Sebastian Vettel feels it could be decades before he will be able to appreciate the full scale of his achievements in Formula One.
Vettel on Sunday became only the fourth man in the sport’s history – after Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher – to become a four-time champion with his victory in the Indian Grand Prix.
At the age of just 26, Vettel is six years younger than Schumacher was when he won a fourth title in 2001, 12 years younger than Prost when he achieved the feat in 1993, and 19 years ahead of Fangio, who was 45 when he reached that number in 1956.
Fangio’s final tally of five titles will be in Vettel’s sights when the 2014 season gets under way, and he will no doubt fancy his chances of one day eclipsing fellow German Schumacher’s outright record of seven drivers’ championships.
Yet whatever else Vettel achieves from this point forward, he concedes it may not be appreciated for some time to come.
“To win four titles, it’s just a big number, you know?” said Vettel, who also sits fourth on the all-time list of grand prix wins with 36, behind only Ayrton Senna (41), Prost (51) and Schumacher (91).
“To join people like that – Michael, Fangio, Prost – is very difficult to put into perspective. I’m way too young to understand what it means.
“I might be 60 one day, maybe then I will understand but nobody will care anymore.”
Vettel made his F1 debut as a 19 year old in 2007 but had a first race win under his belt by 2008 and was a world champion at the age of 23 in 2010.
His rise has been nothing short of meteoric, and he admitted it is strange to be racing against – and beating – drivers who he once watched from afar.
“It’s very difficult to understand,” he said.
“Put it this way, I was watching TV, I was watching Formula One when Fernando Alonso started to win races and now I’m racing Fernando, he’s been my toughest opponent for the last couple of years.”
Indeed it was Alonso who represented the final barrier to Vettel’s latest championship win, staying within touching distance after other title rivals had fallen by the wayside but ultimately ceding the crown with three races to spare.
Felipe Massa, Alonso’s teammate, said Vettel was a worthy four-time champion and could rightly now take his place among the greats.
“I want to congratulate Sebastian, who deserves everything he has achieved so far,” said Massa.
“I am really happy for him, because he is a great driver and a very nice guy.
“From today, his name will sit alongside the greatest drivers in the history of Formula One, such as Senna, Schumacher and few others.”
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton also believes Vettel now can be judged against the very best.
“A four-times world champion – that’s pretty awesome,” he told reporters.
“He’s now in the legendary books. To do it at such a young age is pretty phenomenal. He’s broken quite a few records.”