x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Dominant Vettel looks every bit a champion in winning Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

'Naughty boy' wins over fans at Yas Marina Circuit with his humility and good humour.

Sebastian Vettel celebrates with his Red Bull Racing crew after winning the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday. Ali Haider / EPA
Sebastian Vettel celebrates with his Red Bull Racing crew after winning the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday. Ali Haider / EPA

ABU DHABI // Imperious and impish, Sebastian Vettel proved himself so dominant at Sunday’s Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that, even after 55 laps, he finished having faced less traffic than a driver who failed to make it past the first corner.

In typically defiant celebration, the loveable rogue pleased the sell-out crowd with a series of smoking, on-track doughnuts.

Kimi Raikkonen, last year’s winner, had been forced to retire after crashing at the first turn of the first lap. Moments later, the Finnish driver was seen climbing into his rental car, where he surely hit the UAE’s notorious congestion as he headed for the solace of his hotel.

Vettel, in contrast, sailed off into the sunset on a solo voyage at Yas Marina Circuit without issue, passing Red Bull Racing teammate and pole-sitter Mark Webber immediately and retaining the lead for every subsequent circumnavigation of the 5.55-kilometre track.

After six laps, his lead was 5.5 seconds. After seven laps, his lead was 6.4s. After eight laps, his lead was 7 seconds. After nine laps, his lead was 8.2. After crossing the line, the stop-clock ran for another 30 seconds before another driver, Webber, secured second place. Nico Rosberg of Mercedes-GP was next, a further 2.8s behind.

Vettel’s victory was his seventh in succession, equalling the modern-day record set by German compatriot Michael Schumacher in 2004.

Emotional on a podium that he has stood atop three times in five years, Vettel struggled to coherently explain his feelings in front of a vocal crowd that included his mother and father.

When later informed that a 37th career triumph means he is now only four wins from equalling the late Ayrton Senna’s career total, he replied solemnly: “Please stop mentioning these kind of things because it means I remember what they mean”.

In a season in which the four-time champion won 11 races, never has he appeared as commanding as he did last night in Abu Dhabi.

Under the floodlights, he was never under pressure. Vettel also won 11 races in 2011 en route to his second world title. At the time, he remarked that it was a unique achievement that happens only once in a lifetime.

Last night, with the sky dark, the air humid and a thunderous performance complete, he conceded lightning had struck twice.

“I remember when I was a small kid watching Formula One and Michael was with Ferrari and dominating,” said Vettel, 26. “If you look back, you feel like he won every second race, so managing to equal what he did is something very special.

“After 2011, a special year, we said it would be very difficult to repeat a season like that and maybe it happens only once in a lifetime. Now, we can probably say it has happened twice.”

Victories at the remaining races in the United States and Brazil would see Vettel not only emulate Alberto Ascari’s record of nine consecutive wins, set across the 1952 and 1953 seasons, but would also see him equal Schumacher’s 2004 record of 13 wins in one season.

“The numbers are not that important to me, but equally they make me very proud,” Vettel said. “Schumacher and Ascari are some of the most-special drivers in the world of Formula One – I don’t think I’m old enough to really appreciate yet.”

Webber, 37, is 11 years older than Vettel, and despite the frosty relationship between the two teammates, the Australian driver had nothing but praise.

“He was on another category out in front,” Webber said. “He’s in a sweet spot, for sure. Obviously, I’ve got a few grey hairs now – I’m doing my best, but he’s driving well.”

Not only is Vettel driving well, he is also turning fans frowns upside down with his post-race wheelspins. Booed for much of the latter half of an increasingly predictable season, he generated cheers in India when he pulled doughnuts after his victory near Delhi.

The sport’s governing body fined him £21,000 (Dh122,830), yet he rebelled once again to spin repeatedly on the Yas track in front of a packed grandstand.

“You are a naughty boy,” remarked Martin Brundle, the former F1 driver, as he presented Vettel to the crowd.

The mischievous German simply grinned – and refused to rule out spinning more doughnuts in the future.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae