Vettel's lonely life in the F1 fast lane

Story highlights

  • Sebastian Vettel won 13 of the 19 grands prix in the 2013 Formula One season
  • Red Bull racer wrapped up a fourth straight title and equaled record for nine straight race wins
  • Lewis Hamilton says Vettel "can just cruise" to wins; Vettel says he is not bored by winning
  • New rules changes coming in 2014 could halt Vettel and Red Bull's winning streak

Sebastian Vettel is getting used to life as Formula One's lone racer.

The four-time world champion jokes that he has become something of a 'Sunday driver' -- it's just that he irritates those on the road behind him by being too quick instead of being proverbially slow behind the wheel.

"It is a Sunday afternoon drive," he mused to CNN after winning the penultimate race of the season in Austin, Texas. "But not in that regard."

Along with his faithful Red Bull steed, Vettel has powered to four straight world championships and polished off a record-equaling nine consecutive race wins at the season ending Brazilian Grand Prix.

Even more mind boggling, is the fact that he has won at least three of those races 30 seconds ahead of the next car -- an enormous margin by the sport's modern standards.

When it was pointed out at the United States Grand Prix that the reigning world champion had won by a measly 6.2 seconds, he joked that perhaps the watching world was disappointed that he had not put his foot down.

Class of one

For the sport's global audience of half a billion viewers and those watching from rival team garages, it is, of course, no joke.

Vettel probably could have injected a turn of pace Speedy Gonzalez would have been proud of if he wanted to and won by a country mile.

"We just wanted to make sure there was plenty available," Red Bull team boss Christian Horner agreed after the Austin race.

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Despite being surrounded by a field of drivers that includes four world champions, Vettel has effectively been racing himself.

So how does it feel to be driving in a class of one?

"It's not as if I've been getting bored," the 26-year-old German racer deadpanned.

Even the best drivers in the world have to get the basics of motor racing right -- making a clean start, handling the seesawing balance of the car as it eats up fuel and managing the life of the tires to time the pit stops and maintain, or gain, an advantage over your rivals.

"Obviously I've quite a lot to do," Vettel explained. "First of all, I have to match their pace. Obviously when they do come closer it's not the best feeling because you want the gap to increase always.

"Certainly it's a great feeling when you do pull away, and then it's about pacing yourself, pacing yourself to get the range, to look after the tires etc.

"There are a lot of things going on but also it's a nice feeling to have a little bit of a gap because you can take it a little bit easier in some crucial places, to look after the tires and benefit from that, especially later on in the stint.

"Overall, you do tend to have quite a bit of work in the car."

Team orders

Vettel has won 13 races in 2013 but not all of them have been at a canter.

The 26-year-old caused a stink when he ignored team orders to snatch victory from his Red Bull team mate Mark Webber in Malaysia.

Then in Germany he fended off the Lotus drivers while in Japan, Vettel clawed back victory, again from Webber, on tire strategy.

The 10 other race victories? Well, they can be summed up by a single word -- dominance.

There have been signs that perhaps Vettel, the lone racer, has been finding other ways to keep himself busy in the car.

For one thing, the German claimed the DHL award for setting the highest number of fastest laps during the races in a single season.

In 2013, Vettel set the fastest lap seven times -- and yes, there is actual silverware to add to his bursting trophy cabinet.

There have also been hints that Vettel has been amusing himself by testing the limits of his Red Bull team, as he pushes the limits of the car.

His level-headed race engineer Guillaume "Rocky" Rocquelin has often had to be the voice of reason on the pit-to-car radio warning Vettel to be patient, not to abuse the tires and to focus on "distance not speed."

Even team boss Horner put on his best parental voice when he tried to persuade an impatient Vettel not to pass Webber for the victory in Malaysia, saying: "This is silly, Seb."

Does Horner agree, I asked him at the Austin race, that Vettel has had to find new ways of testing himself by pushing the limits of his car and the team when he is able to win races so easily?

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"What are you trying to say; that he'd like to go for it a bit more?" Horner responded.

"Of course, Seb's very fixated on the fastest lap record, and he'd be enormously p****d off if he didn't get that trophy," he continued, with a dash of tongue in cheek humor.

"His enthusiasm runs away with him at times, I keep telling Rocky 'OK now you can slow him down.'"

Horner did, however, add that Vettel was equally comfortable notching up victories out in front or scrapping it out in a close fight with his peers.

"He enjoys competing, he enjoys winning and he'll do the best that he can in the circumstances, if that means going wheel to wheel with somebody he'll get satisfaction out of both.

"It's a question of managing the race. We've seen it with him so many times -- he's incredibly good at that."

Those racing behind the virtually untouchable German can also appreciate what Vettel has been able to achieve with car designer Adrian Newey's peerless Red Bull at his fingertips.

Era of dominance

Mercedes' racer Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, told CNN he could barely remember winning a race by a clear 30 seconds -- although he did win a wet British Grand Prix in his championship-winning year with McLaren by more than a minute.

"In F1 it's always five seconds or maybe 10 maximum," Hamilton explained, when considering what it must have been like for Vettel to win races so dominantly in 2013.

"When you have that kind of gap you can just cruise; when you're that much faster than everyone you can just cruise, you've got no traffic, you've got time to pit, no-one in front of you -- it's really easy.

"When you have that time in the bag you don't make mistakes because you don't have to push to the limit.

"You can control it more and be more at ease and have more time to think about things. It's a much, much different position to be in than fighting in the midfield."

Hamilton, alongside fellow world champions Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, publicly refused to declare the sport as boring under Vettel's era of dominance.

But racing drivers have egos and inside they must privately acknowledge a gnawing sense of frustration that they have been fighting this season for the title of 'best of the rest'.

Major rule changes loom large on the horizon in 2014 -- it's a chance for Formula One to press the reset button.

Vettel may have raced off into the sunset as a lone racer in 2013 but next season he could find himself reunited with a posse of fierce racing rivals.

For now, the achievements of his record season are still sinking in.

"It is very, very difficult for me to realize what we have achieved again," Vettel said as he faced the media for the final time at Brazil's season finale.

"I'm actually quite sad that this season comes to an end. Hopefully one day, when I've got less hair and I'm chubby then it's something nice to look back to."

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