Although he has started less than half as many races, Sebastian Vettel has now equalled Fernando Alonso’s 20 pole positions, has passed Lewis Hamilton’s pole tally easily and with his win on Sunday he equalled Hamilton’s total of 14 wins.
The events of Monaco weekend showed that this is all rather hard to take for Hamilton, as it was for Alonso before him. The three men stand head and shoulders above the other F1 drivers in terms of their quality and their dominance of the sport.
It’s all about succession- or rather premature succession. When Ayrton Senna died and Alain Prost retired, there was an obvious candidate to step up and become F1’s reference point: Michael Schumacher.
And he held that role comfortably for over a decade, fending off the likes of Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and even Mika Hakkinen. When Fernando Alonso came along and took two world titles in the mid 2000s, Schumacher knew his time had come.
Alonso was confronted almost immediately by Lewis Hamilton, who in turn now finds himself contemplating a younger man in a team which is on top of its game. Vettel is cutting up F1 and grabbing the headlines, with a world title last year and surely another one this year – with five wins in six races already.
As I stood on the quayside on Saturday night in Monaco, surveying the huge Red Bull floating motorhome with over 1,000sq metres of floor space on three levels plus a swimming pool, it struck me how powerful has become the upstart brand in F1, represented by Vettel, and symbolic of what Red Bull has done generally in Formula 1. They came in as the challenger brand and now they are the benchmark. They are now entitled to put their mouth where their money is.
A few years ago, when they bought the shambolic Jaguar team, based in Milton Keynes, they struggled to get a hand hold on the greasy pole to victory. When they rolled up in Monaco with the floating gin palace it seemed so brash.
But since hiring design genius Adrian Newey and with the arrival of Vettel in 2009, they’ve been a constant factor at the front and now it is established teams like Ferrari which are buckling under the pressure and whose motorhomes seem modest.
Ferrari’s sacking of technical director Aldo Costa was a hugely symbolic moment – it spoke volumes that an energy drink company is doing it better than the doyenne of Formula 1.
The sport embodies the theory of evolution on fast forward; the survival of the fittest and the most fitting. Ferrari have survived over 60 years and their energy and ability to adapt is admirable, but in sport no-one is immune to changes.
Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz has often said that he has no plans to sell his company or float it on the stockmarket. “It’s not a question of money,” he argues. “It’s a question of fun.”
Despite his success and his youth, Vettel looks to me like he’s become far more serious this year. He now has the target on his back, but more than that he’s keen to prove that he’s not just winning because of his car, he’s winning because he’s maturing into Hamilton and Alonso’s equal. Not everyone in F1 buys that yet, but wins like Spain and Monaco, both achieved under intense pressure, are showing a real depth to Vettel’s talent.
The 2011 season is a journey for the young German; a journey away from being the upstart brand towards being the establishment.