x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sebastian Vettel turns the corner in way only he can

Red Bull Racing's German driver has made an extraordinary effort to come from behind and lead the Formula One drivers' title race.

Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel is the first driver, since Ayrton Senna in 1989, to lead for three consecutive races. Franck Robichon / EPA
Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel is the first driver, since Ayrton Senna in 1989, to lead for three consecutive races. Franck Robichon / EPA

There was a moment in Monza, one of those moments where time slows down and everything gains clarity.

The past suddenly seems irrelevant and the future inevitable. One brief moment in September that encapsulates perfectly everything that has come before and that will come in the weeks ahead.

If the script was written then this monumental Monza moment was the pivotal scene.

Sebastian Vettel, the Red Bull Racing gladiator whose chariot had slowed to a stop during the Italian Grand Prix, was walking glumly up the pit lane with his chin resting against his chest.

In the grandstand opposite, a volcanic sea of red was erupting: Fernando Alonso, having started in 10th, was on course for a podium at Ferrari's home race.

Vettel's hopes of a third successive title appeared as ruined as his car's alternator.

Alonso, who finished third, had extended his lead over his nearest rival to 39 points and shown a determination and sense of entitlement unrivalled by any of his peers. The destination of the championship was decided: it was destined for Maranello.

Only, instead, two weeks later in Singapore, destiny took a different direction.

Vettel, sporting a helmet with twinkling lights arranged in the astrological pattern of his family's zodiac signs, inherited the lead in the 23rd lap of the 14th race of the season and has held it ever since.

Ever since.

Let us write that a different way: Since that fateful lap on September 24, Vettel led every lap of the Singapore Grand Prix, every lap of the Japanese Grand Prix, every lap of the Korean Grand Prix and every lap of the Indian Grand Prix.

Not since Ayrton Senna in 1989 has a driver led for three consecutive races and, even overlooking the 36 remaining laps at Singapore's Marina Bay Circuit, Vettel's total distance of 924km over three races eclipses Senna's record of 853km.

Alonso is often revered for his relentless fight. In Delhi, after another phenomenal performance saw him finish second, the 31 year old tweeted: "If the sword breaks, fight with your hands. If they cut your hands, push the enemy with your shoulders, even with your teeth".

Yet if the Spaniard is the samurai who never surrenders, Vettel is the gunslinger with an additional round of ammunition whenever he needs it.

The 25 year old German has the enviable ability to find an extra gear, to raise his game when it matters most, and – save for a faulty engine – is as consistent as he is competitive.

His maiden title in 2010, when he won three of the final four races of the year to be crowned the sport's youngest champion in Abu Dhabi, is a prime example. And this year is proving eerily similar.

There is, of course, no denying the RB8 he has been provided in recent weeks is of superior performance to that of his rivals, but Vettel is not 13 points clear at the top of the standings solely because of the past four race weekends.

He is on course for a third successive championship because, like in 2010, he showed a champion's consistency at the start of the season when his car was struggling.

Singapore was only Vettel's second victory from 14 races, but results earlier in the season had provided a solid foundation for his timely title push. Second place in Australia, sixth in Barcelona, fourth in Monaco, second in Belgium – all were accomplished drives that saw him collect more points than his car's performance deserved.

Vettel's display in Canada, where his tyres degraded and he slipped down the field only to pit and return late in the contest to pass Alonso for fourth, was a classic example of maximising opportunities. How important that decision might prove to have been in three weeks' time.

For that is where we are now: three days until the start of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend and three weeks until the sport arrives in Brazil for the season-ending race. The end is nigh, but everything remains possible – five drivers can still mathematically win the championship.

There is no doubting, however, who sits in the driving seat. Vettel, triumphant in the first two races at Yas Marina Circuit and only prevented from completing his hat-trick last year by a mysterious first-lap puncture, can surely taste the metallic tang of the Abu Dhabi trophy already. Yet he of all people knows how quickly things can change.

All it takes is one mistake – by driver, by team, by engine supplier, by aggressive French rookie – and a potential 25 point swing is suddenly in the offing.

Consequently, it is caution that should be the name of the game for Red Bull's wunderkind. However, as he has displayed over the past two seasons – most recently in Korea, when he defied his anxious engineer to post his fastest lap on his final lap – the word "prudence" is not in his vocabulary.

Time may have appeared to slow down in Monza, but the boy from Heppenheim will slow for no man. The championship now is his to lose.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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