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.
Sep 18, 2014, 9:21 PM EDT
While Boris Said was getting ready for this weekend’s IMSA Tudor Championship event at Circuit of the America’s in Austin, Texas, it’s noteworthy to mention that Thursday was his 52nd birthday.
Sep 18, 2014, 9:02 PM EDT
Michael Waltrip took a big step when he agreed to compete on Season 19 of “Dancing With the Stars.” Now, Waltrip has gone and put his foot in his mouth by trying to kick Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the behind, so to speak.
Sep 18, 2014, 8:15 PM EDT
Given how important – and potentially how wild – the ninth and next-to-last race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup will be, Phoenix International Raceway is calling in some extra muscle for drivers who may potentially get out of hand.
Sep 18, 2014, 7:04 PM EDT
Owning a NASCAR team is like being a contestant on Wheel of Fortune, they both answer to “Big money, big money.”
Sep 18, 2014, 6:29 PM EDT
New Hampshire is one of four New England states to host a NASCAR event and is huge to the racing community in the area. Having four tracks that far North allowed the sport to grow from its southern roots.
Sep 18, 2014, 6:17 PM EDT
On Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America, analysts Parker Kligerman and Frank Stoddard are split when it comes to the Roush Fenway Racing team. Looking to the Chase, Frank predicts a top 10 finish for Greg Biffle or Carl Edwards, but Parker is less confident.
Sep 18, 2014, 6:12 PM EDT
On Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America, analysts Frank Stoddard and Parker Kligerman both agreed that Ryan Newman is the driver just below the cutoff line with the best chance of moving on in the Chase.
Sep 18, 2014, 5:44 PM EDT
NASCAR legend Mark Martin was slated to be a driving coach for Danica Patrick in 2014. Now, in an interview with NASCAR Illustrated, we learn what happened.
Sep 18, 2014, 5:16 PM EDT
A flagman officiating a race at Bronson Speedway in Archer, Fla., was killed in a racing accident at the track this past Sunday.
Sep 18, 2014, 3:51 PM EDT
Today’s NASCAR America includes two teams in different directions as we prepare for the second race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Things are looking up for Kevin Harvick’s team, while there’s concern that Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle may not get past the first round of eliminations.
Sep 18, 2014, 3:01 PM EDT
Mark Martin has received numerous honors in his racing career, but this one could be one of the most unique that will ever be bestowed upon him. Martin will return to his native Arkansas next March to serve as grand marshal for the “2015 World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade.”
Sep 18, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
IndyCar confirms return to Brazil as first 2015 international race.
Sep 18, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
Jeff Gordon will set a significant milestone in this Sunday’s second race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Sep 18, 2014, 1:07 PM EDT
8Star Motorsports’ intentions of joining the Indy Lights grid for 2015 are close to becoming a reality.
Sep 18, 2014, 1:05 PM EDT
FIA could be forced to backtrack on plans for this weekend, though.
Sep 18, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
F1 is renowned for being exuberant and exotic. No event screams it more than the Singapore Grand Prix.
Sep 18, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
Everything is in place for the first Russian Grand Prix in 100 years to take place on October 12th.
Sep 18, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT
Twelve finalists named in USF2000 seat shootout.
Sep 18, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
Massa believes that Williams should be aiming to beat Red Bull despite trailing by almost 100 points in the constructors’ championship.
Sep 18, 2014, 9:27 AM EDT
The Volkswagen Beetle makes its debut at the LA doubleheader round this weekend.
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