Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Hungarian GP Paddock Notebook – Friday

    Jul 25, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Hungary - Practice Getty Images

    All of the latest news and analysis from the paddock at the Hungaroring.

  2. Vettel: Red Bull may be closer to Mercedes this weekend

    Jul 25, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Hungary - Practice Getty Images

    Red Bull leading the race for the podium in Hungary, but Ricciardo still has some concerns.

  3. WATCH LIVE: NASCAR AMERICA at 5 pm ET — Hornish on nuances of Indy, JJ and Bowyer, Indiana racing history

    Jul 25, 2014, 1:40 PM EDT

    NASCAR America

    On Friday’s edition of NASCAR America, Leigh Diffey will again be joined in-studio by 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2014 Nationwide Series Iowa winner Sam Hornish Jr.

  4. Hamilton and Rosberg both struggling in Hungary

    Jul 25, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT

    Hungary F1 GP Auto Racing AP

    P1 and P2 in both practice sessions, but not 100% where they want to be.

  5. Ryan Newman says he’d add Wednesday night races to Sprint Cup calendar

    Jul 25, 2014, 1:20 PM EDT

    Camping World RV Sales 301 - Qualifying Getty Images

    Defending Brickyard 400 winner would push for mid-week races if he were in charge of creating the Sprint Cup schedule.

  6. Matt Kenseth fastest in Friday’s Sprint Cup practice at Indy

    Jul 25, 2014, 1:15 PM EDT

    (Photo: Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images) Getty Images

    INDIANAPOLIS – Matt Kenseth took the first step towards his first win of 2014 – and his first career win in the Brickyard 400 – recording the fastest speed in Friday’s sole Sprint Cup practice session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

  7. Cause of Lewis Hamilton’s brake failure still unknown

    Jul 25, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT

    Germany F1 GP Auto Racing AP

    Brembo and Mercedes release a joint statement concerning the incident during qualifying for the German Grand Prix.

  8. Button reverts back to Pink for Papa helmet in Hungary

    Jul 25, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Hungary - Practice Getty Images

    Pink for Papa helmet returns in Hungary for what would have been John Button’s 71st birthday.

  9. Ty Dillon leads final practice at Indy for Nationwide

    Jul 25, 2014, 12:11 PM EDT

    Lilly Diabetes 250 - Practice Getty Images

    Nationwide Series rookie continues to show strong pace ahead of Saturday’s Lilly Diabetes 250.

  10. Jeff Gordon high on confidence going into Brickyard 400

    Jul 25, 2014, 11:39 AM EDT

    Camping World RV Sales 301 - Practice Getty Images

    Four-time Brickyard champ: “From an overall strength of the team and speed of the cars, this is by far the best chance we’ve had of winning in a long time.”

  11. F1 silly season kicks into gear in Hungary

    Jul 25, 2014, 11:30 AM EDT

    Sebastian Vettel AP

    Alonso to McLaren? Vettel to Mercedes? Hamilton to who-knows-where? Silly season is beginning to churn out some cracking stories already in F1.

  12. Azerbaijan to host Grand Prix of Europe from 2016

    Jul 25, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT

    Baku

    Baku set to host a street race from 2016.

  13. David Ragan leads 1st Nationwide practice at Indy

    Jul 25, 2014, 10:18 AM EDT

    Subway Firecracker 250 - Practice Getty Images

    The Sprint Cup regular topped out with a lap of 181.043 mph on his 12th and final lap of the session.

  14. Hamilton unconcerned by rumors linking Vettel to Mercedes

    Jul 25, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

    Lewis Hamilton AP

    Mercedes driver confirms that talks about a new deal have not yet begun, but suggests that it is merely a formality.

  15. Hamilton tops second practice in Hungary ahead of Rosberg

    Jul 25, 2014, 9:31 AM EDT

    Hungary F1 GP Auto Racing AP

    The Briton continues to dominate at the Hungaroring with his teammate in tow.

  16. F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

    Jul 25, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT

    HungaryPresser AP

    News and interviews from around the F1 paddock ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix – it’s the latest edition of the NBC Sports Original Digital Series “Paddock Pass.”

  17. WATCH LIVE: FP2 for the Hungarian Grand Prix

    Jul 25, 2014, 7:45 AM EDT

    Hungary F1 GP Auto Racing AP

    Can Hamilton double up in FP2 at the Hungaroring?

  18. Mexican drivers delighted with return of home grand prix

    Jul 25, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT

    Hungary F1 GP Auto Racing AP

    Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez delighted by the news, calling it a “dream come true”.

  19. Rossi hoping to run in most practices including Austin (VIDEO)

    Jul 25, 2014, 6:30 AM EDT

    © Marussia F1 Team © Marussia F1 Team

    First run-out for Marussia will come at Spa; set for Austin in November.

  20. Hungarian GP highlights 30+ hours of motorsports coverage across NBC, NBCSN and CNBC this weekend

    Jul 25, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Hungary - Previews Getty Images

    The final race before the summer break in F1 highlights a jam-packed weekend of motorsport across the NBC Sports Group network.