Outsider for the title in the morning, crowned the youngest champion in the evening. Gary Meenaghan talks to the people behind the momentous day for the German driver.
The day that everything changed for Sebastian Vettel
November 14, 2010. Looking at the sky, it was an another average Abu Dhabi day. A clear and blue firmament with a warm breeze indicating the humidity that would later arrive. The sun, having crept over the horizon, was glinting off the ornate roof of the Yas Hotel. Inside, in a plush bed in a luxurious room, Sebastian Vettel was waking up.
The 23-year-old German would be dishonest if he told you he was feeling cool. He completed a light and easy workout and made the short walk through the extravagant lobby of his hotel, out the glass doors and over the bridge towards the adjacent Yas Marina Circuit. It was around 10am.
Vettel always gets nervous before a grand prix, but this was the final race of the season and this was not normal pre-race anxiety. The German knew the possibility was highly unlikely, yet starting on pole position, he could, mathematically, at 7pm local time, become the youngest world champion in the history of Formula One.
The former Toro Rosso driver was trying not to think about it too much. He and everybody at his Red Bull Racing team knew it would take an unprecedented set of results for such a coronation to occur. If anybody from the Austrian marque was going to win the title, it would be Vettel's teammate, Mark Webber, and yet even he trailed the leader Fernando Alonso by eight points - seven less than Vettel.
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, recalls: "We had spent the week leading up to the race convincing ourselves that the Constructors' Championship was the prestigious one. Because we honestly thought it was a real long shot for Mark to win, let alone Sebastian."
The media interest in Vettel had increased exponentially. Britta Roeske, his public relations manager, had been organising mainly small group sessions since mid-2009, but now there were queues of media requesting time with her client. Vettel, accompanied by his father Norbert, made a conscious decision to isolate himself, while also trying to ensure it did not affect his preparation too much.
The paddock felt very tense; everyone, it seemed, was nervous.
Red Bull held an exceptionally long pre-race strategy meeting in an upstairs room of their pit building.
"All I have to do is keep the position from the start and make sure I win the race," Vettel told Guillaume Rocquelin, his race engineer, during the meeting. "Everything else is out of our hands; all I have to do is win the race. And, in case we are leading, I don't want to know anything that's going on around me, who is in what position and so on."
After the meeting, but at some point before lights-out at 5pm, Helmut Marko, Red Bull's motorsport consultant, echoed Vettel's words to him and reminded the rest of the team. "We have nothing to lose, we will attack and try to win it and the rest we can't influence anyway," he said.
A reported 527 million people tuned in to watch the season finale, which as fans now know produced the result that nobody expected. Vettel took maximum points, but it was Alonso finishing seventh and Webber eighth that saw him take the drivers' title, as well.
Rocquelin had stayed true to his word, though. And so, as his driver passed the chequered flag, he had little idea regarding the order of the rest of the field. When the race engineer finally ran through the positions, Vettel, who had lost radio contact in his left ear, let out a noise that by his own admission sounded "like a little baby".
"Thank you, boys … unbelievable … I love you," was all he managed between deep, emotional, choking breaths.
On exiting his car, Vettel was congratulated by McLaren's podium finishers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. He removed his helmet to reveal a balaclava with the word Monza scribbled on it. He stood atop the podium wearing a red Bridgestone cap. And he sobbed uncontrollably. When the presentation was over, he stood drained as Hamilton and Button sprayed rosewater into his mouth.
Vettel handed the drivers' championship trophy to his father, who later called the day the greatest of his life.
He then met Roeske, who escorted him to the room where he was to be interviewed for TV. No words were exchanged. "It was just one of those moments that nothing needed to be said. So emotional. We hugged and then walked together to the press conference," she recalls.
"I'm a bit speechless," were the first words out of the mouth of the newly crowned champion before he characteristically burst into a rambling monologue. After 30 minutes of questions by the written press, Vettel was taken to a pen where he spoke, at length, to several international television crews.
While he was doing his media commitments, the paddock came alive. Richard Cregan, the chief executive at Yas Marina, remembers the feeling: "You just got that buzz. When you walked down the paddock and you saw all the people. And the party went on into the night: the teams were celebrating the end of the season, Seb was obviously celebrating, we were celebrating the delivery of a grand prix. It was just a great atmosphere."
Only after his TV interviews was Vettel able to return to his team garage, where he discovered the celebrations had started without him.
The heavy-metal group AC/DC's TNT blasted out across the paddock as engineers and mechanics - having changed into black-and-gold celebratory T-shirts - danced in a circle playing air guitar. Vettel was swarmed by photographers, but fought his way through towards Horner, who was the first to embrace him. A hug from Dietrich Mateschitz, the owner of Red Bull, followed. Then Marko - "we fell into each other's arms, said unbelievable, fantastic, great, whatever" - and lastly Adrian Newey, the team's chief technical officer. Newey remembers telling Vettel at that moment of the amazing ride the season had been.
"It had been a stressful year. We had a very quick car that we had underperformed with at the start of the season, so it had been a very frustrating year. To so to come back and win was very special," he recalls.
The next few hours seemed to unravel in high-speed. "Everything went so quick," Roeske said.
The team revved the car's engine triumphantly. Vettel and his crew posed for celebratory photos.
When he returned to his room, a gift was waiting for him from Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial rights owner of F1. It was a silver ruler with the names of all the former world champions, as well as the message: "In case you missed what just happened".
Horner and Newey went for a quiet meal at the Skylite Lounge, before joining Vettel at a party in the basement of the hotel. While some of the team headed for bed at midnight, the star of the show discovered what being a champion truly means: a relentlessly hectic schedule.
Having celebrated throughout the night, he was picked up at 6am to go to the airport and a plane bound for Salzburg. Two events in Austria were followed by a flight back to Abu Dhabi the next day where he tested the 2011 tyres and attended a promotional event for Puma. Afterwards, he flew to his hometown of Heppenheim in rural Germany for a triumphant homecoming.
"It was like, poof, it just happened," says Roeske. "He was kind of pushed from one day to the next."
After things calmed down, Vettel quickly set about replicating his success of 2010 with a dominant second title last season and he is on course again this season to become only the third driver in history to win three championships in succession. Arriving in Abu Dhabi this weekend, he is once again feeling nervous.
He cannot win the championship tomorrow, but victory would see him extend his 13-point lead at the top of the standings. He has not requested the same hotel room that he woke up in on that fateful morning on November 14, 2010.
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