Sebastian Vettel has been in a league of his own in Formula One this year. At the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka he became the youngest-ever double world champion - winning with a jaw-dropping four races to spare.
Vettel is the youngest double world champion ever
With a raft of regulation changes designed to promote passing and new fast-wearing Pirelli tires, Formula One reinvented itself a little in 2011. But for all the extra overtaking and praise for a new, more exciting series, the battle at the front was a positive bore.
Sebastian Vettel has been simply peerless in his Red Bull car - and that's why he's already world champion with four races left to run.
"Vettel has made Formula One boring again with his perfection. The driver is unbeatable and his car is a rocket," the Italian daily paper La Repubblica wrote with more than a hint of dismay at the way Ferrari's title challenge was neutered before it even got going. "Vettel doesn't make any mistakes, he is always perfect. He is a monster, a record-breaking machine. He deserves this world championship and who knows how many more besides."
Vettel's third place at Suzuka sealed the deal
This is only the fourth time that an F1 world championship has been wrapped up with four races left to run; Nigel Mansell managed it in 1992, while Germany's only other F1 world champion Michael Schumacher matched that feat in 2002 and 2004.
24-year-old Vettel is now the youngest double world champion of all time - and one of only nine men to win back-to-back F1 championships. Schumacher, was 25 when he brought home the first of his seven titles.
But Vettel has more records to shoot for this season. With nine race wins this year, he is just four away from the all-time record of 13 set by Michael Schumacher in 2004.
The single-season record of qualifying on pole position 14 times, first set by Nigel Mansell in 1992, is even closer for Vettel - he already has 12 to his name. With 19 races on the calendar this season, as opposed to 16 in those past years, a pedant might argue that Vettel has already fallen short of the required ratios, but the outright records are certainly there to be had.
A complete will to win
Vettel says his motto behind the wheel is: "Full throttle all the time. Go hard, or go home." Even in the latter half of this season, when he could have cruised towards his second title, Vettel continued to fight tooth and nail for race wins. A gutsy overtaking maneuver on Fernando Alonso for the lead in Monza showcased this approach particularly well.
Alonso is another of the nine who defended their titles, but he's no longer the youngest to do so
"In my view, Sebastian is the best driver on the grid right now," Formula One's commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone recently said. "He has an absolute will to succeed but has stayed very grounded. No win, however big, will stop him being grounded. That is immensely important in this business. Seb is relaxed and will always remain true to himself - that is why things come easy."
Just like Michael Schumacher, Vettel has a reputation for being meticulous and for paying great attention to detail, but he sometimes comes across as a more relaxed person than his childhood hero - quick-witted and with a smile etched on his face. This image - helped perhaps by the far less acrimonious nature of the modern-day F1 paddock - has boosted his reputation within the sport.
Meanwhile, his dominant jaunt to the title has forced past champions and present rivals to heap praise on the 24-year-old from Heppenheim in south-western Germany.
Vettel's debut win in 2008 in the wet at Monza was F1's biggest upset in years
"He's driving fantastically," Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, F1 world champion in 2005 and 2006, said recently. "I think this year he has made no mistakes. Last year we had a bigger chance. I think the Red Bull was very dominant also last year but had some trouble in the races."
Even 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton, who last year questioned the young German's ability to deliver consistently, has been bowled over by Vettel's performance as defending champion.
"He has really driven very, very well," Hamitlon said recently. "I mean, he has finished first or second in all the races apart from one, so he's been massively consistent, massively well controlled. I take my hat off to him. I think he has done fantastically well."
In fact, Vettel's only "disappointing" finish of the season came at his home race at the Nürburgring, where he finished fourth. One target the German will surely shoot for in 2012 is to win his first F1 race on home soil.
A life behind the wheel
Vettel was born in 1987 in the small town of Heppenheim in the state of Hesse, not far from the storied Hockenheimring race track. Aged three, his father Norbert put the young Vettel behind the wheel of his first go-kart - just weeks after a young lad named Michael Schumacher made his explosive Formula One debut.
A familiar 2011 sight: Vettel's Red Bull leading, then a big gap to second
By the time he was seven, Vettel was regularly competing in kart races, winning various junior titles, and even meeting his hero Schumacher in the '90s after winning an event at the champion's go-kart center near their family home in Kerpen.
Red Bull first signed Vettel to their youth program when he was 12, and later when he moved to the junior Formula BMW "feeder" series he clinched the title at the second attempt - winning a staggering 18 out of 20 races in the 2004 season.
Vettel's F1 career has involved one youth-related record after another. In 2007, aged 19, he made his F1 race debut with BMW, finishing eighth and becoming the youngest ever points-scorer in the sport. The next year, at Red Bull's junior team Toro Rosso, Vettel became the youngest pole-sitter and race-winner at a rain-soaked weekend at Monza in Italy - in arguably the biggest upset of 21st century Formula One racing.
Moving to a more competitive car at Red Bull in 2009, Vettel immediately finished second in the drivers' championship - a result which, for a number of reasons, might easily have been even better.
Finally, and against all the odds, Vettel claimed his first ever championship on November 14, 2010. Aged 23 years and 134 days, he dethroned Lewis Hamilton as the youngest ever F1 champion. Less than a year later, Vettel has now taken away the title of youngest double world champion from Spaniard Fernando Alonso.
Already Germany's 2010 sportsman of the year, Vettel is surely on the shortlist again
Vettel has signed with the Red Bull team until the end of the 2014 season, and few observers would bet against the team launching their fourth consecutive title challenge next year; fewer still would bet against Vettel leading the Red Bull charge.
Vettel lists snowboarding, mountain biking, swimming and exercising as his hobbies - he's a big collector of music with a soft spot for the Beatles, and often talks of his love for English-language comedy like Monty Python or Little Britain. He's hugely popular in Germany and was named sportsman of the year after clinching his first championship in 2010.
The town council in Heppenheim made him an honorary citizen in 2010, but that may not satisfy the locals and Vettel's fans, who often say the town should be renamed "Vettelheim."
That might sound unlikely, but given what the 24-year-old Vettel could still achieve, it would be wise not to rule out anything just yet.
Author: Arnulf Boettcher / msh
Editor: Ben Knight