• The world champion’s advantages go beyond the Red Bull
• Paddock pundits pinpoint what makes the German stand out
The Formula One season is not yet a quarter over – hardly beyond its chrysalis stage – but some of its most respected voices have hailed Sebastian Vettel as not only this year’s champion-elect but one of the greatest drivers the old ear-bashing sport has ever seen.
On the eve of Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix the clear message is there does not have to be a Spanish Grand Prix or any other race this season.
We already know the truth. And it comes in the speed-blurred colours of Red Bull. It is that Vettel, the world champion and winner of three out of four of this year’s races, is simply unstoppable and will be duly anointed before the summer is out. His speed is palpable. But it is his driving brain that most impresses Mercedes’ team principal, Ross Brawn. “Obviously he’s very quick. But what is not always talked about is that he is also very intelligent,” he says.
“Put those two things together and you have a very strong driver. The intelligence is obvious with the tyres. He thinks things through. He makes the odd mistake but less than the others.
“Winning a championship always gives you confidence. And as your confidence grows you make fewer mistakes.”
At least Brawn says it is not all over yet. “It’s too early in the championship to say he can’t be stopped,” he said. “For sure Ferrari, McLaren and hopefully ourselves are going to start closing the gap on Red Bull soon.”
Both Mark Webber – who topped Friday’s two practice sessions – and Lewis Hamilton will draw some comfort from that. But for Virgin’s team principal, John Booth, it is all over before the end of May. “Can Vettel be stopped? In a word, no. He could run away with it. He’s a brilliant driver in the best car out there, so I think he’s headed for another title.”
Mike Gascoyne, the chief technical officer at Team Lotus, is of the same opinion. “If I had any money [sic], I wouldn’t be betting on anyone else,” he said.
There is an anti-Vettel sentiment in Britain. After all the German ended the world championship reign of Jenson Button when he won last year’s title. And he is the man who stands in the way of Hamilton becoming a multiple champion.
For Gascoyne it is the time Vettel has that makes him stand out in the strongest paddock most people can remember.
“It was very clear to me, early on, that Sebastian could cope. Fernando Alonso was exactly the same, and Michael Schumacher. It’s not all about driving quickly. So many guys can drive quickly but they can’t do all the other things.
“They can’t work with the engineers, they can’t think about what’s going on when they’re in the cockpit because they’re too busy driving.
“The really good ones, the great ones, have time. They have the capacity to think of other things while they’re driving flat out. That’s what makes the champions.”
Gascoyne added: “I think Seb will win three or four world championships. He was always going to be up there alongside Alonso and Schumacher. Lewis, possibly, too – but you have to be in the right car.
“This season Sebastian is absolutely on top of his game. Life becomes a lot easier when you’ve won your first title. You look at Mark [Webber], who could easily have won the championship last year and he is now nowhere.”
According to Button, himself something of a tyre preservationist, it is Vettel’s approach to Pirelli’s new rubber which has carried him clear of his team-mate.
“Last year, and the year before, Seb was pretty hard on tyres, especially the rears on soft tyres. But this year, for some reason, he is really good on tyres, even compared to Mark.”
Alonso says it is up to him and the other drivers to close the gap. “Seb is ahead thanks to his fantastic driving in these first four races. There have been no mistakes, he’s very quick and he deserved all those points. So it’s up to us now to recover this gap, to have more competitive cars, better cars than Red Bull.”
But that is the essential problem facing the other 11 teams in the Formula One paddock. There is nothing fundamentally new about the 2011 Red Bull. It is a car that evolved from last year’s model, designed by Adrian Newey.
But that is enough. And the total dominance of the car has been disguised by the changes made to racing this year; if the cars were still being shod by Bridgestone Red Bull would have won every race, and done so by a large margin.
Even as is stands now Vettel has only to carve out a lead of three or four seconds – enough time, that is, to follow another car into the pits and still emerge in front – for him to win on the new, highly degradable tyres.
There is another reason why Red Bull are even stronger this year than last. They have eliminated the silly mistakes – both technical and strategic – that they made last year, when they should have wrapped up both titles well before the end. And that is what is in prospect this season.