Skip to content

Sebastian Vettel may be greatest athlete America doesn’t know

Oct 24, 2013, 3:36 PM EST

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Barcelona F1 2nd Test Paddock Notebook – Thursday

    Feb 26, 2015, 4:00 PM EST

    Kvyat 262 Getty Images

    Massa flourishes, McLaren and Mercedes flounder, and Ferrari goes all 50 Shades of Rosso Corsa…

  2. Massa: Williams improving, but still trailing Mercedes

    Feb 26, 2015, 3:00 PM EST

    AUTO-F1-ESP-TEST-WILLIAMS Getty Images

    Brazilian driver still believes that Mercedes has the best car in F1 this year.

  3. Hamilton loses afternoon running due to MGU-K failure

    Feb 26, 2015, 2:00 PM EST

    Hamilton 262a Getty Images

    Briton still manages to finish third on Thursday, but is limited to just 48 laps following the power unit issue.

  4. Sainz Jr. pleased with Toro Rosso upgrades in final test

    Feb 26, 2015, 1:45 PM EST

    AUTO-PRIX-F1-ESP-TEST Getty Images

    F1 rookie happy with the final raft of updates on the STR10 ahead of the first race of the year in Australia.

  5. Carmen Jorda joins Lotus F1 Team as development driver

    Feb 26, 2015, 1:00 PM EST

    © Lotus F1 Team © Lotus F1 Team

    Spanish racer will get a chance to test the E23 Hybrid out on track at least once in 2015.

  6. Massa fastest for Williams as final F1 pre-season test begins

    Feb 26, 2015, 12:01 PM EST

    Massa 262 Getty Images

    Brazilian driver posts the fastest time of testing so far; underpins pace with mighty haul of laps.

  7. Gutierrez excited by possibility of Mexican GP practice run-out

    Feb 26, 2015, 11:00 AM EST

    Ferrari Filming Day Getty Images

    Ferrari reserve driver speaks after completing his first running in the new SF15-T at a filming day in Barcelona.

  8. Hydraulic leak sidelines Button and McLaren once again in Barcelona

    Feb 26, 2015, 10:00 AM EST

    F1 Testing In Barcelona - Day One Getty Images

    More woe for McLaren on day one of the final F1 pre-season test in Barcelona.

  9. Webber: Vettel needed fresh motivation in F1

    Feb 26, 2015, 9:00 AM EST

    Ferrari Filming Day Getty Images

    Ex-Red Bull driver believes that Vettel will be rejuvenated following his move to Ferrari for 2015.

  10. Hulkenberg to debut new Force India on Friday afternoon

    Feb 26, 2015, 8:15 AM EST

    Hulkenberg 262 Getty Images

    The VJM08 will finally make its on-track debut with three days to go in winter testing.

  11. Ron Dennis clears up Alonso crash rumors; confirms he was briefly knocked unconscious but was not concussed

    Feb 26, 2015, 7:27 AM EST

    Alonso 262 Getty Images

    McLaren CEO meets with the media to quash incorrect reports surrounding Alonso’s accident in testing.

  12. DiZinno: The dilemma for Justin Wilson and others, is teams as much as budget

    Feb 25, 2015, 5:13 PM EST

    Shell And Pennzoil Grand Prix Of Houston Getty Images

    Justin Wilson’s offseason plight isn’t only budget-related, but due to a reduced number of available opportunities in IndyCar.

  13. American Brad Hollinger increases stake in Williams up to 10 percent

    Feb 25, 2015, 2:45 PM EST

    Felipe Massa, Valtteri Bottas AP

    Brad Hollinger’s investment in Williams’ ownership moves from 5 to 10 percent.

  14. F1: Lineups thus far for final Barcelona test

    Feb 25, 2015, 2:21 PM EST

    F1 Testing In Barcelona - Day Two Getty Images

    Lineups and running order ahead of this week’s Barcelona test.

  15. Szafnauer: First test focused on tires, Wehrlein evaluation

    Feb 25, 2015, 11:27 AM EST

    PascalFI Getty Images

    What Force India couldn’t gain in car evaluation it could gain in 2015 tire and different driver evaluation last week in Barcelona.

  16. It’s coming March 14: First F1 on NBC promo of the year teases Melbourne (VIDEO)

    Feb 25, 2015, 10:15 AM EST

    Australian F1 Grand Prix - Practice Getty Images

    The Melbourne season opener is a little more than two weeks away.

  17. McLaren confirms Alonso leaves hospital, and is out for final test

    Feb 25, 2015, 8:52 AM EST

    AUTO-F1-ESP-TEST-MCLAREN Getty Images

    Fernando Alonso is out of the hospital after his testing crash last week.

  18. Porsche factory ace Nick Tandy confirmed with KCMG, to make for an even busier season

    Feb 25, 2015, 8:30 AM EST

    Patrick Pilet, Richard Lietz,  Nick Tandy AP

    Nick Tandy will embark on a program of LMP1, LMP2 and GT Le Mans in 2015, with KCMG confirmation in WEC.

  19. Force India officially reveals new VJM08, plans Friday track debut

    Feb 25, 2015, 8:22 AM EST

    Photo: Force India Photo: Force India

    Force India confirms Friday car debut for the new VJM08.

  20. Manor targets Melbourne appearance; announces Will Stevens as first driver

    Feb 25, 2015, 8:10 AM EST

    Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - Japanese Grand Prix - Preparation Day - Suzuka, Japan

    Manor seeks to make Melbourne race appearance and confirms its first driver.