Oct 24, 2013, 3:36 PM EST
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.
Jan 27, 2015, 11:54 AM EST
Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner says his team is working with Joe Gibbs Racing, countering claims Kyle Busch made about the collaboration between the teams.
Jan 27, 2015, 11:22 AM EST
Clint Bowyer said of his relationship with Jeff Gordon: “You’re never good with somebody when it got that ugly.”
Jan 27, 2015, 11:22 AM EST
NASCAR’s parent company, International Speedway Corporation, showed healthy growth in both the fourth quarter of 2014, as well as for the overall 2014 fiscal year, it was announced Tuesday.
Jan 27, 2015, 10:59 AM EST
Vickers will be back in the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota at Las Vegas in March.
Jan 27, 2015, 10:00 AM EST
MWR test driver will compete in Vickers’ car at the second race of the 2015 Sprint Cup season.
Jan 26, 2015, 8:45 PM EST
NASCAR heavily is considering using the May 16 showcase as a trial run of the rules package for the 2016 season and has begun informing Sprint Cup teams of the possibility.
Jan 26, 2015, 8:33 PM EST
Quick recap for Day 1 of 3 in South Florida for the Indy Lights contingent.
Jan 26, 2015, 8:06 PM EST
Kyle Busch say that he doesn’t see Toyota partners Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing working closely together and that “we’re idiots” for not doing so.
Jan 26, 2015, 7:04 PM EST
Kyle Busch is not pleased with those who have confused him with his brother in reporting on Kurt Busch’s recent court matter.
Jan 26, 2015, 6:05 PM EST
Will its expansion help or hurt its hopes of a Sprint Cup title?
Jan 26, 2015, 4:54 PM EST
Which Joe Gibbs Racing driver will have the best season in 2015? Newcomer Carl Edwards, or Matt Kenseth, or JGR stalwarts Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin?
Jan 26, 2015, 4:38 PM EST
After last year’s exciting Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR chairman Brian France painted a very positive state of the sport Monday. There are still challenges, but NASCAR is working at fixing those.
Jan 26, 2015, 4:05 PM EST
NASCAR Chairman Brian France says series officials are not looking to eliminate the four-car limit for teams.
Jan 26, 2015, 3:58 PM EST
The wireless communications company already has announced its departure after the end of its contract in 2016
Jan 26, 2015, 3:30 PM EST
Devon Amos, Jay Beasley, Collin Cabre, Natalie Decker, Kenzie Ruston, and Dylan Smith part of this year’s D4D program; an update on Daytona Rising renovation project.
Jan 26, 2015, 3:22 PM EST
Greg Morin, a pit coach overseeing the crews of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., is leaving his position after January.
Jan 26, 2015, 3:08 PM EST
NASCAR has outlawed the practice of teams manipulating — or flaring out — of rear side skirts to produce an aerodynamic advantage.
Jan 26, 2015, 1:25 PM EST
The Grove gang reveals its lineup for the first F1 preseason test of 2015.
Jan 26, 2015, 12:00 PM EST
Video game retail company continues support of Joe Gibbs Racing’s XFINITY Series program.
Jan 26, 2015, 11:30 AM EST
Official launch of the new car is set for Friday.
Video from NASCAR America
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