x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Chasing F1 pack can gain traction on Vettel

Vettel’s dominance has divided opinions on 2013 but rule changes could level the playing field, says Graham Caygill.

Sebastian Vettel has led the way in his Red Bull Racing car for most of the 2013 season, with Ferrari and Mercedes-GP left in his wake. Sebastiao Moreira / EPA
Sebastian Vettel has led the way in his Red Bull Racing car for most of the 2013 season, with Ferrari and Mercedes-GP left in his wake. Sebastiao Moreira / EPA

When the Formula One grid lines up for the opening race of the 2014 season in March in Australia, almost eight months will have passed since anyone other than Sebastian Vettel stood on the top step of the podium after a race.

Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix was an enjoyable affair, without ever degenerating into a thriller as Vettel once again dominated at the front to match Alberto Ascari’s record for most successive wins in F1 at nine.

All in all, it was a good season for F1 in terms of racing, with good battles up and down the grid. The problem was that too few of those fights were at the front.

In tennis, a grand slam’s success is usually judged by the quality of the final, just as the excitement of the final 18 holes of a golf major is assessed by the fight at the front, not by watching players finishing in sixth place.

F1 has been a hard sell this year in that regard.

There have been good races, but it is difficult to claim to a non-F1 enthusiast that the wheel-to-wheel scrap for eighth was great television when Vettel had won, unchallenged, again.

Vettel won 13 times this year as he claimed his fourth successive drivers’ title, matching his German compatriot Michael Schumacher’s haul from 2004.

Vettel and Red Bull deserve their success. They have done the best job. In years to come, the magnitude of their achievements will become only more impressive.

But, in all honesty, it has not been much fun watching history being rewritten. That is the problem with domination. It does not generally make for great viewing when it is so one-sided, not just in F1, but in any sport.

In his record-breaking run, I can only count two occasions when Vettel was genuinely challenged for victory.

In Japan, where he ran in third for much of the race, he drove superbly on ageing tyres to make a two-stop pit strategy work.

Then in India, he charged through the field after pitting early to get rid of fragile, soft tyres, making a risky strategy work to lead comfortably by mid-distance.

There is nothing wrong with seeing the same guy win, but what the F1 public wanted were more occasions of Vettel being pushed, preferably hard.

The fact it did not happen this year is not Vettel or Red Bull’s fault. The rest of the field did not fully do their job. End of story.

This is not the first time F1 has endured domination on the level seen by Vettel this year.

He won 11 times in taking his second title in 2011, while Schumacher claimed 13 races in 2004 and 11 in 2002.

Interestingly, on all three of those occasions, the following season was much more competitive, because the opposition responded each time. That is exactly what F1 needs in 2014. Certainly, the regulation changes promise a shake-up in proceedings. Teams and engine manufacturers have hyped the expected effect of the move to 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 engines from 2013’s 2.4-litre V8s.

It is expected to be an even bigger technical challenge, with fuel management now among the tasks facing the drivers.

While this year and 2011 were championships won by Vettel in one-sided fashion, 2010 and 2012 were real slogs and the titles were only achieved at the final round.

The 2012 season is seen as a genuine classic, with Vettel and Fernando Alonso fighting for the title until the final lap.

That season is lauded more greatly than this year, despite the fact that fans saw history made in 2013 and watched a driver at the peak of his powers, making full use of the equipment given to him, to demolish the opposition.

What F1, and to an extent Vettel, needs is a close fight next season.

Vettel could match Schumacher for most successive world titles in a row in 2014, but if he wins again in similar manner, the feat might be brushed off and characterised as a man making full use of the best car.

Vettel is an excellent driver. You do not win a race in a Toro Rosso or make someone as good as Mark Webber look mediocre in the same Red Bull machinery for the past four seasons without being pretty slick.

But he needs a challenge, and a good one at that, if he is to gain the public’s full respect.

Yet that is something he cannot control.

The regulation changes give Ferrari, Mercedes-GP, McLaren and Lotus a clean slate and a chance to raise their game and return to the winner’s circle, and they must take advantage. For everyone’s sake.