Sebastian Vettel hasn’t changed a bit – but perceptions of him have

Is Sebastian Vettel really a much more likable character now he's winning with Ferrari than at Red Bull? Charles Bradley argues it's merely perceptions of him that have changed, rather than the man himself.

Sebastian Vettel hasn’t changed a bit – but perceptions of him have
Charles Bradley, Motorsport.com editor in chief
Start: Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari leads
Podium: winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, second place Daniil Kvyat, Red Bull Racing, third place Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing
Podium: winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, second place Daniil Kvyat, Red Bull Racing, third place Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari celebrates on the podium with James Allison, Ferrari Chassis Technical Director
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari celebrates on the podium
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari celebrates in parc ferme
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF15-T celebrates in parc ferme
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF15-T leads behind the FIA Safety Car
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF15-T
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari celebrates with Maurizio Arrivabene, Ferrari Team Principal
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari celebrates with Maurizio Arrivabene, Ferrari Team Principal
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari celebrates with Maurizio Arrivabene, Ferrari Team Principal
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari celebrates on the podium
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari in the FIA Press Conference
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari celebrates on the podium
Race winner Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari celebrates on the podium with Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing

I had an argument with a friend with whom I work the other day – well, let’s call it a frank exchange of views until we both agreed that I was right. The subject was Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari driver, versus Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull driver.

His argument was he’d never much cared for ‘Red Bull Vettel’, but he liked ‘Ferrari Vettel’ much more – OK, fine so far. But when I asked why the change of heart, he then claimed Seb has changed drastically, and had become much more friendly and amusing since his switch to the Scuderia.

I wasn’t buying that. My view is that he’s still the same Sebastian Vettel he ever was - the variable here, I suggested, was my friend’s perception of him.

He argued that Vettel was an arrogant, unlikeable character at Red Bull. I countered that the only thing Vettel ever truly did ‘wrong’ at Red Bull was the Malaysian Grand Prix Multi-21 farrago – at the time, it appeared a heat-of-the-moment decision where he let his ruthless, reflex side rule the big-picture element of his brain.

After a period of apparent contrition, and apologies to the team, a few weeks later we discovered he’d actually done it on purpose – to get Mark Webber back for squeezing him at Turn 1 in the Brazilian GP a year earlier when he’d almost lost a world title as a consequence. But that’s hardly a sackable offence…

A previous encounter

I was once treated to a stark example of Vettel’s race-face dark side when he effectively lost the Formula 3 Euroseries title to Paul di Resta in 2006 at Le Mans.

Vettel had already spun a podium finish away in race one, but compounded this by running through the gravel in race two, easing di Resta’s march to the title. Beaten twice by his teammate, the cardinal sin… Imagine the rollicking he’d have received from Dr Marko for that one!

It was the seminal weekend of that season, and I probably broke quite a few rules by gatecrashing parc ferme while the French marshals weren’t looking. I intercepted Vettel in the queue for the weighing scales, literally seconds after he’d got out of the car and removed his crash helmet.

Gone was the tousled-haired smiley kid I’d been keeping tabs on since Formula BMW, where he was clearly a stand-out talent and with a genuinely engaging personality to go with it every time we spoke.

I suddenly felt like I was in a scene from the exorcist – this simply wasn’t the same person I had grown accustomed to dealing with. The most remarkable aspect was he didn’t even sound like his regular self as he growled one-word responses to my questions to what had gone so badly wrong.

In fact, the only multi-word response I got was him suggesting that I’d got what I wanted as a fellow Brit was now going to win the title! Talk about out of character…

So, while I’ll acknowledge that he has a dark side, for want of a better phrase, the other 99 percent of the time Vettel has been nothing but gracious, generous with his time and genuinely funny to be around.

Besides, show me an elite sportsman and multiple world champion who doesn’t pack the ability to be utterly ruthless and single-minded when it suits them?

Tarnished by domination

Seb’s only true ‘crime’ was F1 domination with Red Bull – the pointy finger made an appearance on the podium last Sunday too, but was Twitter full of groans? Hell, no. Everyone loved a truly great race and the outcome of Ferrari (and Red Bull, ironically) beating Mercedes.

To suggest he’s only become a likeable figure since moving to Ferrari just doesn’t wash in my opinion. In fact, I’m really impressed with how he’s managed to keep his head level after following a childhood dream of following in the footsteps of his idol, Michael Schumacher.

If there’s one thing in life that could justify anyone acting like a bit of a jackass, then driving for the most famous F1 team in the world is surely it!

He’s a driver I’ve got a lot of time for, and think that Bernie Ecclestone’s suggestion that Vettel was a worse representative than Lewis Hamilton as a world champion is frankly an odd thing to say. I look forward to hearing what Vettel has to say, because I know he’ll say something rather than the noise that some drivers regularly spout.

Judging the mood perfectly

I enjoyed the way Vettel got a little misty eyed and wistful when it was pointed out that he’d matched Ayrton Senna’s Grand Prix victory tally on Sunday – you could tell that meant a lot. He then quickly snapped back into ‘interview mode’ – another clear mental tool he’s perfected over the years. He’s as sharp as a tack.

His “c’est pour Jules” comment on the radio on the in-lap and on the podium was a mark of the man, and his willingness to learn Italian might even (whisper it) transcend Schumacher in the hearts of the tifosi if he can bring the success that he achieved with Red Bull.

An important part of the whole 'Vettel plus Ferrari equals success' equation will be the constant that he brings to the party. Did you hear his other significant radio comment at the weekend? “This shows what happens when we don’t panic."

It certainly suggests there’s been some recent pulling in different directions in the garage, especially when the Friday practice sessions hadn’t gone to plan.

He brings that blend of Germanic-Franco-Anglo calm from the cockpit that he’s learned in his formative years (remember he raced for Mucke, ART and Carlin before he got to F1) to an Italian outfit that’s got a proven record of maelstrom (just ask Fernando Alonso).

And who knows what they might achieve together if they continue to gel with James Allison at the technical helm?

Another friend of mine suggested recently that Ferrari was unwise to get rid of Alonso. As much as I rate Fernando’s sublime talent, I actually think it was one of its better moves in recent times. That relationship had gone stale; there were doubts from both sides.

For me, the chances of Ferrari’s future success now all hinges on Vettel staying the same old Vettel he ever was. Then, there could be great times ahead.

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