether Vettel cares about this we don't know. But we know Red Bull don't. They're not remotely interested in defining the level of Vettel's greatness; only in winning.

Red Bull could have signed Hamilton in 2011 - he practically begged them to. Alonso told them he was available for 2014. They certainly could have signed Raikkonen this summer.

But they took none of them because they preferred the team dynamic of Vettel and a de facto number two.

Vettel's position among the great F1 title winners

Michael Schumacher - 7 1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004

Juan Manuel Fangio - 5 1951, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957

Alain Prost - 4 1985, 1986, 1989, 1993

Sebastian Vettel - 4 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Jack Brabham - 3 1959, 1960, 1966

Jackie Stewart - 3 1969, 1971, 1973

Niki Lauda - 3 1975, 1977, 1984

Nelson Piquet - 3 1981, 1983, 1987

Ayrton Senna - 3 1988, 1990, 1991

I'm told that Newey and team boss Christian Horner were both keen on signing Alonso, but that Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz said no, he wanted to give the company's young driver programme a go and take Daniel Ricciardo from Toro Rosso.

The Australian may surprise everyone next year - he has certainly shown a turn of speed on occasion. But it doesn't sound like Vettel expects too much trouble, judging from a throwaway remark he made in Singapore last month.

"If he wins the championship, I'll look pretty stupid," he said, with the self-confidence four titles brings.

On the evidence of the last four years, Vettel would undoubtedly be a truly formidable opponent for either Hamilton or Alonso in the same car, but it does not look like the world is going to find out how they would match up.

Senna had his Prost. Hamilton and Alonso have each other. Who will be Vettel's true yardstick?

Until he finds himself in that position, goes up against a rival of that quality in a comparable car, this debate will never go away.

How the fourth title was won

Vettel won this year's championship in style. No-one can argue it owed something to luck, or that another driver did better with the equipment at his disposal, as you could in 2010 and 2012 to one degree or another.

Red Bull operated at a level beyond the other teams, and Vettel went with them all the way and made absolutely the most of what he was given.

Vettel in numbers

  • Races: 117
  • Wins: 36
  • Championships: 4
  • Pole positions: 43
  • Podiums: 59
  • First race: 2007 United States Grand Prix
  • First win: 2008 Italian Grand Prix
  • Last win: 2013 Indian Grand Prix

Ten wins in 16 races; only three times off the podium, two of them in fourth place and one when he retired from the lead of the British Grand Prix. It has been consistent excellence of a level rarely seen.

The season has split into two halves - before and after the summer break. In the first, Red Bull were always there or thereabouts, their race pace always strong, but not always visible owing to starting behind a Mercedes, or sometimes compromised by excessive tyre usage.

Even so, in the 10 races to the Hungarian Grand Prix, Vettel won four times and consistently finished strongly elsewhere.

Then, after the summer break, changes to the Red Bull allied to Pirelli's reversion to 2012-spec tyres turned an already very good car into an utterly dominant one.

Vettel has not lost a race since, and after his sixth win on the trot in India on Sunday, he is on target by the end of the season to equal the all-time record of nine consecutive F1 world championship wins, held by Alberto Ascari since 1953.

Ferrari falter as Red Bull rise

His closest rival, as usual, has been Alonso, and for the first quarter of the season it looked like the Spaniard would make a real fight of it.

But mistakes by team and driver in Malaysia and Bahrain, in both of which Alonso may have challenged Vettel for victory, meant that after just four races the Spaniard was on the back foot, despite a win and a second place in China and Australia.

Back in the spring, Alonso was qualifying pretty close to the front of the grid and Ferrari appeared to have a better handle on the tyres than probably anyone else.

Vettel enjoys Schumacher comparison

But then the team began inexorably to slip from the pace, their old bugbear of failing to keep up with the development race haunting them again. They were also negatively affected by a switch back to old-spec Pirellis.

Red Bull had been campaigning since the start of the season to have the tyres made more durable, arguing they were stopping the drivers pushing to the limit. Their fragility was also, as Newey admitted on Sunday, preventing Red Bull using all of their car's performance.

After months of politicking over whether the tyres should be changed, a series of spectacular failures at Silverstone left F1 and Pirelli with no choice. A tweak was made for Germany - where Vettel won again, brilliantly sustaining heavy pressure from the Lotuses - and then for Hungary Pirelli reverted to its 2012 design, which was less prone to failures.

Vettel suffered probably his worst race of the season in Budapest, compromised by damaging his front wing failing to pass Jenson Button's McLaren, getting stuck behind which turned a potential win into a third place.

That day in late July was the last time Vettel did not win - and Hamilton and Newey both said in India that Vettel would probably have won there, too, had he not been stuck in traffic.

Now able to fully exploit their car's formidable potential, Red Bull set about enhancing it. Changes to car after F1's summer break took it to a new level and Red Bull have not lost a race since.

How much better is the Red Bull than the rest?

One of the key technologies these last three years has been harnessing exhaust gases to boost rear downforce. One of the other top teams say this feature gives them between 70-90 'points' of downforce. Red Bull, they believe, get 140. Ten points of downforce is worth about 0.25secs if it applies over a whole lap, although in this case the benefit only comes in the first 100m or so after a corner.

Vettel 'proud' to prove boo boys wrong

Vettel has adapted his driving style to this better than Webber, using a balletic, counter-intuitive technique that involves destabilising the rear end on corner entry and then requires early throttle application to get the exhaust gases blowing over the downforce-producing parts at the rear of the car to stop it sliding. This then gives higher mid-corner speeds and better traction.

From the Belgian Grand Prix onwards, Vettel was suddenly able to count on qualifying right at the front and controlling the races from there. But the car now had so much more performance than the rest that it didn't matter if he did not lead the first lap - as his victory in Japan proved after a bad start.

Ultimately, Vettel's fourth title was inevitable. Put one of the three greatest drivers in the world in a car on a separate level from the rest, with a team-mate not quite on his level, operated by the most efficient team in F1, and night follows day.

Is he the greatest of all? It is, as Newey said, a "hypothetical, armchair" question, to which a definitive answer does not exist. But he is, without doubt, right up there with them.

The Indian Grand Prix - live on BBC TV, radio and online

  • Sunday 27 October : Highlights: 19:00 GMT on BBC Three