x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Newsmaker: Sebastian Vettel's Jekyll and Hyde transformation

With video: How the F1 world champion has served notice of his dominance, on and off the track.

Illustration by Kagan Mcleod
Illustration by Kagan Mcleod

"The chequered flag is really just a stupid, wooden stick and a piece of cloth. It's a small thing but it means so much when you cross the line."

Only on Sunday did we realise quite how much the previous words from the lips of Sebastian Vettel meant as he defied team orders and disregarded teammate Mark Webber to take victory at the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Gone was the happy-go-lucky 25-year-old with the devilish sense of humour. Instead, he was replaced by a baby-faced assassin determined to win at any cost. It was a Jekyll and Hyde transformation of epic proportions that left the not easily shockable Formula 1 circus open-mouthed and wide-eyed.

His past nickname of "baby Schumi" in the German media had never been so apt as he surged to a hat trick of world titles while his close friend Michael Schumacher's power waned.

Schumacher's own remarkable record in the sport of seven world titles and 91 race wins will always be overshadowed by a ruthlessness that repeatedly crossed the line of sporting conduct.

Such a cloud has not hung over Vettel until now. His moment of abject desire to triumph whatever the consequences was quintessentially Schumacher-esque although Schumacher was not ever known for breaking team orders.

Vettel was told to turn down his engine to conserve it and not to pass Webber, who was leading, but defied both orders. Should we be shocked by Vettel's antics? Probably not. It was this sort of attitude that made Schumacher and the late Ayrton Senna such formidable racing drivers.

With Vettel, you sense it was there all along, he just had a good way of disguising it from the public at large. The contrition afterwards - "I'm not entirely happy, I think I did a big mistake today" - was somewhat insincere and anyway it was too little, too late. The damage had long since been done.

Quite what it does to his reputation is another matter. He is massively popular with his team of mechanics - he regularly likes to take them out for pizza en masse - but, like many manufacturers, Red Bull is first and foremost a team and Vettel broke that unwritten rule.

Pinpointing where his will to win comes from is not straightforward. He grew up in a happy middle-class home in the town of Heppenheim as the son of a carpenter who excelled at making roofs.

In interviews, Vettel talks of having a trio of idols - "the three Michaels": Jackson, Jordan and Schumacher. Vettel likes to joke he lacked the voice for Jackson or the height for Jordan so instead opted to go down the Schumacher route.

From the moment he took up karting at the age of eight, he was obviously quick. It was in 1999 - at the age of 11 - that he first encountered the Red Bull motorsport consultant Helmut Marko, who then headed the team's driver academy.

All manner of different drivers have come and gone through the programme with varying results - Jaime Alguersuari, Sébastien Buemi and Daniel Ricciardo to name but a few - but Vettel has been the golden boy of Marko's programme. As a result, Marko, the eyes and ears of team owner Dietrich Mateschitz over the F1 programme, has done everything in his power to push his man forward.

This led to Webber's very clear barb in his post-Sepang comments: "Seb will get protected, he always does", an insight into the team politics that have propelled Vettel to the front of the grid.

Vettel was first spotted by Gerhard Noack, who guided the early career of Schumacher. He then followed the traditional route to F1 via Formula BMW, Formula 3 Euroseries and Formula Renault. Lewis Hamilton trounced him in F3 in 2005 and he was edged out by his then teammate Paul di Resta in the subsequent season.

By then, he was already on BMW's books and became their test and reserve driver for 2007, finally getting his chance following a serious crash involving Robert Kubica at the Canadian Grand Prix. He finished eighth and, at 19 years and 349 days, became the youngest driver in F1 history to win a championship point.

This ensured Red Bull was ready to take a chance on him. They put him on their "B" team - Toro Rosso - for the rest of 2007 and he looked on course for a famous podium in Japan, only to crash with Webber, leading to the Aussie's famous remark of "it's kids isn't it... you do a good job and they f*** it all up".

But Vettel's occasional pace was carefully honed at Toro Rosso and was rewarded with the team's one and only F1 win at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix. Here, he replaced Fernando Alonso as F1's youngest ever race winner by nearly a year. He had only just turned 21.

It was his coolness under pressure that persuaded Red Bull to take a gamble. Mateschitz also noted his protege's technical nous, and Vettel has claimed he would have been an F1 engineer if not actually behind the wheel.

Meanwhile, the then Toro Rosso technical director Giorgio Ascanelli cited a mid-season shift during which Vettel went from merely being quick to being able to unlock extreme speed more consistently.

So Vettel stepped up to the Red Bull main team - their only academy driver to do so to date - and three races later, their first win followed at the Chinese Grand Prix. Three more ensued as he finished second behind Jenson Button overall, a position that would shape the next chapter of his career. As he told me in an interview before the start of the 2010 season: "Being second is the worst place to be in the world championship. I don't want to finish there again."

In 2010, he broke the record books once more with the most remarkable and unlikely of title wins. He looked set to be an also-ran despite being in contention for the title race at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. As his rivals fell away with failed pitstop strategies, he kept his cool to become the youngest world champion.

But it was an, at times, ugly scene, the steely determination twice rearing its head. In Turkey, he attempted a kamikaze overtaking move on Webber that caused a clash of Red Bulls, with Vettel retiring and remonstrating as if to suggest Webber was mad and at fault. And relations were further frayed at the British Grand Prix in a row over a new front wing that Vettel was given and Webber was not.

Those relations seem to have improved since then with Webber, publicly at least, happy to play second fiddle.

The title win silenced many critics, including McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh, who just six races earlier had branded Vettel "stupid" for taking out Jenson Button at the Belgian Grand Prix.

But in 2011, his dominance was akin to Schumacher in his pomp. Still the doubters prevailed, with many suggesting he was no good at overtaking. He refuted this theory with arguably his coolest drive at the final race of 2012 - the Brazilian Grand Prix - where he was bumped to the back of the grid but catapulted his way through the field to pick up the points required for a third straight championship.

In doing so, he joined Juan Manuel Fangio and Schumacher as the only drivers to pick up three F1 titles in a row. In both instances, they went on to make it four in a row. Vettel certainly looks determined to do the same.

The Vettel from off the track is far removed from the driver we saw in Malaysia. He shuns the limelight and has a long-term girlfriend, Hanna Prater, who works in the fashion industry and rarely attends race weekends.

The pair live in a flat in Switzerland and Vettel says he prefers to drive around in a VW bus, which he bought second-hand in 2007 for £25,000 (Dh140,000).

He relishes going about his business unnoticed. He even tells a story when the infamous British paparazzi swept past him in 2011 in favour of F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone. He recalls: "I came out and the guy asked me to get out of the way because Bernie was coming."

A German who is an Anglophile, he loves cooked English breakfasts and relishes British comedy and Top Gear. Vettel is also a massive Beatles fan and once spent £2,500 (Dh14,000) on a signed Beatles record, one of 600 vinyl records he reportedly owns.

Such a happy-go-lucky character, who each season names his F1 car - this year's is Hungry Heidi - is not quite in keeping with the events of lap 46 in Malaysia and the earlier shout down the team radio of "Mark is too slow, get him out of the way".

Having gone into the realms of driver darkness with what he did and having unleashed the red-eyed monster from the cockpit, the seal is in some ways broken. It will make it easier to go to the dark side once more.

But is he really so villainous? He may currently be persona non grata in F1 to some for what he did but he will continue undiminished.

weekend@thenational.ae