So much for Sebastian Vettel letting up after securing his second straight Drivers championship. Seven days after his title clinching 3rd place finish at Suzuka, Sebastian Vettel kept his foot firmly on the accelerator, adding yet another accolade to his sparkling season resume with a dominant win at the Korean Grand Prix. Despite Jenson Button’s best effort to steal the spotlight with his third win of the season at Suzuka and teammate Lewis Hamilton’s pole position at Korea, which ended Red Bull’s streak at 16, the focus of the F1 universe for the past two weeks has rightfully been on Vettel.
If you asked a knowledgeable F1 fan to name the top three drivers on the grid, it’s likely that Vettel and Hamilton would be on their list. Before Vettel became the youngest world champion last year, it was Hamilton who owned the distinction. While the two have had slightly different career arcs, they are essentially at the same stage in their F1 careers: both are past(or current) world champions, both are firmly cemented at top tier teams, and at 26 and 24 years of age for Hamilton and Vettel respectively, they have yet to enter their prime.
In his rookie season back in 2007, Hamilton nearly pulled off the improbable, coming a point within winning the Drivers championship, and quite honestly should have won the title if not for a few ill fated driving errors and his highly volatile and ultimately destructive relationship with teammate and at the time reigning double world champion Fernando Alonso. Alonso subsequently left McLaren after just one season, which left Hamilton free to assume #1 status within McLaren, who were understandably quite ecstatic to see their prized protege deliver immediate dividends on a decade’s worth of support and tutelage. Hamilton followed up his scintillating inaugural season with a more consistent performance in 2008, and in one of the most dramatic finishes in an F1 season, won his first Drivers championship at final race of the season(and literally final corner) at the Brazilian Grand Prix. At the time it seemed all but certain that Hamilton would eventually displace Alonso as the youngest double world champion, but the only true certainty in F1 is if you stop moving forward, you’ll be left behind.
It was also in 2008 that Vettel announced his arrival as a force on the grid when he secured the first pole position and race win of his young career at Monza. While his race result came as a surprise, it was clear that his sheer talent and speed was more than hype, and the higher ups at Red Bull promptly promoted Vettel from Toro Rosso to the senior Red Bull team at the end of the season. While 2009 was largely dominated in the first half by Jenson Button and Brawn GP, Vettel and the Red Bull RB5 was the faster combination in the second half of the season, foreshadowing their future success. 2010 was a season of peaks and valleys for Vettel, but ultimately he was the star of the final act, securing the DC with a pole position/win double at a yawner in Abu Dhabi. Fast forward to today, and 2011 has been the Vettel show, with everyone else playing a supporting role.
While Vettel largely robbed the 2011 season DC race of any drama, his dominance has made this season one for the ages. His 10 race wins and 12 positions are still within striking distance of Michael Schumacher and Nigel Mansell’s records respectively of 13 wins and 14 pole positions. But what really distinguishes Vettel’s season as one of the greatest ever has been his consistency. With no retirements and race finishes lower than 4th place, Vettel unofficially is on pace for the greatest season ever in terms of average race results.
In contrast, British racing hero(and hoon) Hamilton’s season has been one characterized mostly by moments of inconsistency and impatience. Racing incidents at Malaysia, Monaco, Canada, Hungary, Belgium, Singapore, and Japan all negatively affected his race outcomes, and it’s likely that for the first time in his career he will be outscored by his teammate in the DC. Hamilton went so far as to admit his career path has “driven off a cliff.”
One of the neverending points of debate in F1 is who is the fastest driver of their era. The reason for this phenomenon is the inherent nature of F1 competition: the unique design of a car by a manufacturer. Unlike other forms of motorsport, every F1 car is different, from manufacturer to manufacturer, and season to season. An old adage in F1 is a driver’s primary competitor is his teammate, because they are the only ones with identical equipment. So while the Vettel/RB7 combination has been undisputably faster than the Hamilton/MP4-26 pairing, it’s not an apples to apples comparison. F1 fans were painfully teased earlier this season with a potential Vettel/Hamilton union after Hamilton met with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, but it’s unlikely that the two will be teammates in the foreseeable future.
Somewhat prematurely looking forward to 2012, it’s highly probable that next year’s world champion will be a repeat champion, with Vettel, Hamilton, Button, and Alonso as the candidates. Alonso and Ferrari have written off 2011, having already declared they are focusing on developing their car for 2012. Alonso as the previous youngest double world champion will be keen on challenging Vettel for the title of youngest triple world champion, and despite his comprehensive skill and speed, el Matador faces an uphill battle to reel in Vettel’s snarling Red Bull. Button took a step forward this season with his pace and consistency, and his confidence seems to be greater than ever. But at 30 and 31, Alonso and Button are in the twilight of their careers, and they now face a different race in the one against Father Time.
Vettel and Hamilton are the present and future of F1, and their budding rivalry could end up being the greatest ever. For one driver this season has been the best of times, for the other the worst of times. In an age of wisdom and foolishness, in a season of light and darkness, both drivers now look forward to the future, as will always F1.