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. As Justin Wilson is remembered, Oriol Servia hopes he did the car, family proud (VIDEO)

    Aug 30, 2015, 10:39 PM EDT

    ServiaRecap AP

    It wasn’t the result, but the strength, of Oriol Servia in Justin Wilson’s car this weekend that shown through.

  2. Power, Newgarden and Castroneves run out of luck in championship hunt (VIDEO)

    Aug 30, 2015, 10:34 PM EDT

    Will Power, Josef Newgarden Will Power, Josef Newgarden

    A look at how the championship hopes for the three drivers ended in the GoPro GP of Sonoma.

  3. Double points reverse Montoya’s IndyCar championship hopes (VIDEO)

    Aug 30, 2015, 9:17 PM EDT

    Juan Pablo Montoya Juan Pablo Montoya

    Juan Pablo Montoya blamed the double-points awarded in the season finale for missing out on the IndyCar championship.

  4. Rahal’s dream season finally hits trouble in Sonoma finale (VIDEO)

    Aug 30, 2015, 8:47 PM EDT

    RahalLoss AP

    Rahal endures disastrous finale at Sonoma, falls from second to fourth after 18th place finish.

  5. Scott Dixon captures Sonoma race win and 2015 IndyCar championship (VIDEO)

    Aug 30, 2015, 7:18 PM EDT

    DixonTitle1 AP

    Dixon wins race, title in Sonoma in dramatic fashion.

  6. Sebastian Saavedra leads at halfway in IndyCar season finale (VIDEO)

    Aug 30, 2015, 6:15 PM EDT

    © INDYCAR © INDYCAR

    Will Power and Juan Montoya must fight from the back of the field following an accident.

  7. Robin Miller pays tribute to Justin Wilson (VIDEO)

    Aug 30, 2015, 5:01 PM EDT

    AP AP

    Robin Miller remembers Justin Wilson in this touching tribute.

  8. Webber elated with “awesome” first WEC victory

    Aug 30, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT

    © FIA WEC © FIA WEC

    Webber and the no. 17 Porsche crew claimed their first win at the 6 Hours of Nürburgring on Sunday.

  9. INDYCAR confirms Chevrolet wins fourth straight Manufacturer’s Championship

    Aug 30, 2015, 3:15 PM EDT

    ChevySTPdomination AP

    Chevrolet wins its fourth straight INDYCAR Manufacturer’s Championship.

  10. WATCH LIVE: IndyCar’s championship decided in Sonoma at 1 p.m. PT, 4 ET on NBCSN

    Aug 30, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT

    SonomaTitle AP

    With heavy hearts, IndyCar moves ahead and will crown its champion this afternoon in Sonoma.

  11. WATCH: Red Bull Global Rallycross midseason review at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC

    Aug 30, 2015, 2:45 PM EDT

    GRCDaytona Getty Images

    Catch up on the Red Bull Global Rallycross season at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

  12. Maldonado: Good feeling heading into Italian GP weekend

    Aug 30, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT

    xxxx during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 21, 2015 in Spa, Belgium. Getty Images

    Maldonado keen to make up for his DNF in the Belgian Grand Prix at Monza.

  13. What to watch for: IndyCar at Sonoma (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Live Extra)

    Aug 30, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT

    SonomaW2W4 AP

    What to watch for ahead of the 16th and final round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma from Sonoma Raceway.

  14. Will Power fastest in final IndyCar practice at Sonoma

    Aug 30, 2015, 1:42 PM EDT

    PowerWarmup AP

    Pole-sitter Will Power claimed the fastest time in the 30-minute session.

  15. Porsche’s no. 17 car surges to maiden WEC victory in 6 Hours of Nürburgring

    Aug 30, 2015, 1:01 PM EDT

    NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  The Porsche Team 919 Hybrid of Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Silverstone at Silverstone Circuit on April 10, 2015 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard claim their first WEC victory since joining forces at the beginning of the 2014 season.

  16. Grosjean: Lotus E23 Hybrid better suited to Monza than Spa

    Aug 30, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT

    SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 23:  Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus celebrates on the podium after finishing third in the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 23, 2015 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Grosjean sets his sights on repeating his third-place finish in Belgium last weekend.

  17. Audi boss Ullrich laughs off continual F1 rumors

    Aug 30, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT

    LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 11:  Wolfgang Ullrich of Austria, Head of Audi Motorsport looks on during practice on June 11, 2014 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images) Getty Images

    “If somebody wants to go into Formula 1 and they think that they can do it from one to the next year, I think he shouldn’t try to do it.”

  18. Trefethen Family Vineyards combines Napa tradition, PWC racing at Sonoma

    Aug 30, 2015, 10:13 AM EDT

    Lorenzo Trefethen. All Photos: Tony DiZinno Lorenzo Trefethen. All Photos: Tony DiZinno

    While there’s no shortage of wineries in Napa Valley, few have racing tie-ins, and fewer still get a racing tie-in at Sonoma Raceway – here’s the story of the Trefethen Family Vineyards.

  19. MotoGP: Rossi wins British GP as Marquez crashes out

    Aug 30, 2015, 10:04 AM EDT

    Italy’s Valentino Rossi of Movistar Yamaha on his way to finish in fourth position during Moto GP qualifying at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, England, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira) AP

    Rossi wins a wet-weather thriller to regain the lead of the MotoGP world championship.