Fire starter

Anushree Basu        Print Edition: Nov 13, 2011

Sebastian Vettel's shaggy blond hair curls in a mumpleasing kind of way around his left temple. His disarming smile, a well-tuned sense of humour, and at-home ease hides a mind of steel and a love for speed that would leave most others dizzy.

At just 19, he won a point on his debut race at the 2007 US Grand Prix; becoming the youngest-ever driver to score in a Grand Prix. By the time the season folded up, he was being closely watched by the big names in the game and he soon moved over to Toro Rosso (owned by Red Bull).

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That same year, he secured a brilliant fourth place for Scuderia Toro Rosso at the Chinese Grand Prix, losing to two Ferraris and a McLaren, and went on to became the youngest driver to ever lead an F1 race. A week earlier in Japan he had punted Red Bull Racing's Mark Webber out of second place and himself out of third.

In his first full season in 2008, he won his first pole at Monza, in the Italian Grand Prix. He dominated the race and went on to win, making him the youngest driver to stand on top of an F1 podium. All this giddy fame, and he was only 21 and in his 22nd race.

In 2009, becoming part of Red Bull's senior F1 squad, Red Bull Racing, he took the team's first win in its fifth season of competition. And finally he secured a pole to flag victory, becoming the youngest F1 World Champion, after driving a remarkable race at the Abu Dhabi GP in 2010.

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Once laughingly dubbed 'Baby Schumi' by the German press, he quickly 'grew up' to become the new face of F1-young, talented and focussed; someone knows exactly how to play the media. Like when an expectant journalists wanted to know if the Monza win was the best day of his life, a typical F1-reply would have been: "Yes, for sure this is the best day of my life." Instead, Vettel's response was, "The greatest moment in my life was when... ah but then you weren't there. It was when I lost my virginity." This went on to become, possibly, one of the most quoted line in F1's history.

Fans flock around Vettel for a glimpse
Fans flock around Vettel for a glimpse
So who is Sebbastian Vettel? Is he the new Schumacher? The second installment of the greatest F1 racer from Germany? Like every young achiever, he says his family is his biggest support system and constant inspiration. That could well be because it was his father, Norbert Vettel, who got Seb (as some people call him) behind the wheels, at that time a kart, when he was just two years old. There was no looking back for Vettel as he went on to enter his first fun race at five.

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So has there ever been a Plan B in life? "I don't know. I only left high school a couple of years ago and I was looking at which university to apply to," he says. "If I had gone to university I probably would have done mechanical engineering." Seb's love for all things mechanical comes from his karting days when he and his dad would repair and fine-tune the kart themselves. "A mechanic would cost around €1500 per weekend. So instead, we invested in new tyres and fixed the kart on our own," he says. His father occasionally attends his races, but not in the overbearing Anthony Hamilton-guiding-Lewis way. It is more in the form of lowprofile support from the sidelines.

Vettel fits Red Bull's philosophy to a tee. His comic beanie hat with the Red Bull logo is now part of the team's bestselling merchandise. His trademark check shorts and easy charm combined with the burning desire to race like a devil reflect the brand he drives for, while marking him out as an individual.

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It's interesting that despite his roaring sucess and popularity, both on and off the track, Vettel keeps scant counsel. He has no entourage, no manager, no press secretary. His band consists of his trainer Tommi and the Red Bull team: their communications department, team manager Christian Horner, and Red Bull's F1 guru Dr Helmut Marko.

One would think, racers can't think out of their cars. Seb bucks this trend too. He prefers vinyl over iPod, loves The Beatles, can recite catchphrases from cult British comedies, and when it comes to his wheels, for some reason, he likes to name them. "It started a couple of years ago. This year it's Kinky Kylie, last year it was Luscious Liz, year before there were Kate and Kate's Dirty Sister and at Toro Rosso, it was Julia," he says.

Vettel's 'Kinky Kylie' at a pit stop
Vettel's 'Kinky Kylie' at a pit stop
Sexual connotations apart, sometimes it can be hard to relate the helmeted, fire-suited gladiators of F1 with the lanky 20-somethings who reveal themselves out of their racing armour. And in Seb's case, the gap is wider. "You have to pinch yourself to remember how young he is, to be honest," F1 engineer Adrian Newey famously said about Vettel.

"In the way he presents himself, the way he drives the car, and then tells you about the car in his feedback in the debriefs, he appears to be having a much older pair of shoulders on him," he adds. For very few racers would be found on a pre-racing Thursday evening not at the gym, or downtown, but watching his pit crew practice stops. He covers every aspect of racing; everything that could affect his success.

Stats prove that he is a rare talent: brilliant in treacherous and wet conditions like Monza and frequently devastating in the dry ones. Yet for all this on-track precocity, it's Seb's off-track style that has won hearts, as well as the respect his racing exploits demand. For instance, when he won at Silverstone in 2009, he played-up with the locals by calling himself almost British. A German driver beats Hamilton and Button in their own backyard and still manages to win over their crowd. That's smart and calculated.

So does this precocity feel surreal, or even scary? Again, he comes up with an unconventional reply. "I am only really scared of mice," he says with a poker face. "It has been a gradual process of getting used to this life. There's no fear when I am racing. If something goes wrong on the track, like you go off, usually you can explain it. It could be a technical issue or a mistake, but it's not fear. It's what you don't know that is more scary."

Now just before the 17th race of the season at the Buddh International Circuit for the inaugural Indian Grand Prix begins, this 24-year-old has a stellar track record: has won nine of 14 races, has not finished lower than fourth in any Grand Prix since last October, and is already the youngest two-time world champion after the Japanese Grand Prix held earlier this month. Clearly Vettel has nothing to be afraid of. But then again he says with a wisdom that only winners have, "My weakness is my strength. That's why I keep working on it."

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