Having clinched four successive Formula One titles with his Indian Grand Prix win Sunday, Sebastian Vettel’s next challenge will be to win back the admiration of the sport’s fans and something more than grudging respect from fellow drivers.
Vettel can bask in the knowledge he has joined F1 greats Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as the only men to win four straight championships, but it has been far from a perfect year for the German, whose 2013 title procession was overshadowed by repeated booing from fans, anger from other drivers and teams at a perceived questioning of their professionalism, and his contemptuous flouting of team rules.
F1 organizers too are doubtless less than thrilled at Vettel’s 2013 stroll — in which he claimed the title with a yawning three races to spare.
His dominance in 2013, akin to that of 2011, with the tighter 2010 and 2012 championships thrown in, was the most profound F1 had seen since the Schumacher era, which ushered in a series of increasingly contrived rule changes designed to inject some much-needed competitiveness and spice into the sport.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, whose early-season title challenge faded, has said Vettel’s imperious season alienated all but the sport’s most committed fans.
"Personally I feel for the fans because I remember the period of time when Michael Schumacher was winning," Hamilton said. "I remember waking up in the morning to watch the start of the race then going to sleep, and then waking up when it ended because I already knew what would happen.
"I am pretty sure a lot of people are doing that today."
Vettel was asked about Hamilton’s comments in the lead-up to last weekend’s Japanese GP, and curiously described them as "a compliment" while pointing out his victories, while repetitive, were rarely as pronounced as those of Schumacher.
"If you take Korea … the gap was something between three and six seconds for the whole race," Vettel said. "If you look at ten years ago, it was more like thirty to sixty seconds, which is a big difference.
"Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice cushion to have in the car, when you see that you’re three seconds down the road, but equally you know that if you make one stupid mistake … then three seconds is nothing compared to thirty or sixty."
The argument is valid, but overlooks two factors that explain why Vettel’s success has not translated into the same levels of unanimous acclaim that is accorded to the sport’s greats.
Firstly, there is the standard manner of his wins. Vettel’s success is built on his supreme ability in qualifying — only once this season has he started lower than third — and astonishing early pace on fresh tires that sees him often get out to a comfortable lead early and then sustain that buffer to the end.
He has only rarely shown his ability to fight his way through the field — most notably in 2012 when he started from the pit lane in Abu Dhabi and finished third in what was a crucial result toward his ultimate championship — but fans respect that kind of wheel-to-wheel jousting more than outright speed.
The other factor is that he has won all four titles with one team, raising the legitimate but unanswerable question about whether it is he or Adrian Newey’s car designs that deserve the credit for Red Bull’s success.
All but one of the drivers who have won three titles or more did so with more than one team: Fangio at Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes and Ferrari, Jack Brabham at Cooper and the eponymous Brabham team, Jackie Stewart at Matra and Tyrrell, Niki Lauda at Ferrari and McLaren, Nelson Piquet at Brabham and Williams, Alain Prost at McLaren and Williams, and Schumacher at Benetton and Ferrari.
The exception was Ayrton Senna, who won all three of his titles with McLaren, but he had previously been an outstanding driver at Lotus and had switched to Williams when he died at the wheel in 1994.
For the sake of his legacy, Vettel should and likely will change teams in the future, with strong speculation about a move to Ferrari in 2016.
The questioning of Vettel’s legitimacy as a genuine F1 great have contributed to the disrespectful booing that greeted his recent podium appearances in Italy and Singapore, and at other races too, though not in India when he clinched his latest title.
But while the German has sought to explain away the booing as coming from disgruntled Ferrari fans, the truth is that it stems more from the ill-judged flouting of team orders in Malaysia, and his subsequent defiance.
In Malaysia, teammate Mark Webber led the race in the closing stages, and with Vettel in second they were told to keep those positions while Webber’s engine was dialed down to preserve it for future races.
In a triumph of adrenalin over good sense, Vettel defied the order and passed Webber to take the victory, ignoring the directions of team bosses and infuriating his teammate.
What could have been put down to a win-at-all-costs determination soon revealed itself to be something much less forgivable as Vettel, days later, showed a total absence of contrition, saying Webber deserved no consideration, that he would do it again in the same circumstances, and gloated that the team was powerless to do anything about it.
Such a display of arrogance cast Vettel in a new light in the eyes of F1 fans. The man who usually showed a good-humored and affable demeanor, and who is always quick to credit the team for his success, had either let the mask slip or had adopted an unbecoming ruthlessness.
That side of Vettel showed itself later in the year when he was asked why Red Bull was so far ahead of the rest, and he responded that it was down to the fact that they were still working hard at the race paddock while other teams and drivers were "hanging … in the pool."
It may have been a forgivable off-hand reply, but it enraged many rivals, with Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg publicly admonishing his German compatriot.
"He should really think harder about what he says, especially when it’s about his colleagues," Rosberg said at the time.
"His criticism was directed at all of us, and so also at my boys. It was incorrect."
McLaren’s Jenson Button, the 2009 champion, said such hubris can easily overwhelm a driver when he is on top.
"The problem is that when you’re ahead, winning races and championships, you’re thinking differently, but it always comes to an end," Button said.
However, all the booing and the griping from his rivals will not remove the satisfied smile from Vettel’s face, and instead it will be the words of his vanquished Ferrari rival Fernando Alonso that will resonate.
"When I was world champion, the fans booed me," Alonso said. "When I wasn’t winning anymore, I was suddenly popular. But I’d rather win than be loved."