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European Grand Prix 2011

Rankings game is pointless – Sebastian Vettel is simply very good
Just how good is Sebastian Vettel? Does he deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the all-time greats or is he simply fortunate to have a great car? Is he a great racer or simply a great driver?


Following his victory in Valencia on Sunday, his sixth in eight races this year, all these questions and more have been pondered on television, in newspapers and online.

Seb has been compared with everyone from Alberto Ascari to Michael Schumacher to Lewis Hamilton.

As always, opinion is divided. There are those who are convinced that if you put Lewis in a Red Bull alongside Seb he would wipe the floor with him. Others suggest that Seb is now the complete driver; more savvy and calm than Hamilton.

What do I think? I find these driver comparisons — particularly across generations — fatuous. The only way to compare two drivers is to put them in the same car (and even then no two cars are identical given human input and mechanical tolerances).

What I do know is that Seb currently has the measure of his team-mate Mark Webber and is driving supremely well. We know that Mark is a very fast driver — he went within a whisker of winning the championship last year – so I think we can safely say that Seb has stepped up a level.

Sure, he has the best car. And I have often been quoted as saying that Formula One is more about the car than the driver, at least in the first instance. But at the same time it is what you do with the car that counts.

Seb is making very few errors. He made one on the final lap in Canada a few weeks ago, surrendering the win to Jenson Button, but did it fluster him? Not a bit. He came back in Valencia and achieved the holy trinity of pole, fastest lap and win.

The allegation traditionally made against Seb is that he can only lead from the front; that if he was fighting from fourth or fifth like Lewis then he, too, would be struggling.

Again, we just don’t know. Seb has the fastest car, he is putting it on pole, and he is winning. What more can he do? Only time will tell if he also has these ‘racing’ attributes.

In any case, being a great driver is not just about the driving. It is about the politics, life outside the cockpit, the relationships you build.

Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael — they all had the ability to build a team around them; to communicate driving experience into mechanical or aerodynamic expressions to help drive the car’s development. Whether they were born with it I don’t know, but Seb has it too.

I can only speak from experience but I know my best years, in terms of the ‘purity’ of my driving, came when I was Seb’s age; when I had no emotional baggage. Seb is in that place now. His mind is uncluttered.

A few years down the line, with several more million in the bank, he may be more concerned by his initialled Louis Vuitton luggage or what yacht to buy. I have no idea.

So again you ask: how good is Seb? Better than Lewis? Perhaps. I suspect not. But until they are put in the same car we won’t know.

Better than Michael? Perhaps. Seb’s 75 per cent win rate for 2011 is above Michael’s 72 per cent from 2004, when, as the No 1 driver for a dominant Ferrari, he set the record for ‘most wins in a season’ at 13.

Where does Seb rank? I don’t know today but I wouldn’t be surprised if at the end of his career he is in that elite group of multiple world champions and the doubters will have been silenced long before then.

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