x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Everyone's a winner when Sebastian Vettel is in town

India fell in love with the Formula One world champion at its inaugural grand prix.

Around 95,000 fans turned out to see Sebastian Vettel and Co at the Buddh International Circuit.
Around 95,000 fans turned out to see Sebastian Vettel and Co at the Buddh International Circuit.

People like to be associated with winners. For this reason alone, world champions are almost always popular.

Yet in the curious case of Sebastian Vettel, the young German racing driver with the penchant for British humour, his popularity stems not from his talent - undoubtable as it is - but rather because Red Bull Racing's 24-year-old phenomenon has a charisma that is impossible not to marvel at.

Yesterday, Vettel completed a perfect day at Buddh International Circuit by leading from start to finish to convert his pole position into an 11th Formula One race win of the season.

On the final lap, with it all to lose and the instructions coming from his team to simply "bring her home" he did so in style - by putting his foot down and securing the fastest lap.

If such a reckless, risky accomplishment charmed the Indian fans - of which 95,000 had turned out to witness what organisers called "a historic day for India" - the young champion's eloquence in the post-race press conference charmed the local media.

With a prelude that involved a recitation of Neil Armstrong's first words on landing on the moon, Vettel was asked by a local reporter if he had his own first words to be inscribed in the annals of Indian history.

Vettel replied, to gasps of surprise, in Hindi. "Dhanyawaad ... aapki aankei bahut khoobsurat hai," he said, before blushing and explaining to several confused faces that he had said "thank you, your eyes are beautiful".

One Indian television presenter immediately proclaimed Vettel "could be an ambassador for this country," adding "to think he's only 24 ... the kid is fantastic."

Such charm has been mutual this weekend, however, as India embraced Formula One with open arms and wide smiles.

Sachin Tendulkar, the Indian cricketer, waved the chequered flag, while several Bollywood celebrities paraded around the paddock soaking up the atmosphere.

As Vettel said though, the track "is what we judge most" and all 24 drivers had nothing but positive comments for the Hermann Tilke-designed layout.

Jenson Button, the McLaren-Mercedes driver who finished 8.4 seconds behind Vettel in second, said of the track that "in years to come, we are going to think of it as one of the greats" while Fernando Alonso of Ferrari finished a further 15.8 seconds behind, but had no complaints.

"From zero to 10 maybe it's a nine," the Spaniard said. "It's very good. The 10 will be reached very soon."

Vettel's perfect show came as little surprise for he has now led more laps in a Formula One season than any other driver in the six-decade history of the sport. To put the two-time world champion's 700-plus laps into perspective, Button, the 2009 drivers' title winner, has led only 617 in his career.

The German's victory in India also means the possibility of equalling Michael Schumacher's record of most wins in a season - 13- is still alive.

"The whole team is still very hungry and the best thing is we still have two races to go," Vettel said in reference to the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 13 and the Brazilian Grand Prix two weeks later.

Narain Karthikeyan, the sole Indian driver to compete yesterday, finished 17th at his home race and more than 30 seconds ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, his rookie teammate. Yet the 34 year old will almost certainly be dropped by the time the teams arrive at Yas Marina with Vitantonio Liuzzi coming back in for Hispania Racing Team.

"I had a great grand prix and I really enjoyed myself, it was an amazing experience," Karthikeyan said.

"To finish 17th in my home grand prix is the best I could have wished for with the car we have and beating my teammate and one Lotus on the way makes it all the more satisfying."

Vettel, Button and Alonso all dedicated their performances to the lives of Dan Wheldon, the British IndyCar driver, and Marco Simoncelli, the Italian MotoGP rider, who both died earlier this month in racing accidents.

"To be honest, it is a little bit mixed emotions," Vettel said. "On the one hand, I am very happy. It's the first grand prix in India and I'm very proud to be the first winner, but on the other hand we've lost two of our mates."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae


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