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.
Mar 28, 2015, 9:01 PM EDT
It was a double dose of Force in Saturday’s final rounds of qualifying for the sixth-annual NHRA 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C.
Mar 28, 2015, 7:46 PM EDT
Roundup of the rest of Saturday’s action from St. Petersburg.
Mar 28, 2015, 7:20 PM EDT
NBC Sports Group’s “Off the Grid” digital series hits Mexico City, set to premiere on March 31.
Mar 28, 2015, 7:11 PM EDT
Simona de Silvestro happy to be somewhat disappointed with 11th in IndyCar qualifying at St. Petersburg.
Mar 28, 2015, 6:45 PM EDT
Takuma Sato puts together a successful qualifying effort for A.J. Foyt Enterprises, ending in fifth and best Honda.
Mar 28, 2015, 6:30 PM EDT
After top-four qualifying sweep, the Team Penske teammates are praising each other rather than trading shots.
Mar 28, 2015, 5:24 PM EDT
Power on pole as Team Penske goes 1-2-3-4 in St. Petersburg qualifying.
Mar 28, 2015, 3:25 PM EDT
Indy Lights’ new era kicks off at St. Petersburg with a new driver and team on top in the series’ new car.
Mar 28, 2015, 1:27 PM EDT
More Will Power on top of IndyCar practice at St. Petersburg.
Mar 28, 2015, 1:01 PM EDT
Franck Montagny receives two-year ban from FIA’s Anti-Doping Disciplinary Committee.
Mar 28, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT
Swedish driver reaches both Q2 and Q3 for the first time in his F1 career, and will start tomorrow’s race from ninth place on the grid.
Mar 28, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
Ricciardo and Kvyat both get inside the top five thanks to the rain in Q3 in Malaysia, but Massa and Bottas struggle.
Mar 28, 2015, 11:30 AM EDT
Monaco’s circuit for the FIA Formula E Championship is revealed.
Mar 28, 2015, 10:28 AM EDT
Incident involving Jann Mardenborough’s Nissan GT-R claims the life of one spectator at the Nordschleife.
Mar 28, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
Dutch youngster scores the best F1 qualifying result for a teenager in 54 years on Saturday in Malaysia.
Mar 28, 2015, 9:15 AM EDT
Spanish driver will make his second debut for McLaren from 18th position on the grid tomorrow.
Mar 28, 2015, 8:30 AM EDT
British driver explains the challenge of judging your qualifying lap in the wet after securing pole position in Malaysia on Saturday.
Mar 28, 2015, 7:49 AM EDT
Merhi and Stevens miss the 107% time required to qualify in Malaysia, but are granted dispensation by the FIA stewards.
Vettel hoping for more rain on Sunday after scoring Ferrari’s first front-row start in two years (VIDEO)
Mar 28, 2015, 7:30 AM EDT
Felipe Massa was the last driver to start on the front row of the grid for Ferrari, lining up second for the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix.
- NHRA: C. Force, Todd, McGaha and Arana Jr. qualify No. 1 for 4-Wide Nationals eliminations 0
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- Hamilton delighted after claiming 40th career pole (VIDEO) 0
- Hamilton tames wet conditions to grab pole in Malaysia 1
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