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Sebastian Vettel may be greatest athlete America doesn’t know

Oct 24, 2013, 3:36 PM EDT

F1 Grand Prix of Singapore Getty Images

Sebastian Vettel appears ready to equal his racing hero and German countryman Michael Schumacher and also Juan Manuel Fangio as the only drivers in Formula One history to win four consecutive World Championships. That alone places him in the Mount Rushmore of legends in the sport; since entering in 2007 as a teenager, Vettel has stormed through the F1 record books with nearly every single Grand Prix.

Schumacher’s all-time marks of 91 wins and 7 World Championships are eventually going to be in range for Vettel, who thus far has 35 and 3 at age 26. He’s already the youngest to win three titles. Schumacher had runs of seven and five straight wins in 2004, the year of his final title. Fangio never won more than three races in a row and won just 24 races in his career, but raced during an era when only nine to 11 Grands Prix were on the calendar.

Yet while his status among the all-time greats of F1 is being solidified, his awareness to an American fan base is not at the same level as his on-track achievements.

Compared to some of America’s most dominant and recognizable stick-and-ball athletes – such as LeBron James, Tiger Woods, and Tom Brady/Peyton Manning – Vettel matches up from a dominance and success level.

LeBron’s at least a third of the way to his “not three, not four, not five, not six” proclamation with back-to-back rings. Brady’s run of success netted three Super Bowls in a four-year run earlier this century. Woods’ streak included holding all four major titles at the same time from 2000 to 2001, and his total of 14 majors is still unrivaled among other golfers even though he’s been stuck on 14 since that U.S. Open win over Rocco Mediate in 2008.

And yet Vettel’s got a record streak that would trump them all, with four successive season-long championships assuming he caps it off this weekend in India. One site rates his marketability behind that of NBA star Blake Griffin and tennis player Sloane Stephens, not to mention fellow F1 driver Lewis Hamilton.

So why is he not as well-known in these parts? Several factors, actually.

The obvious, of course, was the lack of a United States Grand Prix until the event’s return at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas last year. Still, you can catch him for this year’s race on Nov. 17 on NBC, or in person at the track.

Looking historically, Vettel actually made his debut at the last USGP in Indianapolis in 2007 – as a then-long-haired, blonde, 19-year-old as an injury replacement for Robert Kubica at the BMW Sauber team. He scored a championship point with eighth place, the youngest driver to do so, and began his march on the record books.

Those who paid attention that weekend – and are F1 devotees – will know they witnessed the beginning of the legend. The more casual observers, though, likely would not have known of Vettel until the series’ return a year ago.

Second is his sponsor, Red Bull. For all its marketing brilliance over the years, Red Bull has not opted to make Vettel the focal point of its ads in the U.S. since he joined the team in 2009. There’s been more ads from new Red Bull partner Infiniti this year – one with generic Red Bull Formula 3 cars racing through streets I can think of off the top of my head – and Vettel’s not included directly.

Red Bull got more mileage from a marketing and buzz standpoint out of the “Red Bull Stratos” event last October, when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner free fell from more than 125,000 feet in space. It truly felt like “an event;” a Vettel Grand Prix win seems like “just another Sunday.”

You could argue Mobil 1 has made McLaren driver Jenson Button and, previously, Hamilton bigger names in the U.S. Hamilton and fellow Mobil 1 driver Tony Stewart memorably exchanged rides for a day in a made-for-TV 2011 event, and the two were in commercials together as well. This year, Button’s starred opposite “Smoke,” as the term “Soda cookies” has officially entered the vernacular.

All three – Vettel and the pair of English World Champions, Button and Hamilton – are much bigger on the other side of the pond compared to here. The Barclays Premier League has gained recent traction in the U.S., but it and F1 are the two major sports in England by contrast to here, where the NFL rules all.

Perhaps comparable examples for Vettel in the U.S. are Spanish soccer players Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta, who have won multiple titles with their club team, Barcelona, and international trophies with Spain. But a U.S. sports fan may be hard-pressed to pick either out of a crowd. The same applies to Vettel.

Third, and the issue all F1 stars worldwide all seem to have here, is that the races often come on in the overnight or early morning hours. Only the most devoted, fervent fans have the desire and passion to want to wake up that early, or stay up that late, to watch Grands Prix.

And with Vettel’s recent run of success – five straight victories heading into this weekend – it has the potential to turn fans off with the notion that a race is as good as decided before it even begins. Say what you will about what it takes to achieve that, but unless you’re a fan of dominance and watching the best at their peak, it can get old.

We know Vettel’s an excellent shoe and from those who cover him every Grand Prix weekend, he has a sunny disposition, quick wit, sharp, insightful answers to journalist questions and an enthusiasm for winning that is evident every time that finger waves “number one.”

It just hasn’t waved “number one” here in terms of awareness of his level of dominance.

  1. wallio - Oct 24, 2013 at 3:59 PM

    Allow Wallio to all hipster on you. Watching that race at Indy in ’07 I said, this kids gonna be good. He then destroyed Sebastian Bourdais (the best driver in America at the time) in 2008 and the rest is history.

    • apexassassin - Oct 25, 2013 at 12:06 AM

      Yup, I was there. From FP1 on you knew he was special.

      Though to be fair Lewis in Montreal and at Indy also made a huge statement.

  2. seabassfan - Oct 24, 2013 at 5:13 PM

    I’ll play one up with you. I knew he’d be brilliant when he was still a Friday driver. The year before Kubica was light years faster than the 2 Sauber drivers (Heidfeld and the other guy). When Kubica got the race seat Seb was light years faster than him and Heidfeld. When a kid that young is faster than an up and comer like Kubica you know he’s something special. I guess this makes me a fervent American devotee of F1. And yes I stay up for the 2AM races.

    • apexassassin - Oct 25, 2013 at 12:07 AM

      Real fan watch F1 live. FP1 in 23 mins! :)

  3. wallio - Oct 24, 2013 at 6:29 PM

    Well played SeaBass, I too stay up, although I can’t claim to have picked up on Vettel any sooner than ’07 :p

  4. Jeff - Oct 24, 2013 at 7:04 PM

    I’m an American, and I know Sebastian Vettel.
    I could go on my own rant as to why he’s not popular in the states, and many were written in the article.
    Bottom line, we’re talking about the lowest common denominator, and F1 doesn’t appeal to them.

    • apexassassin - Oct 25, 2013 at 12:16 AM

      Lol, I guess that is well said…

      I personally don’t give two shits about most domestic series, especially the yawnfest that is oval racing. In fact I know more Europeans that like Indy and Nascar than I do Americans.

      Then again, I can read and piss PBR after I drink real [American] beer.

      I don’t know the author Tony or where he comes from, but at least one contributing author here is from England so I give the staff the benefit of the doubt.

      I know Vettel since 2007 (at least) and def respect his accomplishments even if I find his team’s title sponsor to by yucky (even with massive amounts of vodka, lol) and his teamie to be an unsporting, whining bitch, and I can honestly say I don’t like him running off with the titles but that’s more of a mark against his competitors, isn’t it? Alonso who?

    • redrock81 - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:17 AM

      I agree with you. Between the Multi 21 or the finger pointing or the “cucumber” statements and whining to the team. We all know its Newey he should be thanking. Unless Vettel can without doubt demonstrate that he can win in another car or he can take a less than perfect car to victory then we can call him great.

  5. seabassfan - Oct 24, 2013 at 8:13 PM

    Wallio I admittedly can’t recall if Seb was a Friday driver in ’06 at all so we may be even on the ’07 realization of greatness. ;)
    BTW I take full credit for his success. I named my son Sebastian in April 2010 and Seb has won every WDC since. Coincidence, I think not!

    • apexassassin - Oct 25, 2013 at 12:17 AM

      Nice! :)

  6. drylake - Oct 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM

    If you have to come over here and suck up to NASCAR fat boy Tony Stewart, you don’t deserve recognition. Maintain your dignity, Seb.

  7. eckfan - Oct 25, 2013 at 5:06 AM

    The problem with this article is that F1 drivers today are more entertainers than athletes. Vettel is not an athlete in the same league as Lebron or Bolt. I have to disagree with the writer on this one. And how much is Vettel’s success due to his talents or his Red Bull F1 car? When Vettel’s car is superior, he generally zooms away at the start and is not seen until the end of the race. However, whenever Vettel does not have the faster car, he is no better or worse than the other five of the top six drivers on the F1 grid. The real F1 athletes such as Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Fangio, Phil Hill, Jackie Stewart and others raced years ago when F1 drivers died regularly in races and practice, and the cars were less glued to the circuit aerodynamically.

    • apexassassin - Oct 25, 2013 at 12:09 PM

      That’s crazy talk. F1 drivers (except Fat Pablo Mctoya) are in tremondous shape and physical conditioning. I’d love to see anyone you consider to be fit like Lebron or Bolt to take a 20g crash like we saw at Suzuka with VDG into the wall. ;)

      Better still, I’d like to their retinas detach from full force braking!

  8. worknman24hours - Oct 26, 2013 at 8:34 AM

    While. I give respect for the swiftness that Vettel and the Red Bull team have shown with taking over the F1 records books ,what Juan Manuel Fangio did in F1 will never be equaled.

    Coming into the sport practically as an old man and besting all the other drivers so fast on many different teams in many different cars just makes Fangio something of a man apart from the rest in the history of all auto racing.

    Combine that with the fact that Juan was confident but unafacing man, comfortable with his skill but a nice person at heart and you have a guy that stood above the rest in every way.

    It is worth everyone’s time to see the few YouTube videos of Juan Manuel Fangio in action.

  9. ducati007 - Oct 26, 2013 at 4:27 PM

    Well, while we’re talking about F1 legends, Ayrton Senna has my vote. He was a fabulous
    driver as well as a humanitarian to his fellow Brasilians. He was/is loved by Brasilians and
    they shut the country down for 3 days in his honor.

    As far as Vettel is concerned, I’m sick of him. I know it’s racing, but when he passed
    Mark Webber (against team orders) and came in first, he showed his true colors.
    What a jerk. I think he reads too much press about himself.
    While everyone extoles his virtues, he’s just a spoiled brat who is lucky to have
    a great car.

    Yes, I do stay up for the GP.
    No need to reply with negativity..This is my opinion.

  10. redrock81 - Oct 29, 2013 at 11:22 PM

    Vettel is good but ask an F1 fan or any of the drivers and team principals for that matter and they probably would give a different name on who’s F1′s best driver. Its Alonso.

    As for “greatest athlete America doesn’t know”… I would go out of F1 and some other motor sport discipline. I think the honor would probably go to another Seb and that’s Sebastien Loeb. Loeb had the most difficult debut of a driver you could possibly think of when you consider that his team mates where legends (McRae and Sainz). But he’s become the greatest rally driver of all time. Nine consecutive (2004-2012) World Rally Drivers titles and has broken every record in the sport. Three Race of Champions wins against the best of the best in motors ports and 2nd at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 06. I think some in the US may be aware of him due to the record time he set at this year’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and winning Gold in the 2012 X-games Rallycross in his first try.

    But I think one moment stands out for me… Rally GB 05. Loeb was set to win both the rally and his second championship there. But in the last day of the rally one of his rival’s co-driver died due to an accident in one of the stages. Rather than push for the win and claim his championship, Loeb slowed down out of respect and voluntarily incurred a 2 minute penalty dropping to 3rd in the rally because he didn’t want to win in such a circumstance. I can’t imagine any other driver in F1 doing that and I became a fan of him even more.

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