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Vettel, no longer a pup, still straining at the leash

A few weeks before his first F1 win, a teenage Sebastian Vettel once told DW: "That's the target, to be the quickest." At 25 years old, nothing's changed - boisterousness is becoming the mark of the man.

It might seem painfully obvious for a race driver to say that the target is to be the quickest, but Vettel appears to want that status at all times, irrespective of the circumstances.

Take the Japanese Grand Prix this year. Vettel's smooth driving style coupled with the ruthless aerodynamic efficiency of cars built by Red Bull's Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey means that the twisty yet fast Suzuka circuit is Vettel's happiest hunting ground of all. In the four seasons since he has had a consistent, race-winning car, Vettel has started from pole position every time and won on three occasions at Suzuka.

Lotus F1 Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen (C) of Finland celebrates, between second placed Ferrari Formula One driver Fernando Alonso (L) of Spain and third placed Red Bull Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany (Photo via Reuters)

Vettel's rogue streak also shone through on the Abu Dhabi podium when he dropped an f-bomb

This year, having started from pole, Vettel was comfortably in the lead in the closing phases of the race. The only break in the serenity were frantic radio messages from his team urging him to go easy on his front-right tire - they said, repeatedly, that the pit-lane computers believed the tire could fail from excess wear at any moment. The win was in the bag - but the ultimately meaningless award of fastest lap of the race was not.

On the penultimate lap, with his friend and race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin ("Rocky") imploring him to be careful and bring home the win, Vettel posted a lap nearly a full second faster than anybody else managed in the entire race. It was an imposing statement to the rest of the field, but also a middle-fingered salute to the concerns of his increasingly frustrated team.

At the end of the race, the cheeky grin for the cameras suggested Vettel knew he'd taken a liberty or two - as you can see in the top picture.

Depending on one's perspective, it's a reason to love Vettel's passion or to loathe his short-sightedness - what's more cut and dried is that his title rival Fernando Alonso would have ceded the fastest lap award to another driver in the same situation. 

Michael Schumacher kneels beside a young Sebastian Vettel in 1999, awarding him two karting trophies at the Kerpen kart track owned by the Schumacher family

Back to the Future: These were the days when the "Baby Schumi" nickname could have worked

A Schumi legacy after all?

Neither Michael Schumacher nor Vettel are very enamored with the inevitable comparisons between Germany's only F1 champions. But you have to wonder whether growing up watching Schumacher rewrite the F1 record books helped fuel Vettel's hunger even for more meaningless triumphs.

The Saturday Qualifying session for a Sunday race has a greater significance than the fastest lap - it decides the starting order for the race - but no championship points are ever awarded for pole position. Still, Vettel had secured more pole positions (35) than wins (26) in his 99-race career ahead of the US Grand Prix at the weekend.

In 60 years of F1 history, only Schumacher and Ayrton Senna have bagged more pole positions than Vettel - the qualifying specialist is third in the all-time list and more than half way to the top of the chart already, aged 25. Since Vettel entered the sport, he's been at the front of the grid more than once in every three attempts.

Driver or designer?

Vettel's intimidating qualifying performances might be traced to back to design guru Adrian Newey.

A handout picture released by Red Bull Racing shows Germany's Sebastian Vettel (L) of Red Bull Racing in the cockpit of the RB7 talking with Red Bull Racing Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey (R) during day one of Formula One winter testing at the Ricardo Tormo Circuit in Valencia, Spain, 01 February 2011.

Behind every great F1 driver, there simply must be a great designer

"I'm not just racing Sebastian Vettel. I'm racing Adrian Newey," title rival Alonso said earlier in the season.

Not only is Newey the most successful designer in F1 history - with a hand in eight drivers' titles and eight constructors' titles to date - he's famed as an aerodynamicist, a man who likes to set his cars up for speed through corners and single-lap performance, rather than building a car with a higher top speed that is better suited to scrap it out in the middle of the pack.

At Abu Dhabi this year, Newey told British Sky broadcaster that his Red Bull chariots were among the slowest of the field in a straight line on the circuit by design, because "all our lap time simulations say … that's the fastest way around." He might as well have been talking about his general design policy direction, not just the Abu Dhabi Circuit - and that is why Vettel is the perfect fit in a Newey car.

Driver and designer?

"Obviously, what Sebastian's been fantastic at in the past is: putting it on pole, making enough of a gap … and staying there," Newey said. That way, the straight-line speed weakness cannot be exploited. These "textbook" wins from the front, however, invite claims of a superior car and of an easy victory - ammunition for Vettel's many critics.

Newey has helped Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Hakkinen and Vettel to world championships, but says he doesn't like to compare the many greats with whom he's worked.

"But the thing you can say about Sebastian is: he's a clever guy, he thinks about it a lot, learns from his mistakes, will often be there late in the evening, looking through the data, working with the engineers, looking at the onboard [video footage] of himself and comparing it to the other drivers," Newey told Sky. "So he tries to use every bit of information that's available to him. And I think that is something that I have seen in some of the other great drivers I've been privileged to work with – that's a common theme."

So for all his boisterousness, even rebelliousness, behind the wheel - don't mistake Vettel for immature. People like Adrian Newey tend not to be liberal with words like "clever."

A screenshot of a picture post published on Twitter by Felipe Massa http://twitter.yfrog.com/khzcwxtj

Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, plus his rear-gunner Felipe Massa, are primed for the finale too

More records in reach

There's also a counterpoint to this "Newey factor" often invoked as the bedrock of Vettel's success. In 2009, when Vettel joined the Red Bull team, people were wondering whether the old aerodynamics wizard - who works with a drawing board and a pencil to this day - had lost his magic touch.

Back then, 10 years had passed since the last Newey-trademarked title. A week from now, he may have logged another three consecutive years winning both the drivers' and teams' championships. This time, all three successful seasons would have been with the same team and driver - that would be unprecedented even for Newey.

Vettel could join a rather exclusive club if he defeats Alonso. Only Juan Manuel Fangio, F1's most successful driver for almost half a century, and Michael Schumacher, F1's most successful driver ever, have managed three championships on the bounce.

He would also comfortably become the youngest treble champion the sport has ever seen. F1's previous qualifying king, Ayrton Senna, was nearly 32 when he wrapped up his third and final crown in 1991.