Sebastian Vettel has been the dominant force over the past few years. The German driver has wrapped up four consecutive world championships to tie with Alain Prost in all time list of world champions. Prost, meanwhile, was yet to win a Grand Prix when he was 26. That itself is a massive achievement for Vettel who now has won 37 Grand Prix wins and 43 pole positions under his name.
So why is Sebastian Vettel so dominant? Is it simply down to the car and its designer orVettel as a driver has turned a car capable of great results into one that gets exceptional results every time it runs over a piece of tarmac? We analyse why Vettel has been so strong over the past few years by broadly classifying the article into three parts - regulations, car/team and the driver.
The car and Adrian Newey
Everyone will agree that Red Bull has been the fastest car over the past four years. Adrian Newey, Red Bull's technical director is a genius and has won 10 championships as a technical head. Red Bull's technical department is well structured and allows Newey to work the way he wishes to. Add to that, the budget from the energy drink manufacturer helps them to compete and beat the top teams, year in and year out.
Red Bull have been able to make a car in which Vettel, on occasions, has been two seconds faster than rest of the field. However, at most races, that gap is usually between 0.5 to one second. Nevertheless, it is more than enough to dominate a season.
Further, Red Bull and Adrian Newey have been able to exploit the regulations to the utmost level. Their key to success lies in how effectively they use exhaust gases to generate rear downforce. In 2012, they didn't start the season with the best car but improved massively in the second half of the season to seal their third title. The key to this turnaround lied in two major developments - channelizing their exhaust gases between the tyre and the rear wing to generate more rear downforce and copying Mercedes' DDRS and creating a better system out of it.
Vettel has built the team around him
It's important for every driver who intends to be a multiple world champion to build the team around him. After all, your teammate is your biggest enemy as he drives the same car and has a better knowledge of your weakness and strengths than any other driver on the grid.
Being a part of Red Bull's young driver programme, Sebastian Vettel has always been Helmut Marko's man. Through a lot of small steps, he has been able to build the team around him and get preferential treatment from the same. For example in India last month, Vettel helped the team dismantle their garage. While it might look like a small step to a normal fan, it is something big for the team members to whom drivers are their heroes.
All these things have helped Vettel to get preferential advantage over Mark Webber, whose performances arguably have been inconsistent. Yes, Webber has been hit with mechanical issues throughout his career, but those mechanical issues are mainly because Webber is much taller than Vettel, around whom the car is fundamentally designed.
During the 2010 season, Webber was the one who led the championship for much of the season. But it was his silly mistakes during the second half(for instance, Korea) that led to title slipping in Vettel's hand, right at the end of the year. Had Webber been able to make a mark straight away when Red Bull made the big leap in 2009, he might have got an equal status.
Regulations and current era
After a dull 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix, Formula 1 organisers were forced to think how to bring the same sort of excitement present during the refuelling era. And their solution lied in the only thing of a car that makes contact with the circuit - tyres. FIA asked Pirelli, F1's new tyre supplier to make tyres that degrade quickly, forcing teams to make more pit stops. More pit stops meant more exciting races and Pirelli have been fairly successful in this respect.
However, the new fragile tyres turned out to be a disadvantage for aggressive drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber, while some drivers like Sebastian Vettel adapted their driving style to make most of the regulation change. A driver needs to find a way of not overusing the tyres when he takes the corner, when he accelerates out of the corner, etc. Vettel seems to have found an optimal way of managing his tyres, which is evident from his long yet quick first stints, particularly in the last few races.
As far as developments from the Red Bull side are concerned, the Milton Keynes outfit have themselves admitted that the mid-season tyre changes have helped them to change their fortunes and dominate the second half of the season. Again Vettel came out on top of these changes. They have also worked on improving the wheel rims in order to decimate heat and keep the tyres in their working temperature. This can be particularly helpful in races like Bahrain where thermal degradation is a major issue.
Asian Races and the common characteristics between them
Bernie's East drive has meant a considerable amount of races happen in Asia instead of F1's traditional home in Europe. All the new tracks in Asia are designed by German architect Hermann Tilke and he brings some common elements in each circuit he designs. Long straights are usually followed by slow chicanes while the 'esses' are also a common feature of all the new tracks featured on the calendar. All these features suit Red Bull's high downforce characteristics and that is evident from Vettel success in Asia.
Another feature of the new tracks are the slow speed corners. 25% of the corners on the calendar are slow speed or sub 130km/hr corners. Red Bull has put in a lot of work in improving their car over such corners and this has played an integral role in their success.
While Red Bull might have won their first championship in 2010, their actual transformation from a midfield runner to a top gun started in 2009 with the incoming of new technical regulations. The new rules allowed Red Bull to eliminate any advantage teams had in terms of an aerodynamically strong car. This meant that Red Bull they didn't have to catch up with the likes of Ferrari and McLaren. Instead, they all had to start from the same level.
Further, the late 2008 battle between Ferrari and McLaren had put them onto the back foot during the opening part of the the 2009 season, leaving way open for teams like Brawn GP(now Mercedes) and Red Bull to fight for top step on the podium.
He further went on to say "Alonso was another intelligent driver, someone ventured. Yes, true. But Seb is more so.”
People argue that if Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton is sitting in the other Red Bull seat, it will be clear that Sebastian Vettel is only be a good driver and not one of the greats. But that's not true. Mark Webber is also a great driver and a multiple Grand Prix winner, but apart from 2010, he has failed to pose a serious challenge to Sebastian Vettel. At the same time it is true that Vettel will have to someday prove himself against another A-level driver and the question would be whether the young Australian Danniel Ricciardo is that A - Level driver waiting to be unleashed?
As we all know, Sebastian Vettel follows a particular technique in a race that helps him to manage his tyres and stay away from DRS zone of his rivals. He prefers to start the race from pole position, build a five second gap up front and cruise to victory on the conventional strategy.
However, one can't start every race from pole position, nor can one always get a good start. At last month's Japanese Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel made a poor getaway and slipped to third place behind teammate Mark Webber. But instead of fighting it out with the latter and graining his tyres, he maintained a four-five second gap around the Australian. That allowed him to extend his first stint and complete the race on a two stop strategy which ultimately proved out to be the better way to complete 53 laps around the Suzuka circuit.
The fuel corrected chart below show's Vettel's blistering pace in Singapore. The horizontal axis shows the number of laps while the vertical lap times show lap times in seconds. Lower the coloured lines, better the lap time. As depicted in the graph, Vettel's laptimes in blue are way faster than his rivals Lewis Hamilton(black) and Fernando Alonso(red).
Vettel has developed a particular cornering technique that helps him to gain vital advantage over his teammate. The German prefers a car that oversteers on the corners so he is able to use the exhaust gases to slide the car and overcome the oversteer. Mark Webber, in the same car has not been able to make the most of the advantage.
As Mark Hughes explained, in 2010, when teams rarely used exhaust for extra downforce, Webber was in par with Vettel in terms of speed. However, in 2011, when blown diffusers became Red Bull's peak strength, Webber was nowhere close to Vettel. Webber was up and close with Vettel in 2012 after the system was banned before again losing out to Sebastian Vettel in late 2012 and in 2013 when Red Bull found other ways to use the heat coming from exhaust to generate more rear downforce.
Sebastian Vettel along with Lewis Hamilton are arguably the two best drivers when it comes to single lap pace. Vettel knows how to get a near-perfect lap every time he gets on track. Posting a qualifying lap is a craft in its own and even drivers like Fernando Alonso, who majority of the people in the paddock believe is the best driver on the grid, are not so good at it. Vettel, meanwhile, seems to be very good in this field. A good qualifying lap requires bringing your tyres up to the optimum temperature, not making the slightest of mistakes, pushing the track boundaries and trying everything to make up hundredths of a second over the rest. You also need the right balance. Some drivers prefer to have a car which understeers in qualifying.
Vettel's strength in qualifying is clear by 43 pole positions he's had in his five and a half year career. To give a better account of his dominance, Vettel has scored 42 pole positions in the 92 races that he contested at a Red Bull driver.
The desire to win
We know little about Sebastian Vettel's personal life. The German doesn't want the camera to follow him home, nor does he share what he does outside the track. That has inevitably kept us away from Sebastian Vettel, the human. But the Malaysia Multi-21 incident and the subsequent press conference at the following race revealed his desire to win and stay as number 1. He wants to win at any cost.
The qualifying at Abu Dhabi further strengthened our perception on the four time world champion. Having made a mistake on the opening corner and secured only second place in qualifying, Vettel behaved in a very different way as he crossed the finishing line. The frustration was evident from his body language.
“I always want to be first, and to be better than the rest, no matter what I do, even silly stuff. I always want to be one step ahead. Driving an F1 car is nice, it’s a lot of fun and not many people enjoy such a privilege, but the driving on its own isn’t enough…” - Sebastian Vettel.
It is clear that this desire to win and stay as number one is an important driving force for the German.