x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Formula One: No race like home that defies Sebastian Vettel

Dominant three-time champion is still looking for first win at the German GP, writes Graham Caygill.

Plenty of home crowd support has not helped Sebastian Vettel earn that first German GP title.
Plenty of home crowd support has not helped Sebastian Vettel earn that first German GP title.

Wednesday was a happy day in the Sebastian Vettel household as the man from Heppenheim celebrated the milestone of turning 26.

The Red Bull Racing driver packed a healthy amount into his first 25 years, namely three Formula One drivers' world titles, 29 grand prix wins and 39 pole positions.

He will spend the fourth day of his 26th year, today, trying to do something he never did in his first quarter century, namely winning the German Grand Prix.

In five previous attempts at the race, which is currently shared on an alternate basis by the Nurburgring and Hockenheim, the German has never topped the podium at his home event, something of a surprise given that he has arguably had the fastest car in the field at the past four races.

He is well primed to break his duck on Sunday, starting from second place, beaten only by Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes GP during Saturday's qualifying session.

The 1992 world champion Nigel Mansell famously said that racing in front of his home fans in Britain was worth a second a lap to him, something that was backed up by him winning in front of British crowds five times between 1985 and 1992.

But this adage does not appear to have carried weight with Vettel.

Since 2009 he has been a genuine contender for victory going into each race weekend only for him to come up short on the Sunday, with his dominance having to be seen elsewhere across the globe by German fans.

Before the race weekend, Vettel had said of his winless efforts in Germany: "I have always been close but not good enough to win yet - but I hope I have a little bit of time left to try again."

Some of the past disappointments were due to extenuating circumstances.

Wet conditions in qualifying in 2009 and last year put him further back on the grid then would have been expected in the dry and he was unable to make up track position on the Sunday.

At Hockenheim last year he also was undone by a perfect performance from Fernando Alonso.

The Ferrari driver was not as quick as the Red Bull, but used his car's Kers [Kinetic energy recovery system] well to ensure Vettel could never get close enough to think about trying an overtake.

Interestingly, the normally calm Vettel was rattled, moaning on his radio when Hamilton unlapped himself and then on the last lap driving deliberately wide, and off the circuit, to pass Jenson Button to take second.

The stewards unsurprisingly penalised Vettel for that with a time penalty and he ended up fifth instead of second, a mistake that would have been one to regret had he missed out on the title by five points that year.

The German is not prone to wide-eyed moments like that, which could be interpreted as a glimpse at the desperate desire he has to win the race.

2011 was perhaps the oddest one, however. This was the season where Vettel demolished the field, winning 11 times and claiming a record 15 pole positions.

Yet, performance wise, his worst display of the season came at the Nurburgring.

It was the only time in 2011 he did not qualify on the front row and in the race he finished fourth following a spin, the only time in the 19-race season he would finish a race and not be at least on the podium.

This year is looking more encouraging though. He was more than half-a-second faster than anyone else in final practice Saturday, and blamed a change in weather conditions for falling behind Hamilton when it came to deciding the grid positions.

"It was quite windy, we had wind from the back and the track was a bit warmer," he said. "The car wasn't bad, it wasn't awful through first sector, but the time didn't come. I tried to do the best I could in the next two sectors but it was not enough."

"We were much closer [to Mercedes-GP] than we were in Silverstone," he said. "We made some progress and we have confidence for tomorrow."

Despite the pressure on him, Vettel said he still relished the race weekend in Germany.

"It's great to come back and especially the last couple of years with more and more people supporting the team, supporting myself," he said.

As he alluded, there is more attention and focus on him from the home media and fans then ever before, and it is not just because of his increasing array of world titles.

This is the first time since becoming champion that he is racing without Michael Schumacher competing. The seven-time world champion hung up his driving gloves for a second time at the end of last season, after his three-year return to the sport with Mercedes proved unsuccessful.

Schumacher knew how to shine in front of his compatriots, with nine of his 91 career wins coming on home soil.

Though the crowds at the Nurburgring today will also be cheering on Nico Rosberg, Adrian Sutil and Nico Hulkenberg, it is Vettel they will expect to deliver victory to send them home happy.

The heat is on, but at least Vettel is well placed to try to meet those expectations.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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