Is Sebastian Vettel Formula One's greatest?
Sebastian Vettel wrapped up a fourth consecutive drivers' championship in India on Sunday. (Getty Images)
October 28th, 2013
06:03 PM ET

Is Sebastian Vettel Formula One's greatest?

There aren’t many four-time Formula One world champions to speak of. In terms of scarcity they’re up there with hen’s teeth, tires that last a whole race and single-dollar bills in Bernie Ecclestone’s wallet.

Of the hundreds of drivers who have pitted their wits in one of the world’s top motorsport divisions since 1950, only four have sealed a quadruple of titles: Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel entered this elite club with his win in India on Sunday and, for once, topped the podium to cheers rather than the boos that have become all too regular for the young German this season.

Speaking to reporters after the race the man from Heppenheim said:  "It's very difficult for me personally, to receive boos, even though you haven't done anything wrong.

"At the time it hurts not to get the reception you expect but I think I'm clever enough to understand why they do it. I'm not blaming them."

How sad that a man of just 26, who possesses era-defining talent and a history-making record of achievement should have to contend with such negativism.

For any in doubt, Vettel’s numbers should help illuminate.

Of 117 grand prix, Vettel has finished on the podium in nearly 70% of his races, 42% as the man at the top. Schumacher’s win rate was 29% and Prost’s 26%, only the master Fangio is better at 47% .

That’s a staggering rate of return given that Vettel, unlike Lewis Hamilton for example, did not begin his career in a car capable of winning (after stints with BMW Sauber and then Torro Rosso.)

Who knows how many titles Ayrton Senna would have secured if his life had not been cut so tragically short. Happily for Vettel, the peak of his driving career lies ahead of him.

Critics often point to the Red Bull being technically far in advance of any other car on the grid, but how often has Mark Webber delivered with much the same equipment?

How many times has Webber withstood the pressure of the fading qualifying window to perfect a lap time for pole, or stretched the performance of his tires to get an edge on his rivals?

How many others have remained as cool when leading the field or negotiated the chaos of the first corner to emerge unscathed?

Vettel has delivered time and time again this season and when Red Bull design genius Adrian Newey - who has previously worked with Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Mika Hakkinen - says his charge has no chinks left in his armour you better believe him.

Mansell, who spoke to me at his recently opened museum, agreed with the appraisal: “Sebastian is a class act. He made mistakes three or four years ago, when he won his first world championship. He doesn't really make mistakes [anymore], he makes the right decisions at the right time.

“He is very good at getting everybody behind him, he's super cool now, under extreme pressure at times. And he knows what he can do and he knows exactly what the opposition can do before it happens so, he's a step ahead.

“I feel he deserves the accolade in the present crop of drivers and cars and everything else, he's the best there is. And that's not just because I'm a fan of his and I think I am a fan of his.  I think that is not correct that he's getting booed.”

The ability to get the team working for you as a driver is an underplayed skill in Formula One, and one that British Formula One broadcaster Murray Walker argues has been a key attribute of Vettel.

“He's an absolutely brilliant driver and he's got enormous talent in making the team work for him rather than his teammate which is something Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna were both very good at,” Walker told CNN.

Driving skill and team politics aside, how many other drivers have remained on such good terms with so many other pilots on the grid when dominating them?

Ferrari rival Fernando Alonso heartily congratulated Vettel on his title win as did Hamilton, who even suggested the German was on his way to becoming the “greatest in F1”. Lotus driver Romain Grosjean revealed to CNN a side to Vettel that Red Bull team principal Christian Horner often talks about but is not always seen.

“He is quite funny.  Every time we are together on the podium, we have a good laugh and we like to share jokes.  I can understand German when he speaks German, he can understand French when I speak French so we always joke about it and he's a nice young man,” Grosjean said.

Vettel is erudite, mature beyond his years, prodigiously skilled and private and humble in comparison to many of his contemporaries in the world of elite sporting athletes.

Already he has a decent claim to be the greatest ever and this will surely only strengthen over time. Is it his fault that there are no rivals strong enough to test him fully?

soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. carsinactiontwo

    Hate him or love him, he is the best driver formula 1 has right now and I feel he's not done collecting titles. Well done Mr. Vettel, you truly are talented 🙂

    October 28, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Reply
  2. George

    Agree totally, especially last sentence. It is not his fault that there is no one who can beat him. Thats what makes him a contender for GOAT! Everyone thinks that he has it easy but people forget last year at the last race of the season in Brazil ions. If this does not persuade doubters then nothing will.

    October 28, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • tiago bangkilan

      GOAT does not exist. coz time hasn't ended (yet).

      October 30, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Reply
  3. Ricardo Barros

    And Ayrton Senna, drivin against Prost, Mansell and Ballestre? The last is who stole a Ayrton's world championship and gave to Prost, when he was the powerful man at FIA.

    Numbers aren`t enough when another pilot can do anything (good or bad) to win.

    It`s my idea.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Reply
    • John Doe

      Senna crashed out at Adelaide, so the 1989 Suzuka fiasco is pretty much a moot point. He wouldn't have won the championship in 1989 even if he did collect the win he deserved in Japan.

      October 30, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  4. Rene

    Well... this is a very debatable claim. Like Shumacher before him, the main knock for Vettel is the level of the competition. Aside from Alonso, there are few other drivers who can challenge him. If you compare this to the era of Senna, you find Senna had to compete with Prost, Piquet, Mansell, all of them World Champions.

    October 28, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  5. jlc

    Why does he receive boos ? What mistake earned that ?

    October 28, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Reply
    • MJT

      The true metal of Vettal was shown when he ignored team orders not to pass Webber during a race. This would have given Webber the win and Red Bull a 1-2 on the podium anyway. He did pass and with no repercussions. If Red Bull had penalised Vettal for this, IMHO he would not be receiving these boos.
      Ultimately, the actions led to Webber’s decision to retire, which may have been the right decision anyway.

      October 29, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Reply
      • JK

        I don't know where you are getting your facts from. 1. Webber Ignored team orders in Silverstone and most recent in Brazil last year when the championship was at stake. 2. Webber announced in Monaco that he invited all Media in Australia ( his home race ) for dinner as a good bye – he had already made a decision to retire from F1 before the Malaysia Incident.

        October 31, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
  6. Cannondaler

    I hope on the last podium of the last race this year Mike Webber turns to Vettel and kicks him right in the that would be a Formula 1 finish I'd love to see.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:52 pm | Reply
  7. taxpayer in essex

    Fangio,Jim Clark and Stirling Moss drove cars at over 150 mph,No Seat Beats.
    Leather helmets.
    No Computers.
    No Traction control.
    Basically Nothing between them and eternity.
    You drive by the seat of your pants.
    Now they have full face crash helmets, that are also controlled to stop sudden de acceleration,(whip lash)
    Computers, radio to driver.
    .Namby Pamby Driving.
    Let them do a couple of races in the old pre 50s F1 cars n see whos a good driver.
    Like every driver on the road,by his/hers own skill not a computer controlling the car.
    AND a clutch No paddle gears.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Reply
  8. Mr. T

    The answer to your question is no, Alonso is a much better driver and Senna is F1 greatest driver.

    October 28, 2013 at 10:01 pm | Reply
    • Mario R. Aquino Jr. M.D.

      Agree 100%

      October 29, 2013 at 11:49 am | Reply
    • Richard


      October 31, 2013 at 4:55 am | Reply
    • Rouzbe


      November 29, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Reply
    • Jack


      December 20, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  9. Kevin Anderson

    I'm not interested in voting for this, because you give me false choices.

    If you want to know who the greatest driver is, and you don't even put Senna's name on the list, you aren't going to get the right answer.

    This poll was obviously not written by someone with good knowledge of F1's history.

    October 28, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Reply
    • Neal Naeyaert

      Amen brother!

      October 31, 2013 at 1:53 am | Reply
  10. betinho

    Senna was better than all of them together

    October 28, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Reply
  11. Gladson Pereira

    Greatest is Ayrton Senna.

    October 28, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  12. omegafifteen

    It doesn't make sense to compare pilots when cars make so much difference.

    October 29, 2013 at 3:46 am | Reply
  13. ja500let

    Reblogged this on jadullover and commented:
    yeah,, he has just become a young legend F1

    October 29, 2013 at 10:46 am | Reply
  14. kamote

    you want to see the greatest driver on the planet,go to the philippines,and you will see the jeepney drivers,daredevil driving their jeep.

    October 29, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  15. Miguel

    I think Fangio was the biggest champion in Formula 1, those days you had to drive with your mind and hart, not with a computer as today. Those were braves, intrepid. Remember Nuburgring 1957, best Fangio race.

    October 29, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  16. Francis Ivonne

    Vettel has the wins he has under his belt because he is a golden child to Red Bull. He has a great car, that is it. He is a reckless pilot and has no skills when it going to actually BEING a "Great" for Formula1. He has no care in the world when it even comes to being a good teammate. i.e. what he did to his own team member in one of the first races of the year, disobey orders or not passing his own team member up for the win. There are MANY great pilots that should be worth headlining here instead of Vettel. Alonso (who actually forced the retirement of Schumacher because he just couldn't keep up anymore), Hamilton, Kimi with his amazing comeback. Why is it that Webber doesn't have as many wins as Vettel? He's a true pilot on the same Red Bull team? Ever think about that?

    October 29, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Reply
    • ASC

      Because Mark isn't as talented as Vettel.

      At the end of the day Vettel is just a good driver.

      I don't know if he is the best, since he has yet to see the ups and downs that Fernando Alonso and
      Lewis Hamilton have been through.
      But he is still young (26) and it will inevitably happen to Vettel too.

      And when it happens we will all see if he really is the best,
      or just a good driver with an amazing (Adrian Newey designed) car.

      but now he is the 2013 Formula One drivers World Champion, for the fourth time!
      something only Michael Schumacher,Juan Manuel Fangio and Alain Prost have done.

      And even though Vettel has received alot of hatred, don't forget, Michael Schumacher received the same comments and loathing that Vettel receives today.

      I don't know if you (and all the people who boo'ed) are right, or I am,

      But only time can tell.

      October 29, 2013 at 7:05 pm | Reply
      • ASC

        Also, no matter what side your on:

        You can't say his celebration at the 2013 Indian Grand Prix wasn't epic.

        October 29, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
  17. Ben

    The ironic thing here is if you ask around on the paddocks "who's the best driver in F1 today". I bet you their answer would be "Alonso" much like last year when Vettel won the WDC but Alonso got 8 out of 12 team bosses vote as "Driver of the Year". That certainly says something.

    October 30, 2013 at 1:31 am | Reply
  18. Luis Filpo

    I can't believe you had the nerd of writing this meaningless column, making a comparison with Vettel and other great drivers. I don't denied the fact that he won his fourth title, but he is not the best. To be the best you must drive with everything you got and whatever you get. So far Vettel has the fastest car on the track. He is only job is to put his car in front and drive fast. I will like to see him compete with another car, let see how good he is. About him making the list of four time champions. Only Fangio is worthy of holding the title of all time great. Back in those days there is no KERS or DRS or anything else. It was just a steering wheel, engine, tires and scrap metal. About Alonso I think he will win his third, at least he deserves that title

    October 30, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  19. CheckeredFlag

    LOl I love all the Vettel haters, YOU ARE POOR SPORTS. He's kicked butt in Monza in 2008 in a scrub car..and has improved every year. His talent is a statement of fact. It's really funny how all the other drivers acknowledge his accomplishments...yet the arm chair drivers/detractors continue to boo. So what how cares about your poor sportmanship?

    October 30, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Reply
    • Sitaram

      Affirmative. It is not joke when a guy like Hamilton acknowledges him as among the best.....

      October 31, 2013 at 4:59 am | Reply
  20. Seb F1 Legend

    Vettel better then Schumi and Fangio? Maybe not yet.
    Better then Senna and Alonso? Absolutely, on every level. 4 times WDC says it all. (2012 against 5 previous WDC champs) No one has done that.

    He is a Legend!

    October 30, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Reply
  21. itsdaveboy

    If Hamilton ever joined Red Bull then Vettel wouldn't even be the best in his own team, never mind ever.

    The greatest F1 driver was Senna by quite a way.

    November 3, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  22. Smith328

    Why can't I vote for Senna? Schumacher may have more titles, but Senna was the best ever

    November 11, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  23. Elgrande

    Ayrton SENNA Da Silva obviously. Vettel is not in the top 5.
    He is driving the best car by far these last 4 years.

    November 12, 2013 at 3:30 am | Reply
  24. dadude

    In case the vettel lovers are wondering what the fixation is with senna, u can add the fact that he drove the same car or worse as the other great drivers of his time and often beat them, unlike the current wc whose car is so far ahead of the competition... This is precisely why alonso is ahead of him considering what he s done with inferior cars, and possibly kimi as well...

    Anyone know why red bull eventually decided not to take kimi on for 2014..??

    November 12, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
    • dadude

      BTW, for the record, i was never a senna fan and was actually a prost fan... but even that shouldnt stop you from recognising greatness when you see it...

      As for schumie, he never had competition in the ferarri years and when he did with mika, he got beat..! also cheated to win his 1st wc by knocking hill off the track (a copy of senna tactics and since copied by vettel and to a lesser extent by lewis..)

      And one more thing, if alonso wasnt knocked off in 2 races towards the end of last year, we'd be talking of vettel s 3rd title now...

      November 12, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  25. Michael Trinbago

    I think qualification is the closest the inferior cars can get to the Red Bull. With light fuel the car/tyre relationship isn't tested so Mercedes/Lotus can perform their best there as we've seen many times with LH BEATING SV. But once in race trim NEWEY'S GENIUS CAR adapts best to the heavy fuel load and is least destructive to tyres. I recommend DURABLE TYRES AND REFUELLING for closer F1 racing. And to add to the driver debate, don't be fooled by the other top drivers' gracious pronouncements. They know they will look bad by hating publicly. FA has rated LH better than SV on YOUTUBE. See "Vettel is not the same as Hamilton." I don't blame SV for maximising his talent in a great car, but I see him like Button and BrawnGP. I suspect that if LH or FA were in a Red Bull also, SV wouldn't dominate them like he does Webber.

    November 13, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  26. Frank

    Senna is probably the best driver. It's splitting hairs with others.

    But Senna had inferior equipment for all but about 5 years. His most amazing season probably was 1993 when he was essentially racing with one year old tech and still managed to win 5 races that season.

    Just look up Senna 1993 Donington. One lap video pretty much shows why he's the best. Remember inferior equipment and blowing away the field. Senna (at the time of his death) had the most pole positions. It's sad but 1994 was first time in years he had top equipment. He qualified on pole on all the starts that season. Considering Williams was dominant the next few seasons. Who knows if senna would have ended with 4-6 titles.

    November 15, 2013 at 3:53 am | Reply
  27. Eduardo

    Ayrton Senna is the greatest driver of all time.

    January 5, 2014 at 4:56 am | Reply
  28. Robert

    What about Senna!!!!!

    March 5, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.