The secret of Vettel's success: working on the area of biggest potential advantage
Sky Sports F1 commentary expert Mark Hughes explains how the World Champion has got the most out of his car
By Mark Hughes
Last Updated: 31/10/13 9:08am
Perhaps that's partly because Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher all won titles with more than one team whereas Vettel's have all been achieved with Red Bull - a team that has produced the fastest car for the last four years.
The simplistic thinking is that slotting a Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton into the other Red Bull would reveal Vettel to be merely a good driver and not one of the all-time greats. But that's to under-estimate Vettel's stunning speed and the reasons behind it - and also of what it is that makes up a great driver. Both may be made clearer into the new formula of 2014.
The actual demands made of a driver, the fine-edged detail requirements that distinguish the mere naturally gifted from the winning machines, vary from era to era, season to season, car to car. But what is undeniable is that Vettel's Championships have all been won with what in essence is the same basic concept of car. Red Bull's technical chief Adrian Newey considers this year's RB9 to be simply the fifth evolution of a design lineage that began with 2009's RB5.
The regulations have been tweaked from time to time during that intervening period, but essentially Vettel has got to fine-hone his skills on cars with a similar basic feel. That all goes out the window with the new formula of 2014 with radically different engine and aerodynamic regulations.
What has separated Vettel over the years from Mark Webber - his very good, multiple grand-prix winning team-mate - has been his ease with rear instability on corner entry. This has proved to be a major asset during an era dominated by exhaust-enhanced aerodynamics. In his first Championship season of 2010 it did not play a role and his performance was very closely matched with Webber's; in fact only the latter's accident in the rain of Korea swung things in Vettel's favour. Without that, Webber would have won the title.
But in 2011 exhaust blowing took off in a major way. Initially, blowing only on-throttle, the trick was in getting as early on the throttle as possible and in this Webber had a slight edge. But as the technology was developed and the on-throttle grip increase became stronger, so there was more advantage for Vettel's ability to have the car oversteering on corner entry and then using the enhanced exhaust downforce to halt the slide's momentum. At this point his advantage over Webber increased enormously and even the advent of cold (off-throttle) blowing wasn't enough to counter that.
That latter technology was banned for 2012 and initially Webber was closely matched to his team-mate once more, but as Red Bull developed chassis dynamics that used entry oversteer to aid direction change, so Vettel was able to use the strong on-throttle blowing once more to counter the downsides of that oversteer - and his advantage over Webber returned. That has continued into 2013.
The point is that exhaust blowing has been the single most powerful aerodynamic tool of the last three seasons - and it's the area therefore where Vettel has devoted the most time, thought and energy. It's a trait that his team boss Christian Horner sees in his everyday approach. "After P1 each Friday you will see him trying to work out where the biggest area of advantage is going to be, the removal of what limitation is going to find him the most lap time. He will go away and think about it, work towards it and then by Saturday he's devastating. And he's just getting better and better at that."
It isn't so much that exhaust blowing technology came along and luckily dovetailed into Vettel's strengths; it is that Vettel developed these strengths as he recognised the area of biggest potential advantage.
Next season exhaust blowing is definitively gone. The single exhaust pipe sticks out the middle of the car, well behind the downforce-inducing diffuser and brake ducts. Furthermore, being turbocharged, the engine produces a vastly reduced amount of exhaust energy, as much of it has already been used in driving the turbo.
So the challenge - and the key area of advantage - will switch to something else. Working out how best to use what little fuel you have, perhaps? Whatever it turns out to be, Vettel will be hungrily onto it and his sharp mind and fierce competitive drive will combine with his natural talent - and this will continue to make him a truly great driver.