A nice young guy - that has been Sebastian Vettel’s image, or at least the one he sought to portray. But this season he has dominated Formula One in a new way, revealing the more sinister side any top driver needs.
Still breaking new ground, Vettel finally managed to win his first ever Grand Prix in Germany this season
Twenty-six year old Sebastian Vettel is obsessed with the idea of being the fastest in the world. "Vettel is extremely ambitious," said Niki Lauda, world champion in 1975, '77 and '84. "And that has rubbed off on his team."
The Red Bull team is definitely a vital part of Vettel's success story. "It's a team of top-notch technicians, which can anticipate Vettel's every need," Christian Danner, a former F1 driver and TV commentator, told DW. "It's a perfect fit."
And that, according to Danner, is Vettel's main advantage over his competitors.
"They are all pretty much on the same level: Hamilton, Rosberg, Alonso and Vettel. No one has any real weakness. But only Vettel has a car that's as fast as Red Bull that fits their individual racing style so perfectly," he said.
This year Vettel has had it all - a fast car from probably the wealthiest and best-staffed team - coupled with his own uncompromising ruthlessness on the track. This became clear in the second race of the season, the Malaysian Grand Prix, where Vettel disregarded team orders to maintain positions and overtook his teammate Mark Webber in a risky maneuver to put himself at the top of the drivers' standings. Vettel stood defiant thereafter and shrugged off criticism with the statement that he, not Webber, had deserved to win the race.
Vettel and Webber's emnity dates back at least to this Turkey 2010 collision, if not to the 2007 Japanese GP
The move finally killed off a relationship that had been consistently uneasy ever since the rising star Vettel joined veteran Webber at the team in 2009: Webber is leaving Red Bull and retiring from F1 at the end of the season.
No more Mr. Nice Guy
The Malaysian Grand Prix was not the only opportunity for Vettel to show off his new self-confidence. In response to repeated suggestions that it was his dominant car that was the sole reason for his superiority, Vettel responded by saying: "The difference is in the detail, when the others go home and cool off in the pool, we are still there, banging our heads together to improve our car."
Red Bull's design boss Adrian Newey has often spoken of Vettel's determination to go the extra mile behind the scenes, a hallmark of many F1 greats over the years. But comments questioning the industriousness of others in the workaholic Formula One paddock were never likely to go down well with competing teams and drivers.
"He is tired of always being the nice guy and wants to move on, and he should be allowed to do that," Peter Mücke, former F1 driver and head of a German auto racing team told DW. "Formula One racing needs such characters, who don't mince their words and sometimes polarize," he said.
Vettel's continued success and his new assertiveness have had an effect, not only with his competitors but with an F1 fanbase that was already tiring of Red Bull's dominance.
'The more they boo, the better we've done'
Red Bull reiterated that dominance in the second half of this season, developing into a clear front-runner in the second half of what at first appeared to be a close title race. Perhaps this is why when Vettel stepped out as winner in Monza and Singapore, he was confronted with boos and jeers on the podium. Leading weekly motorsport magazine Autosport ran the headline "Vettel's Boos Cruise" after the Alonso-mad Ferrari supporters, the Tifosi, expressed their displeasure at Monza.
Vettel's quoted response on the front page simply stated: "The more they boo, the better we've done."
It's hard to say if all this affects Vettel personally. As opposed to most of the other drivers, Vettel does not share personal details via Facebook or Twitter. "I prefer to speak to people face to face," he told journalists, "everything else seems to me to be so artificial and contrived."
Much has changed since 2007
Vettel has no manager and keeps his private life under wraps - in that respect he has not changed over the years. For a number of years he has lived a somewhat reclusive life in Ellinghausen, in rural Switzerland with his childhood sweetheart Hanna Prater. The couple rarely make appearances at public events.
Sebastian Vettel's professional career has been smooth sailing. His first experience as a driver came at the early age of only four, when he rode his go-kart around his parents' yard in the southwest German town of Heppenheim. After initial success in cart track racing, in 2002, at the age of 13, Vettel joined the Formula BMW youth racing team. 2006 saw his first appearance as a BMW Formula One test driver.
Since the middle of the 2007 season, Vettel has been a fixture in F1 racing - breaking almost every record for being "the youngest": the youngest driver to score a championship point (on his debut as a stand-in for BMW's injured Robert Kubica, no less), the youngest to secure a pole position, the youngest race winner, the youngest World Champion, the youngest to win two successive championships, then three, then four…
Indeed, Vettel is among the three people in history, along with Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio, to win four titles on the trot. And only Alain Prost can join that trio as a four-time career champion.
What is in store for him next?
"He's only 26 years old, he will continue to develop and mature - and get even faster," said Red Bull's veteran sports advisor Helmut Marko.
And former Formula One driver Gerhard Berger - also Vettel's first team boss at junior Red Bull team Toro Rosso in the 2008 season - went a step further:
"Sebastian is no longer interested in the duels with Alonso or Raikkönen," Berger said. "All he cares about now is to break Michael Schumacher's records - and I believe he will manage to do that."
So far, he's more than on course. At Vettel's age today, Schumacher was on the way to clinching his second world championship with Benetton - he wouldn't win a third title with Ferrari until he was 31.