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The youngest ever world champion's unexpected 2010 triumph provided a surprise ending to an intensely competitive season. Sebastian Vettel's driving prowess accounted for the several age-related records he set. His winning personality accounted for the multitude of fans he made. There was surely more to come. And it came quickly, when he completely dominated in 2011 to become the youngest double world champion. In 2012, with a series of comebacks from setbacks against the strongest opposition in the longest ever season, he took the title again to become the youngest triple world champion. In truth the precocious youngster who came so far so fast was in a hurry from the time he was a toddler...
Just three years and half years after he was born, on 3 July, 1987, Sebastian Vettel began the way of life that would take him to the very pinnacle of motorsport. His method of transport was a miniature kart, the venue was the yard at his home in Heppenheim, a town in southwestern Germany. Little Sebastian quickly mastered the machine and began lapping faster and faster, shrieking with glee and refusing to stop until he was exhausted. The source of little Seb's joy soon became a focal point of family life for the Vettels. Norbert, a carpenter by trade and in his spare time an enthusiastic kart racer and occasional hillclimber, and his wife Heike had three other children: older daughters Stefanie and Melanie, and a younger son Fabian. His family's support helped the would-be racer fulfill a destiny that would make the Vettel name a household word around the world.
He made his kart racing debut at the age of seven and immediately began winning races and championships. One of his early trophies was presented by his idol Michael Schumacher, who befriended the awestruck boy, noting their similar backgrounds and encouraging him to follow his passion and reach for the top. But that would take more money than the Vettels could afford. The solution came in the form of sponsorship from Red Bull, whose talent-spotters decided Sebastian was worthy of inclusion in the energy drink maker's young driver training programme.
Learning and improving all the time he graduated with flying colours into single seaters. As a 17-year-old schoolboy he won an unprecedented 18 of 20 races to dominate the German Formula BMW championship. At 18 he distinguished himself testing a BMW Williams F1 car. At 19 he became a test driver for the BMW Sauber F1 team, underlining his commitment to the cause by moving to a village near the Swiss-based team's headquarters. His Formula One race debut came in the 2007 US Grand Prix at Indianapolis. There, deputising for the injured Robert Kubica, he qualified seventh and finished eighth, becoming the youngest driver to score a championship point. In mid-summer the teenager became a full-time driver with the Red Bull-sponsored Toro Rosso team, where at first it seemed he had come too far too fast. In the wet Japanese Grand Prix, when they were running second and third behind the safety car, he needlessly collided with Red Bull's Mark Webber, putting them both out of the race. Impetuous yes, but also resilient. A week later, in China, Vettel climbed from 17th on the grid to finish fourth.
A full 2008 season with Toro Rosso included some uneven performances that were then overshadowed by a remarkable first ever victory for both Vettel and the smallest team on the grid. In Italy, on a superfast Monza track made treacherous by rain, the youngest ever polesitter made yet more history when he ran away with the race to become the youngest ever Grand Prix winner.
By now Formula One fans were getting to know the boy racer and they liked what they saw. He was cheerful and funny and radiated an infectious enthusiasm. His sunny disposition was a reflection
of the pure pleasure he got from his profession. 'Drive My Car' by The Beatles was his favourite song. He loved off-beat British humour, notably Monty Python, Mr. Bean and Little Britain. He admitted he was afraid of mice, but nothing about Formula One worried him. Beneath the happy-go-lucky demeanour was fierce ambition and profound self-belief in his ability to win the championship sooner than later.
In 2009 he was promoted to Red Bull Racing where he was teamed with the veteran Webber, a decade older and presumably wiser than the newcomer, though not faster as it turned out. Vettel's
victory in the third race of season, in China, was Red Bull's first Formula One win. He dominated the last half of the season, winning three more races and finishing second to Jenson Button in the championship.
The longest ever 2010 season was also one of the most closely contested. Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull had the best cars and their drivers won all 19 races. Though former champions Alonso, Button and Hamilton, together with Webber, took turns leading the championship, Sebastian Vettel's frontrunning pace - he started from pole 10 times - kept him in the title hunt. While their team's policy of letting them fight it out on the track led to a strained relationship between Vettel and Webber their combined results enabled Red Bull Racing to clinch a first Constructors' Championship at the penultimate race, in Brazil, where Vettel led from start to finish. His championship chances still remained remote but the German youngster was well placed to stage an upset in the tension-filled championship showdown that followed.
In the grand finale at Abu Dhabi Vettel earned his fifth victory of the season with another flawless drive from pole. None of his rivals scored enough points to deprive Sebastian Vettel of the title he fully deserved. The 2010 World Champion, aged 23 years and 133 days, was the youngest in the 61-year history of the sport.
His 2011 title defense amounted to a season-long victory parade in which he seemed to keep winning for fun - beating all comers on all types of circuits and clinching his second consecutive championship with four races to go. Granted, the Red Bull Racing RB7 was the class of the field (and the team repeated as Constructors' Champion), but it was his commanding personal performance - 11 wins, six other podiums and a record 15 poles in 19 races - that made 24-year-old Sebastian Vettel the youngest double World Champion.
In 2012, demonstrating a maturity well beyond his years, Vettel triumphed over both adversity and formidable opposition that included five other champions: Alonso, Hamilton, Button, Raikkonen and Schumacher. In the 20-race season (the longest ever) made unpredictable by regulation changes, there were eight different winners from six teams. By mid-season Ferrari's hard-driving veteran Alonso (also pursuing a third drivers' title) had three victories (Vettel had one) and a substantial lead in the standings. Thereafter, taking full advantage of his steadily improving RB8 car, Vettel surged back into contention, scoring four race wins in a row plus three other podiums to lead the title race and help Red Bull Racing clinch its third successive team championship.
But the fight for title honours between Vettel and Alonso was far from over and for the 27th time in history the championship was decided at the last race - this time in a Brazilian Grand Prix made chaotic by rain. Several times during the thrilling showdown the slippery pendulum of fate swung in favour of Alonso, who qualified seventh and eventually finished second. Vettel started fourth but his championship chances nosedived in the mayhem of a frantic first lap in which his RB8 was hit hard, sustaining permanent chassis damage and dropping to last place. Vettel responded to his misfortune with a masterful drive in an ailing car, finally emerging from the mist and spray to finish sixth and beat Alonso to the title by 3 points.
In becoming the youngest triple world champion, at 25 years, 4 months and 22 days, Sebastian Vettel confirmed he had come of age as one of the sport's great drivers. His three championships ranked him equal with such illustrious names as Brabham, Stewart, Lauda, Piquet and Senna. His trio of titles in as many years placed him in the select company of Fangio and Schumacher.
Text - Gerald Donaldson