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.
Mar 9, 2014, 8:56 PM EDT
A late strategy gamble pays off for Edwards with his best finish of the young Sprint Cup season.
Mar 9, 2014, 8:13 PM EDT
Kyle was strong during the Kobalt 400 but faded late, while Kurt couldn’t escape mid-pack.
Mar 9, 2014, 7:16 PM EDT
The Richard Childress Racing driver finishes third in a strong effort at Las Vegas.
Mar 9, 2014, 6:48 PM EDT
Joey Logano was the rubber band man in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Mar 9, 2014, 6:33 PM EDT
With about 20 laps remaining, crew chief Steve Letarte warned race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. that he would be about a half-lap shy of enough fuel to finish Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Mar 9, 2014, 5:58 PM EDT
Bad Brad sweeps the NASCAR weekend in Sin City.
Mar 9, 2014, 5:29 PM EDT
Kevin Harvick went from halfway to no way in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. After leading the race at the 134-lap halfway point of the 267-lap event, Harvick’s bid for back-to-back wins came to an abrupt end when his No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet suffered a broken left front wheel hub…
Mar 9, 2014, 5:15 PM EDT
Richard Petty is going back home to Level Cross, N.C. – the Richard Petty Museum, that is.
Mar 9, 2014, 5:11 PM EDT
The automotive, motorsports and pro football worlds are mourning the death of William Clay Ford, who passed away Sunday from pneumonia, according to a company statement.
Mar 9, 2014, 4:49 PM EDT
The sports car organization ushered in its latest class last night in Charlotte.
Mar 9, 2014, 4:42 PM EDT
Leading the field at the halfway point of Sunday’s 267-lap Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, last week’s race winner at Phoenix, Kevin Harvick, is looking to make it two wins in a row.
Mar 9, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT
We all know how difficult it has been over the last six or seven years for teams in all forms of motorsports to obtain sponsorship. While it’s difficult for small teams, it even impacts the biggest of the big, too. NHRA Funny Car legend John Force is in such a predicament. After nearly 30 years with Castrol Oil and more than 15 years with Ford, drag racing’s biggest star ever will be losing both high-profile and high-dollar associations at the end of this season.
Mar 9, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
The 18-year-old Nationwide Series driver won last year’s K&N Pro Series East title.
Mar 9, 2014, 2:15 PM EDT
Pre-race crowd at Las Vegas appears to not know they have a Sprint Cup star among them…
Mar 9, 2014, 1:27 PM EDT
The Texas-based firm provides processors for the ECUs that run the Sprint Cup cars’ fuel-injection systems.
Mar 9, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
Former Ferrari and McLaren driver discharged from hospital over the weekend after skiing accident.
Mar 9, 2014, 12:20 PM EDT
Who are Kevin Magnussen, Daniil Kvyat and Marcus Ericsson?
Mar 9, 2014, 11:30 AM EDT
Heavy rain forecast for Australian Grand Prix; would be first wet race in almost 18 months.
Mar 9, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT
Australian driver ready to race in front of home crowd for the first time as a Red Bull driver.
Mar 9, 2014, 9:47 AM EDT
Spaniard laments lack of testing ahead of new era for Formula 1.
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