Sebastian Vettel: 'You need passion. Money will never make you happy'
Even when is pinned against the side of the huge blue Red Bull motor home, with dozens of microphones and cameras pushed into his face, the winner of the last two Formula One drivers' championships manages to look both interested and mildly amused by such consuming attention.
After one of his last sessions of testing at the Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona, with the new season beginning on Sunday week in Melbourne, Vettel answers the same old questions about his prospects of winning a third successive title with a patient little smile. At just 24 he looks every inch an old pro born for this role as a multiple world champion.
It is only later, when darkness has blanketed the track and the roaring screams of competing cars have fallen silent, that Vettel seems able to relax and reveal something of his own passion and historical awareness of racing. In discussing Ayrton Senna and Juan Manuel Fangio, the great Argentinian driver who won five championships in the 1950s and with whom Vettel has recently been compared, the young German also pinpoints how his sport has changed.
The terrible dangers have been curbed; but some of the glamour and pure exhilaration of has drained away. Vettel seems almost rueful that he drives in an era where corporate demands and the modern media have made racing a blander business. "I watched Senna," Vettel says of last year's remarkable documentary on the Brazilian, "and it was very inspiring to me. Maybe the film doesn't show you the entire story, the complete truth, but it was very inspirational to see the background and compare it to today. The driver briefings had lots of emotion."
Does Vettel wish some of that same emotion pulsed through Formula One today? "Yes. Definitely. It's different now. I'm not speaking badly of that time but if you compare racing then and now, 20 years later, then it's much more professional today. Now there's less room for …"
Vettel pauses as he searches for the right word. "Passion?" I ask.
"Yes, maybe passion. I think we still have characters but there's less room and time to show that. It's unnatural today to go out with the other drivers and have a beer. If I did, and there were two or three drivers having a beer on a Saturday night …"
Vettel shrugs in resignation at the consequences. "Well, you wouldn't even want to imagine the fuss and the story it would create. And then if something goes wrong the next day for those three drivers then … woof! It's sad in one way but, in another way, the extreme professionalism now allows you to perform at an even higher level."
Last season, Vettel reached an imperious level of professional brilliance. In 19 grands prix, he was on pole 15 times, reached the podium on 17 occasions and won 11 races – finishing 122 points clear of his closest rival, Jenson Button. "We had a fantastic year," Vettel says. "You don't have this kind of season very often. Even if you look at the seasons Michael [Schumacher] had, when dominating, we did something special. Statistics are not important but it's great when people remind you of this or that. But that's not why we are racing."
Vettel insists he needs "passion" to "survive" in Formula One. "It's the same as every other job, isn't it," he says in his immaculate English. "You need passion to succeed. Yes, being a racing driver is a special job but, generally, if you don't like what you do then you're not going to be very good. You will face a point inside you where you think: 'Is this the right thing? Why am I doing this?'
"If you go to work every morning just because you need a cheque at the end of the month it's not great. Money can be a motivation but it will never make you happy. Obviously, racing in F1, all of us are very fortunate because we're doing something we loved as a child and now it's our job – and we earn good money. So for us, as drivers, it's great. And when you're successful it becomes even better.
"So, yes, last year was nearly faultless and if I see the steps the team has taken from 2009 to 2010 and then from 2010 to 2011 it's incredible. I think last year we didn't have a car as strong as 2010 – but we were stronger as a team. There were a couple of occasions where we made mistakes. Fridays have been poor. I made mistakes. I crashed the car. We got the concentration back when it mattered but on Fridays you only have a couple of hours to prepare the car – so we can improve on that. We had a meeting in January and went over the things that we need to do better and you would be surprised. It was a long list. There were lots of points to improve."
That determination can be seen in Vettel's insistence on staying late into the night at the circuit with his mechanics – rather than slipping away for a more alluring meal in Barcelona. "I would feel bad if I left early – even though it's just one test out of so many. Just because you know how to win a championship doesn't mean you forget all the small steps you take.
"I've just finished my debrief with the team and I could go off for dinner. But I won't. If the engine pops in a race I would feel bad and think maybe it was because I was lazy and didn't push 100%. If I make a mistake, OK, it happens. As long as I've done everything to be at the top of my game then I'm all right. That's why I'm happy to work late tonight."
Vettel smiles his charming smile – and it's easy to see how different, and yet similar, he is to Schumacher. He offers much warmer and more amusing company. Yet Vettel, like Schumacher, puts in the additional graft that earns his team's reverence. Schumacher could seem cold to outsiders – but seeing him working late into the night with Ferrari's mechanics at Maranello was to understand why he engendered such loyalty. Vettel has the same knack.
He also downplays his own role as a driver – even though racing's latest modifications suggest that might not enjoy the same technical supremacy of the past two seasons. Surely driving ability will matter more now that the leading cars are likely to be closer? "Mmmm," Vettel muses. "No. I wouldn't go that far. It's not like racing in the wet where driver skill becomes more obvious. We lost downforce but everyone did – especially at lower-speed corners. The car is just not as quick as it used to be and you definitely feel less grip.
"The last two years we came up with some very clever solutions and it's normal that, after a while, people work out how to copy us. Last year we had a good car, even if it wasn't as far ahead as 2010, but rules change and that's part of Formula One. It's just a shame for the future if people have less room to be creative."
Red Bull still have the best designer by a proverbial mile in Adrian Newey – and a driver in Vettel who seems to improve on his natural brilliance every season. "Generally," he says laconically, "the one who wins it the year before is usually among the favourites the next season."
Would Vettel consider himself the outright favourite this year? "Yes," he says simply.
Such self-belief encouraged Stirling Moss to compare Vettel last month to his old rival, Fangio. "It's very special," Vettel says of Moss's tribute. "Stirling Moss [who is now 82] has seen a lot. I was pretty surprised by what he said. But I've met him a couple of times and he's one of the first heroes of F1. So it's a very big honour he mentions me in the same sentence as Fangio.
"I'm not a specialist when it comes to the history of Formula One but I've obviously heard about how special Fangio was. There aren't many people left who worked with Fangio or raced against him – but there is still Stirling Moss and the stories he tells. What he saw was pretty incredible and so, for me, it's a great compliment."
Schumacher was Vettel's earliest inspiration. "When I grew up Michael was a hero right across Germany. For all the kids racing in go-karts he was the one. I remember, once, there were 120 kids between eight and 12 years old and we were all trying to qualify for this race Michael organised. The final 34 got to compete in the race and it was a big deal because Michael waved the chequered flag. To be part of that was a dream – and to actually win it was the best thing that could ever happen."
Did Vettel win that boyhood race? "I finished seventh," he says with a grin, "and the top seven each got a trophy so it made me very happy."
Earlier, out on the track while testing, Vettel had flown past both Schumacher, racing again for Mercedes at the age of 43, and Bruno Senna in a Williams – for whom his illustrious uncle drove at the time of his tragic death in 1994. Last season Vettel followed Schumacher in becoming only the second driver to score more than 10 victories in a season. This year, if he wins another championship, he will equal Senna's three titles. Fangio's five championships, and even Schumacher's extraordinary record of seven, will seem a little closer.
Will Vettel eventually move from Red Bull to Ferrari as he strives to emulate Schumacher? "I don't know. If you look at Michael you can see how long you can race if you've got the passion. Michael's been around 20 years. I've been in F1 five years. Time goes by quickly but at the moment I can't think of a better place than this. I feel comfortable with the team and happy to work in such a great atmosphere. We're still hungry. We're still pushing for improvement. We're driven for more. We always want more. So at the moment I'm entirely happy. But, sure, one day, it would be a dream to drive for a team like Ferrari."
Until then Vettel aspires to dominate another season in his Red Bull – which will again be named after a girl. Vettel has driven cars he's called Julie, Kate, Kate's Dirty Sister, Luscious Liz and Kinky Kylie.
"We don't know the name yet of the new car," he says of the RB8, "but we've got a shortlist. It has to be a girl's name because I think the car is always nice and pretty and sexy."
Yet this year, with Formula One's changed specifications producing cars that all have a less-than-sexy nose, surely Vettel might be tempted to name his car after an ugly man with a big hooter.
"Maybe a lady with a good chassis and a big nose?" he quips. "As long as it's another winner I won't mind …"