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.
NHRA: ‘Fast Jack’ Beckman earns 5th Funny Car win of 2015; Brown (TF), McGaha (PS), Krawiec (PSM) also win
Aug 3, 2015, 12:24 AM EDT
NHRA Funny Car driver “Fast Jack” Beckman may want to consider changing his nickname to “Faster Jack” because it doesn’t appear he’ll be slowing down anytime soon.
Aug 2, 2015, 9:47 PM EDT
Sunday’s win fulfilled a lifelong dream for Ohio-native Graham Rahal.
Aug 2, 2015, 6:14 PM EDT
Montoyas 42-point lead over Rahal all but disappears in one race.
Aug 2, 2015, 5:56 PM EDT
Sage Karam in the crosshairs again after controversial Lap 66 spin at Mid-Ohio.
Aug 2, 2015, 4:53 PM EDT
Wilson earns first podium finish since Houston in 2013.
Aug 2, 2015, 4:02 PM EDT
Quick thinking from Rahal’s strategists allows the Ohio native to storm to his second win of the 2015 season and slice the gap to Montoya in the championship race.
Aug 2, 2015, 3:12 PM EDT
Castroneves led at halfway due to off-setting pit strategy.
Aug 2, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
Alex Lynn has made an impression during his rookie GP2 season, but can he make the step up to F1 in 2016?
Aug 2, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
McLaren’s CEO feels the reasons behind limiting in-season testing offer a “false economy”.
Aug 2, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT
Watch live from Mid-Ohio ahead of the 14th round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.
Aug 2, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
Latvala wins on home soil for the second time in the WRC with a record-breaking display.
Aug 2, 2015, 11:27 AM EDT
Big drama in second Indy Lights race of the weekend at Mid-Ohio.
Aug 2, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT
What to watch for ahead of Round 14 of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Honda Indy 200 from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Aug 2, 2015, 10:24 AM EDT
Hunter-Reay finishes on top ahead of Helio Castroneves and Jack Hawksworth despite crashing his car.
Aug 2, 2015, 9:35 AM EDT
The Italian Grand Prix looks set to remain at Monza beyond 2016 thanks to a tax-free investment from the Italian government.
Aug 1, 2015, 7:00 PM EDT
Mazda Road to Indy and Pirelli World Challenge race updates from Mid-Ohio as they happen on one of the busiest road racing days of the year.
Aug 1, 2015, 6:48 PM EDT
Enerson finally breaks through for overdue first Indy Lights win.
Aug 1, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
Mercedes F1 reserve driver finishes second at the Red Bull Ring to move into the lead of the DTM championship.
Aug 1, 2015, 4:46 PM EDT
In his third career start in the ARCA Racing Series, Cole Custer breezed to victory in Saturday’s ModSpace 125 at Pocono Raceway.
Aug 1, 2015, 4:21 PM EDT
Dixon blisters previous mark for the track record at Mid-Ohio.
- NHRA: ‘Fast Jack’ Beckman earns 5th Funny Car win of 2015; Brown (TF), McGaha (PS), Krawiec (PSM) also win 0
- After dream-fulfilling day, Graham Rahal isn’t worried anymore 0
- Graham Rahal now trails Montoya by nine points in IndyCar standings 1
- Karam’s Mid-Ohio spin triggers frustration, skepticism from IndyCar paddock 1
- Rahal scores dream win on home soil in Honda 200 at Mid-Ohio 2
- Helio Castroneves leads halfway through the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio 0
- What to watch for: IndyCar at Mid-Ohio (1:30 p.m. ET, CNBC and Live Extra) 0