It’s the summer of 2013 – Sebastian Vettel has just won the Italian Grand Prix where he faced another round of boos. Booing Vettel for winning is one fad; accusing him of ‘destroying the sport’ is another. The German is blamed of being arrogant, undeserving of his success and a cheater. One needs to go a long way back to find a less popular world champion.
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Two years later, the public opinion on the quadruple world champion has pivoted completely. All but the most ardent Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton fans are ecstatic about Vettel’s win at the Malaysian Grand Prix at the beginning of this season. The media is singing the German praises; a few outlets even put him on top of their ‘Best 2015 Driver’ lists midseason. He is the ‘sport’s saviour’ now. What happened? What changed about Vettel’s personality and performance during these two years?
Actually, very little has changed about Vettel himself. The circumstances are different. The context of Mercedes ongoing domination alters the perceptions of many fans and pundits. The German also joined a new team; a move that goes with a lot of “emotional baggage.”
At least when Vettel was winning everything in 2013, his teammate’s car was catching fire, so there was always the chance that it would not go smoothly for the German.
As the story goes, the “new” personality of Vettel is a lot warmer. He smiles a lot, he jokes with the media. The jokes and the smiles were there also there in 2013, just some fans preferred to focus on a few angry, out of context, team radio messages rather than pretty much every interview Vettel gave back then. The team messages fit the “arrogant” narrative; the stand-up comedian attempts did not.
Yes, maybe there is an extra layer of positivity about Vettel nowadays, but it is hardly newsworthy. The German is unsurprisingly very excited about joining Ferrari. Even in his best days with Red Bull, he was open about being a Schumacher (and thus Ferrari) fan since childhood. He did use the “dream for every driver” line to deflect questions about joining Ferrari immediately, but it was evident wearing the red overalls was Vettel’s dream. It would have been a surprise if the quadruple world champion was so enthusiastic about moving to McLaren or Mercedes. The emotional bond with Ferrari seems to have always been there.
Prior to Vettel’s arrival, many fans of Ferrari expressed negativity towards the German, mostly because he had denied Fernando Alonso and Ferrari two world titles. Back in 2013, Vettel defended the tifosi booing him at Monza with “I don’t blame the people, Ferrari is in their genes” and “you can hear the difference when you don’t win here in a red suit”. Now, Vettel has won in red and there are no tifosi booing him anymore. They already adore him and he has not even won at Monza for Ferrari. Ferrari has the biggest fan base in the sport, so the support of the tifosi has certainly caused a huge swing in the quadruple world champion’s popularity.
The positive feelings towards Vettel’s wins at Malaysia and Hungary, however, were not limited to the fans of the Scuderia. Even fans of long-term rivals Williams and McLaren could not help but be happy about a non-Mercedes driver winning a race. Vettel’s nine consecutive wins in 2013 were dwarfed by the Mercedes dominance in the last 18 months. Since the start of the 2014 season only once a non-Mercedes driver has started from pole (and he was in a Mercedes-powered car) and double wins have happened regularly. At least when Vettel was winning everything in 2013, his teammate’s car was catching fire, so there was always the chance that it would not go smoothly for the German.
Pitted against the might of Mercedes and their impressive 2015 car, Vettel is now the underdog. And this is what makes him popular outside Italy. Vettel has obtained Alonso’s position. He is the talented underdog taking a Ferrari car to places it has no right being. Vettel’s team changed, his driving style didn’t. The successes at Malaysia and Hungary were classic Vettel wins. The quadruple world champion drove impeccably in free air to build a gap big enough to protect him from the DRS or an undercut. The German also nursed the tyres in the manner that brought him the “Pirelli-whisperer” nickname a few years ago.
Overall, Sebastian Vettel has changed very little since winning his fourth world title. The Formula 1 world, however, has experienced dramatic transformations. The hybrid turbo formula made Mercedes the team to beat and made beating him nearly impossible. It sounds odd for a quadruple world champion, but Vettel is now very much the underdog. He probably needed to fight just as hard for his wins back in 2013, but the wins for Ferrari in 2015 are perceived differently.
The “the champion that faced difficulties in 2014, but redeemed himself by winning for the most popular Formula 1 team” story is a lot more positive than the “prodigy that lucked into several great Adrian Newey cars” spin Vettel got during his best days at Red Bull Racing. There is no “new Seb”. There is, however, a new mainstream perception of him. He is now the struggling Ferrari messiah, not the leading driver of a successful team with limited fan following.