I am accustomed to bumping into car company bosses at big auto shows like the Frankfurt Motor Show. But champion Formula One race car drivers?
Yet there was Sebastian Vettel, the Infiniti Red Bull driver who is so far head in the F1 standings… well, his rivals need the Hubble Telescope to see him.
To date, Vettel has won six races and has a 53-point lead in the drivers’ standings over No. 2 Fernando Alonso – closest in wins to Vettel with two. No one else has more than one win. Alonso has no chance of winning the drivers’ title, and Infiniti Red Bull has all but wrapped up the constructors’ title, too.
Game, set, match. Vettel trounced the field last weekend in Ferrari’s own backyard at the Italian Grand Prix. The Italians had sand kicked into their faces on their own beach.
Of course, F1 purists will say anything can happen and they are wrong. The biggest F1 fans are often blind to the facts and I am certain the hate mail is coming my way now. (My English cousins are crazy about F1, so I know all about this and still love them and all of you who plan to call me an idiot or worse.). But let’s be real: unless Vettel’s wheels fly off in several of the coming races, the outcome of this F1 season is a foregone conclusion.
So perhaps that’s why Vettel showed up for the first media day at Frankfurt. He has time to kill. No one and no team can mount a satisfactory challenge to him and his Red Bull team. He certainly has nothing to worry about from Ferrari, Mercedes or Lotus, and his teammate Mark Webber, a very nice fellow, has not yet shown the ability to mount a challenge. Currently sitting at fifth in the F1 drivers’ standings, Webber is leaving Infiniti Red Bull after this season to race touring cars for Porsche.
On the race track, Vettel is calculating, able to first break down the weaknesses of his rivals, then devour them. Today was my fifth or sixth encounter with him, and I asked him why he’s so fast and he offered a rather complex answer, which I’ll paraphrase: I am able to think through the race and how I want the car to perform in it with a kind of steely precision.
For such a ferocious competitor, Vettel is slight – maybe 145 pounds – and mild-mannered and really quite pleasant. Here in Frankfurt under the big lights and on a stage that seemed not entirely comfortable for him, this likeable young fellow was almost shy.
I was first interested in his ability to drive like a thoughtful demon. And then this being Frankfurt, I wanted to know if he had anything “real” to do as Infiniti’s Performance Director. I left thinking he perhaps has a proper role at Infiniti and I expect it will get bigger as he gets older and more comfortable with product development, rather than race-car setups.
Infiniti, which is in the early stages of taking a serious run at BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz in the luxury car race, has drafted Vettel for his ideas about power trains, hybrid technologies and energy recovery systems. This makes a little sense, as next year F1 is moving exactly in this direction with power trains. F1 is soon to be very much about fuel economy and energy management.
Infiniti says Vettel has already benchmarked competitor vehicles with Infiniti dynamics engineers at the Circuit Paul Ricard in France. He has also met with engineers at the company’s North American Technical Center. They have looked into vehicle performance on a number of fronts.
“With the technical challenges facing us for 2014, in particular the role that hybrid technology is set to play from a driving point of view, I was interested in hearing from Infiniti’s power train engineers about the advances they are making in this area.” said Vettel. “Key for me is to understand how we manage the smooth transition between the petrol and hybrid systems when I’m driving the car, and how we can get maximum precision and feel from energy recovery systems as they become more important to F1 next year.”
The 2013 F1 season has all but been decided. But next year, as F1 changes its engine rules and Infiniti gets deep into its rebirth, we’ll be able to take the measure of Vettel as both a development consultant at Nissan’s luxury brand and a race driver faced with an entirely new car.
Next year should be very, very interesting in F1. This year? The race is for second place in the drivers’ standing.