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. WATCH: MAVTV 500 replay and INDYCAR championship celebration tonight, starting 8 p.m. ET

    Sep 2, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT

    MAVTV 500 Ð Day 1 Getty Images

    The Fontana race replay and championship celebration air tonight on NBCSN from 8 p.m. ET through 11:30 p.m. ET.

  2. NASCAR AMERICA: Who can challenge Hendrick, Penske drivers in Chase? (VIDEO)

    Sep 2, 2014, 7:03 PM EDT

    Irwin Tools Night Race - Qualifying Getty Images

    NASCAR AMERICA’s Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman have their ideas on who can beat out NASCAR’s two strongest teams for a championship.

  3. NASCAR AMERICA: Kahne looking ahead to the Chase (VIDEO)

    Sep 2, 2014, 6:34 PM EDT

    Oral-B USA 500 Getty Images

    The newest Chase-bound driver chats with NBCSN’s Marty Snider about his win on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

  4. Everything you need to know for Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond

    Sep 2, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT

    Jeff Gordon AP

    400 miles. 2 Chase Grid spots. It all comes down to Saturday night.

  5. WATCH LIVE: NASCAR AMERICA talks with Atlanta winner Kahne at 5 p.m. ET

    Sep 2, 2014, 4:45 PM EDT

    (Photo: Sarah Glenn/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Coming up today: Beating the Hendrick/Penske bloc; Atlanta edition of “Scan All 43″; Kyle Busch’s continued struggles; the career of crew chief Jimmy Fennig.

  6. American driver Conor Daly loses GP2 ride with Venezuela GP Lazarus

    Sep 2, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT

    © GP2 Media © GP2 Media

    Daly confirms the tough news on his Twitter page, citing a “lack of funding” as the cause for his dropping.

  7. NASCAR: Turner Scott shuts down No. 30 team in Truck Series

    Sep 2, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT

    Pocono Mountains 150 - Practice Getty Images

    Ron Hornaday Jr. is out of a ride and 18 employees are out of a job.

  8. Fernando Alonso denies rumors of leaving Ferrari

    Sep 2, 2014, 2:45 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Belgium - Practice Getty Images

    Alonso to Britain’s Sky Sports: “I want to win here and finish the job that we started some years ago, and we will see what the future [holds]“

  9. MRTI: Hargrove (Porsche GT3 Canada) and Burkett (Atlantic) capture other titles

    Sep 2, 2014, 2:15 PM EDT

    Green, Hargrove, Pigot. Photo: IMSA Green, Hargrove, Pigot. Photo: IMSA

    Mazda Road to Indy regulars Scott Hargrove and Daniel Burkett secure titles in Porsche GT3 Canada and Atlantic, respectively.

  10. Caterham GP2 team brings in Red Bull Junior Pierre Gasly for rest of 2014

    Sep 2, 2014, 1:45 PM EDT

    Photo via @RedBullMotors Photo via @RedBullMotors

    Pierre Gasly, a Red Bull Junior, will join Caterham’s GP2 team for the rest of 2014.

  11. Your Chase clinch scenarios for Saturday’s regular season finale

    Sep 2, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT

    Irwin Tools Night Race - Practice Getty Images

    Ryan Newman is the only Chase hopeful that controls his destiny going into Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400.

  12. Mikhail Aleshin updates social media for first time since Fontana accident

    Sep 2, 2014, 1:03 PM EDT

    AleshinSunIMS Getty Images

    Mikhail Aleshin updates his social media pages for first time since scary Fontana accident on Friday night.

  13. Gene Haas’ F1 team changes team name, launches new pages

    Sep 2, 2014, 12:17 PM EDT

    Gene Haas Formula One Press Conference Getty Images

    What was Haas Formula is now Haas F1 Team as part of a new brand rollout.

  14. United Fiber & Data announces IndyCar return; capacity, driver TBD

    Sep 2, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT

    Photo: INDYCAR Photo: INDYCAR

    United Fiber & Data looks set to return to IndyCar for 2015 and the foreseeable future.

  15. Cindric proposes IndyCar champion Will Power will run No. 1 in 2015

    Sep 2, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

    WillNumber AP

    Team Penske president Tim Cindric all but confirms Will Power will run the No. 1 in 2015.

  16. MAVTV announces two-year IndyCar extension at Fontana; date TBD

    Sep 2, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT

    MAVTV 500 Getty Images

    MAVTV announces IndyCar’s return to Fontana for two more years through 2016, although official confirmation from the sanctioning body and a date remains to be revealed.

  17. NASCAR AMERICA: Kahne’s in Chase, but knows he and No. 5 team must improve (VIDEO)

    Sep 1, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT

    Oral-B USA 500 Getty Images

    Kahne to NBCSN contributor Nate Ryan: “We need to build off of this…As a team, we need to be stronger together.”

  18. NASCAR AMERICA: Assessing Tony Stewart’s return at Atlanta (VIDEO)

    Sep 1, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT

    Oral-B USA 500 Getty Images

    NASCAR AMERICA’S Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman believe that the three-time Sprint Cup champion handled himself well throughout a difficult weekend.

  19. F1: Sochi grandstand to be named for Toro Rosso rookie Kvyat

    Sep 1, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Hungary - Qualifying Getty Images

    Organizers of the Russian Grand Prix appear to be getting behind their countryman as F1’s first visit to Sochi draws closer.

  20. NHRA: Four first-time U.S. Nationals winners crowned in Indianapolis

    Sep 1, 2014, 6:35 PM EDT

    DeJoriaWin AP

    Richie Crampton, Alexis DeJoria, Shane Gray and Eddie Krawiec captured U.S. Nationals wins on Monday.

Video from NASCAR America

Tony Stewart does well in return
Top 10 NASCAR Driver Searches
  1. K. Harvick (1941)
  2. J. Gordon (1678)
  3. T. Stewart (1420)
  4. M. Kenseth (1293)
  5. A. Ranger (1089)