Oct 24, 2013, 3:36 PM EST
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.
Nov 23, 2014, 6:10 PM EST
The world of motorsports — particularly NASCAR and NHRA — is mourning arguably the best public relations person it has ever seen, Denny Darnell, who passed away Saturday.
Nov 23, 2014, 6:00 PM EST
The Charlotte and Texas brawls from this year’s Chase are still resonating weeks after they occurred.
Nov 23, 2014, 5:17 PM EST
Marcos Ambrose is wasting little time in his return to racing V8 Supercars in his native Australia.
Nov 23, 2014, 4:30 PM EST
A wild concept collaboration for Gran Turismo 6 between the Bowtie and famous race car builder Chaparral.
Petty’s 1988 Daytona wreck sold as prelude to upcoming auction of NASCAR Hall of Famer Cotton Owens estate
Nov 23, 2014, 3:53 PM EST
The remains of Richard Petty’s crashed 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix from the 1988 Daytona 500 sold Saturday, a prelude of an even larger auction of late NASCAR Hall of Famer Cotton Owens on Dec. 6.
Nov 23, 2014, 2:30 PM EST
This weekend is the first without a NASCAR race since mid-July.
Nov 23, 2014, 2:00 PM EST
For the last time in 2014, we round up all of the action in the paddock as Lewis Hamilton became Formula 1 world champion for the second time.
Nov 23, 2014, 1:30 PM EST
It’s not enough to beat McLaren in the constructors’, but a great result nevertheless for Hulkenberg and Perez in Abu Dhabi.
Nov 23, 2014, 1:15 PM EST
Lotus laughs rather than cries after a fitting end to its challenging 2014 season.
Nov 23, 2014, 12:45 PM EST
Quite a drive from Daniel Ricciardo, primarily aided by start on primes.
Nov 23, 2014, 12:15 PM EST
After winning four world titles with Red Bull, Vettel is bound for Ferrari in 2015.
Nov 23, 2014, 11:45 AM EST
On a great day for British motorsport, Prince Harry and British Prime Minister David Cameron send their congratulations to Hamilton.
Nov 23, 2014, 11:30 AM EST
Alonso is set to join McLaren in 2015 after five years with Ferrari.
Nov 23, 2014, 11:15 AM EST
An engine failure cost Rosberg the chance to emulate his father and become F1 world champion.
Nov 23, 2014, 10:56 AM EST
Second and third for Massa and Bottas caps an incredible 2014 season for Williams.
Nov 23, 2014, 10:13 AM EST
British driver wins his second F1 championship in Abu Dhabi as title rival Nico Rosberg fails to finish in the points.
Nov 23, 2014, 9:45 AM EST
An engine failure for Nico Rosberg leaves Hamilton free to win the race under the lights in Abu Dhabi and clinch his second world title.
Nov 23, 2014, 8:30 AM EST
F1′s feeder series comes to a close in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
Nov 23, 2014, 7:45 AM EST
The third tier single seater series comes to a close in Abu Dhabi, with Alex Lynn winning the championship.
- Abu Dhabi GP Paddock Notebook – Sunday 0
- Hamilton calls second title victory “the greatest day of my life” 2
- Hamilton clinches second F1 world title by winning Abu Dhabi GP 7
- The Final Showdown: Hamilton and Rosberg prepare for one final battle in Abu Dhabi 0
- Vettel and Ricciardo to start Abu Dhabi GP from pit lane 0
- Abu Dhabi GP Paddock Notebook – Saturday 0
- Red Bull drivers excluded from qualifying in Abu Dhabi 2