Oct 24, 2013, 3:36 PM EDT
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.
Aug 23, 2014, 7:15 AM EDT
Sainz was expected to get the Toro Rosso drive, but was rejected in favor of 16-year-old Max Verstappen.
Aug 23, 2014, 6:30 AM EDT
Red Bull’s chief technical officer isn’t getting his hopes up for this weekend’s race at Spa.
Aug 23, 2014, 6:03 AM EDT
Williams finishes practice for the Belgian GP with a flourish.
Aug 23, 2014, 4:45 AM EDT
One final chance for the drivers and teams to get to grips with Spa ahead of qualifying later today.
Aug 23, 2014, 1:09 AM EDT
Dramatic day for Pro Mazda, USF2000 Friday in Sonoma.
Aug 22, 2014, 11:35 PM EDT
Ryan Blaney passed Kyle Busch with six laps left in Friday night’s Food City 300 Nationwide Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, and then held on the rest of the way to earn his second career NNS victory.
Aug 22, 2014, 8:30 PM EDT
Update (8:30 p.m. ET): The engines have been fired and tonight’s Food City 300 is ready to roll.
Aug 22, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
The Bowtie has won the IndyCar manufacturer’s title in all three seasons since returning to North American open-wheel racing in 2012.
Aug 22, 2014, 6:54 PM EDT
Jeff Gordon looked like he had the pole for Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. But Kevin Harvick had other ideas.
Aug 22, 2014, 6:34 PM EDT
At 7-feet tall, ESPN NASCAR analyst, team co-owner and former NBA star Brad Daugherty is a formidable presence. He’s also known to play a practical joke every now and then.
Aug 22, 2014, 5:39 PM EDT
Unpredictable weather conditions have impacted the Food City 500 in its March spot, which the event has had since the 2005 season.
Aug 22, 2014, 5:21 PM EDT
The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule will be officially presented on Tuesday, August 26 at 5 p.m. ET on a special 60-minute edition of NASCAR AMERICA.
Aug 22, 2014, 5:05 PM EDT
“Rowdy” earns the pole for tonight’s Food City 300 with a lap of 125.142 miles per hour in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Aug 22, 2014, 3:52 PM EDT
Former NASCAR Nationwide Series team owner Ed Whitaker passed away Friday at his home in Bristol, Va., business associate Peter Laura told the Bristol Herald Courier.
Aug 22, 2014, 3:04 PM EDT
In statement, Alexander Rossi takes the high road after missing out on Grand Prix debut with Marussia in Spa.
Aug 22, 2014, 2:41 PM EDT
Late in the 50-minute session, the Roush Fenway Racing driver zipped around the half-mile oval at 131.048 mph in the No. 17 Ford Fusion.
Aug 22, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
Here’s today’s round-up from the paddock at Spa-Francorchamps.
Aug 22, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT
In the year of the power unit, Spa is rewarding the Mercedes-powered teams.
Aug 22, 2014, 1:27 PM EDT
Russian GP3 debutante Konstantin Tereschenko goes for a wild ride at Spa, but mercifully emerges unscathed.
Aug 22, 2014, 1:16 PM EDT
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver turns a lap of 131.083 mph around the high-banked half-mile to lead Friday’s first practice session.
Video from NASCAR America
- Bottas breaks Mercedes’ stranglehold at Spa by topping FP3 0
- Ryan Blaney passes Kyle Busch on final restart, hangs on to win Nationwide race at Bristol 1
- Kevin Harvick edges Jeff Gordon for Bristol Sprint Cup pole 1
- Will A.J. Allmendinger seek payback for Brad Daugherty’s practical joke? 1
- 2015 NASCAR Schedule to be Revealed Tuesday, 5 p.m. ET, on special NASCAR AMERICA 0
- Rossi disappointed, but diplomatic, after Marussia no-go 1
- Hamilton strikes back to top FP2 ahead of Rosberg in Belgium 0