Thursday 1 December at 22:05 :
The 2011 season is over and yes, it did bring about some surprises. Some were surprised that Button beat Hamilton in a straight fight, some were surprised that Bruno Senna got another drive, Renault were surprised that Senna was slower than Heidfeld (though really, they shouldn’t have been) and OneStopStrategy was certainly surprised whenever Massa and Hamilton didn’t crash in any particular race.
What should not have been a surprise to anyone was Vettel’s dominance. There were those that were betting on a Webber comeback, those that were betting on a McLaren or Ferrari comeback and indeed those who still believed that the Brawn/Schumacher combo would once again rise to the occasion. We’ll grant you the last school of thought was thin on the ground but they were there. Perhaps they will have learnt after this season but some levels of blind faith have proven incurable in the past.
Back to the man of the hour though. He may not hail from a family of shoe makers but once again he is German. After the last chequered flag of the 2010 season waived furiously, narrowly deciding the championship, 2011 could really have only one possible outcome. In 2010 the RBR had a clear advantage and the fact is only two drivers were in it: Webber and Vettel. While Webber had some unlucky races, the saying goes that one makes one’s own luck and Vettel did the polar opposite. Poor starts, numerous accidents (especially as pressure mounted) and even some pretty unlikely altercations with his team-mate showed up the fairly serious chinks in the armour of what Vettel essentially was: A lightning fast kid. An immature youngster who was terrible at handling pressure, frequently snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and who did everything in his power to reinforce the perception that he could really only complete a race if he led the whole thing.
He took the championship though, and that was a more ominous sign than Michael Schumacher qualifying his Jordan 7th on the grid in his first race. When last did a driver make so many mistakes, retire so often, crash so often, and go on to take the championship? If you can remember far back enough to come up with an answer you are older than I am, and I’m getting on in years. Yes, he is the youngest F1 world champion, the youngest double world champion, the first RBR pole-sitter and indeed the first RBR race-winner but none of these will remain as his most unique achievement. A championship, in any sensible year, takes not only pace but a persistence, a relentless attack and massive character. The fact that Vettel had the sheer pace to win a championship despite the lack of all of these spoke volumes for his speed. The fact he could do so against a strong driver in the same machinery? Scary.
For Ze German with Ze Odd Face was really only going to mature. A driver with that kind of speed and a championship already under his belt must be an ominous threat. And a threat he was. 2011 saw a very different Vettel. The childlike exuberance remained, no doubt contributing to that raw pace that had always stood him in good stead. The immaturity, however, was gone. In 2011 Vettel drove like a veteran. He preserved his tyres, he put in fast stints when he needed to, bided his time behind slower cars and only retired once, due to a tyre failure. All this while losing none of the pace. Vettel’s team-mate never stood a chance, let alone the hapless skippers in marginally slower machinery.
There is an even bigger rub though. Few would argue that Newey’s RBR was the fastest car out there this year but by what margin? The evidence is compelling: Webber has never been slow and he missed out on 2nd in the championship by quite a margin. Hell, were it not for some rather improbable gearbox issues for Vettel in the last race, he would have missed out on third! The fastest drivers in both the second and third fastest cars were right in it against Vettel’s team mate and, while both Button and Alonso are formidable drivers, it speaks volumes for the actual size of the pace gap between the RBR and its closest competition (as opposed to the pace gap between Vettel and his nearest competition).
Vettel is, then, probably even faster than 2011 made him seem. Alonso though, is still considered the most complete driver in F1: He has lightning pace yet he can also develop and set up a car. It’s actually tough to say what skills Vettel have in the development arena but if he learns what Alonso knows already he would put Schumacher in his heyday to shame. As it is Alonso’s skills in the garage didn’t do much for Ferrari’s fight against Newey’s genius.
Are we headed for another era of dominance then? Another year on year of a German taking the sport of Formula One by the scruff of its neck and make it his pet, waging blitzkrieg upon blitzkrieg on all who stand his path? No. The Schumacher era of dominance was fed by too many contributing aspects, too many aligned planets: A driver that had pace but was also a brilliant mechanic and car developer, combined with a team 100% behind him, powered by Rory Byrne and guided by Ross Brawn – a designer and strategist who could both be described as legends. It was also, however, driven by money. In an era when testing was limited only by budget and budget was limited only by the money any given team could race, this was instrumental.
For RBR the driver with the pace is theirs, the legendary designer is committed and they finally seem to be getting that grip on strategy that was so obviously missing in 2010. And after the last two seasons the money is very much there. They are not, however, allowed to spend all of it and they may test no more than HRT or Virgin Racing. The radical rule changes coming in 2013 may well favour whatever team has the creative Adrian Newey on their side but the stars no longer align to allow one team such a huge advantage for that long, no matter their driver line-up.
On a side note, let’s settle the ongoing cold war between David Coulthard and Martin Brundle over the pronunciation of the poor lad’s name – a debate that had even led to Brundle, in response to one of Coulthard’s “Vuht-ahl” efforts, tourettes’ing “Kettle! Vettle.” Gents, he is neither Scottish nor English, much as you wish that guy at the front to be. No, he is German and the pronunciation can best be written as “Fettle” when employing The Queen’s English. It’s been a few seasons. Learn.
Edu de Jager
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