“Sebastian is a winner,” Bernie Ecclestone confided, in that menacingly deliberate fashion, in his suite overlooking the Bahrain paddock. “I always say, ‘Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser’.”
Mr E, whose statement has been fleshed out eloquently enough by Sebastian Vettel's seven victories in 10 races since Sakhir (now eight in 11 after win in India) ought to know, given that he and the German wunderkind regularly bridge their 56-year age gap with games of backgammon. In those bonding sessions over cards, Formula One's generalissimo has acquired precious insight into the man behind the mask.
Such is the forcefield around Vettel that, even as a quadruple world champion, it can be easier to define him less by what he is than what he is not. For a start he is not, despite two decades of Teutonic domination in F1, Michael Schumacher’s heir presumptive – indeed, he abhors the label ‘baby Schumi’ in his insistence that he has created his own style. He is not, despite an anti-Red Bull school of thought that would lead you to believe this sport’s drama has been killed off by an energy drink giant, a humourless android either. Instead, he boasts a strikingly un-German grasp of the nuances of British comedy, reciting entire passages of Monty Python by heart as his party trick.
Vettel’s is an accomplishment forged primarily from an almost frightening work ethic. The son of a roofmaker from Heppenheim, a modest market town 40 miles north of Frankfurt, he never enjoyed the luxury of family holidays and at karting tracks would even enlist his elder sister to record his lap times. In his astonishing F1 career, burdened since adolescence by breathless predictions that he would become the next true great, he has remained every bit as blinkered. Even during that calmer window of preseason testing in Spain, he invariably does not leave the team garage until after nightfall.
To such natural assiduousness he allies the most ruthless instinct and this, in 2013, is where everything has changed for Vettel. At the 2009 British Grand Prix his victory was greeted with a palpable warmth that left him “quite surprised”. This summer at Silverstone, as his RB9 puttered to a halt in front of the main grandstand, it was his failure that provoked the cheers. The tipping point came in March, in Malaysia, when Vettel disregarded orders with such brazenness in overtaking team-mate Mark Webber for the win that opinions of his character were revised at a stroke. “Mark is too slow,” he muttered over the in-car radio. “Get him out of the way.” Beneath that impish exterior, we suddenly realised, lurked the dark heart of a Machiavelli.
An abiding memory this season is of how Vettel, under ferocious inquisition at the next race in China, simply shrugged that he would not think twice about doing the same again. “Mark did not deserve it,” he said. Webber had been so traumatised by his betrayal at Sepang that he spent most of the intervening three weeks on his surfboard, and yet here was his supposed colleague vowing to traduce him once more.
It does not exactly flatter Vettel that Webber, one of the most fair-dinkum Australians you could wish to meet, regards the younger man with such thinly-disguised loathing. Their antipathy stretches all the way back to 2007, when a shunt off the track by the German at Suzuka prompted Webber to seethe: “Kids, they f--- you up.” Vettel’s psychological hold over his rival has endured to this day, and now that he marches further into history while his elder slides towards semi-retirement with Porsche, the two can hardly bear to be in the same country as one another.
Within the fascinating inter-driver dynamic at Red Bull lies the clearest riposte to the fallacy that Vettel’s four titles are all about the car. Ludicrously, it is still argued that his championships should have an asterisk beside them that reads “with thanks to Adrian Newey”. While Newey might be the undisputed technical genius at Red Bull’s Milton Keynes factory, the triumph is far from his alone. The record of individual wins during 2013 – Vettel 11, Webber nil – tells you as much. Forensic analysis of Vettel’s performances has proved his peerless driving skill, where he routinely pulls out a second-and-a-half lead on the opening lap and commits to the throttle earlier than his nearest challengers would dare. Plus, nobody ought to forget that his maiden win at Monza in 2008 came not in one of Newey’s delicately-tuned machines, but a Toro Rosso .
He is, by his own admission, an “extreme professional”, and with looming regulation changes in 2014 do not expect that attitude to soften any time soon. Vettel derives a pride not solely from his supremacy on Sundays but from his ability, as in India, to crush the competition with the perfect weekend, where he tops the timesheets in all three practice sessions, takes pole, and throws in the fastest lap of the race for good measure. Such is the culture of perfectionism he has helped to foster at Red Bull that this year, he and Newey had a lengthy preseason meeting about how they could improve upon their Friday long runs.
As a driver Vettel directs his cars, which he affectionately names anything from ‘Luscious Liz’ to ‘Kinky Kylie’ – in honour, he assures, of their aesthetic beauty – as precisely as a surgeon’s scalpel. It follows, then, that his anonymity off the track is just as carefully cultivated. Scorning any playboy excesses in Monte Carlo, he has made his home with long-time girlfriend Hanna Prater in the tiny Swiss village of Walchwil, and you are as likely to see him subscribing to Twitter as necking a foaming stein of lager. Where Lewis Hamilton burnishes his global image through a management company, Vettel uses only everpresent confidante Britta Roeske to conduct his public relations. Such understatement, in his latest hour of glory, defines his character. But it masks a good deal of devilment and an even greater dose of consummate brilliance.