Will Gray

Vettel’s triple crown

Sebastian Vettel did exactly what he needed to last weekend in Brazil to take title number three — but what other moments helped the German elevate his status from champion to legend this season?

Vettel is now in a rare group of F1 super-champions with three world titles, and is one of only three to have taken three in a row. Each success has demonstrated his development as a driver and a person, but this time the fitting 'baton transfer' between him and his countryman, the retiring seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, seemed to mark a coming of age.

In 2010, Vettel took his first title with a smash-and-grab raid as a late run of form and a few lucky breaks saw him leapfrog his rivals at almost the final turn of the season. Last year, with a dominant car, it was far more controlled with Vettel managing his races perfectly to win from the front. This year was a more balanced mix of luck and talent, dominance and damage-limitation, which ultimately gave him a narrow margin in a hard fight with Fernando Alonso and Ferrari.

The mark of a champion is not to win at all costs, but simply to collect enough points to take the title. Vettel did all that perfectly.

Vettel was not comfortable at the start of the year because of the ban on double diffusers. A new exhaust layout on the Red Bull gave a strong race pace but caused the car to understeer in qualifying, and that did not suit his aggressive turn-in style.

He got lucky with a safety car to come second in the season-opener, but he missed Q3 for the first time in more than two years in China and could only recover to sixth.

He rather foolishly attempted to steer the team away from their development direction by opting to run an old-spec car in China. In Bahrain, he showed sense and maturity by accepting the team's decision and simply working out how to drive to get the best out of the car. And he won.

It wasn't to be an instant turn-around, but it showed that Vettel was ready to listen to others and happy to admit his approach may not always be the right one.

Throughout 2011, Vettel demonstrated that if he could start from the front, he could control the race — and although it was not until much later this season that he had a regular opportunity to do that, once the car was in the sweet spot he did it time after time.

The RB8 was always a reasonable car, but as McLaren began to become stronger, the relentless pace of development made it hard enough to just stay in the frame, let alone jump ahead of their rivals.

That was until they found a step improvement with the combined double DRS and exhaust changes. The improvements gave Vettel the confidence to get the job done in qualifying and, just as in 2011, once pole was his, there was no stopping him.

His victory in Singapore was lucky, with Hamilton's McLaren suffering a gearbox failure, but the subsequent ones in Japan, Korea and India were classic 2011-vintage Vettel — set pole or grab a front row slot, get out of the DRS attack zone in the early laps and manage the tyres and the race to the finish.

Stefano Domenicali claimed that Alonso deserved the title because he lost crucial points when he failed to finish in two of the 20 races — but that conclusion seems to ignore the fact that Vettel failed to score three times.

But it was Vettel's ability to return to the garage, accept the issue, and move on quickly that was another hallmark in this campaign.

An alternator failure stopped him when he was almost certain to win in Valencia, allowing Alonso to win from 11th instead. One race later, though, Vettel came back to claim a podium at Silverstone.

Another alternator failure in Monza, when running sixth, cost him more points but once again a positive approach to the problem allowed him to gee the team up and take victory in the very next race.

The only time he really showed immaturity was when Narain Karthikeyan crashed into him in Malaysia, the second race of the season. It cost him fourth place (he finished out the points in 11th), while Alonso won. Vettel called Karthikeyan an idiot. It was a rare loss of cool in a season that has seen the young German demonstrate that his head is stronger than in the past.

The season was filled with battles for Vettel — indeed in two of the last three races he found himself having to fight through from the back. These were another trademark of his season.

In Canada, Vettel was running behind Alonso in second in the closing stages when Hamilton hunted down and passed both as their tyres went off. Red Bull chose to bring Vettel in while Alonso stayed out — and with seven laps of fresh rubber Vettel chased down and passed Alonso for fourth, netting a crucial four-point benefit over his rival.

In Spa where, he started 10th on the grid and he was far enough back to avoid the incident between Hamilton, Alonso and Romain Grosjean. Having steered around that, he was in 12th by the end of lap one and climbed to second by the end.

In Abu Dhabi, having been dropped to the back of the grid for having insufficient fuel in the car to provide a sample after qualifying, he started from the pits to allow the team to make set-up changes that would improve his chances of overtaking. Despite early contact with Bruno Senna and collision with trackside marker board he took third - just one place behind Alonso.

Even in that final race in Brazil, when he dropped to the back after a mid-grid incident, he was able to fight back into the points and then manage his race to get just enough points he needed — albeit after a bit of calming over the team radio when he was pushing harder than he needed to.

Sometimes, Vettel did push over the edge — but champions are made from those who push beyond the edge to find out exactly where the boundaries are and then drive within them. It's the Schumacher mould, and Vettel began to follow it this year.

In Hockehneim, he overtook Button by running off the track and was penalised 20 seconds post-race for the move. He could have given the place back, but in deciding not to he lost second place and dropped to fifth, losing out to Alonso.

In Monza, Vettel went aggressive and forced Alonso off the track as they raced each other wheel-to-wheel — and once again it earned Vettel a penalty (although this time it had no effect as he retired anyway from alternator failure).

But finally, in Abu Dhabi, when Vettel passed Grosjean by running off track, he took stock of past penalties and relinquished the place. And sure enough, he took it back legally just a short while later.

If there was one defining moment of pushing beyond the edge, however, the subject was not Vettel — it was Alonso. When the Ferrari driver tried to pass Kimi Raikkonen into the first corner in Japan, he ended up out of the race. With victory for Vettel, it was a crucial 25-point sway that took the title gap from 29 to four, with four races remaining.

If there was a defining moment when the title switched in his favour, it was at that race — the second in Vettel's string of four victories in an Asia clean-sweep.

From focusing on damage limitation and making the most of any good opportunities, Vettel and Red Bull were finally back in the groove, dominating qualifying and managing their races.

It's fair to say from this season that Alonso is still the master of getting the most out of an under-performing car having done so for most of the year. Vettel showed that talent too when he had to, but he was also given the opportunity to show what he could do with a strong car and proved again that there are few, perhaps none, better than him at getting the best out of good machinery.

Vettel's was a strong campaign overall, which is why he did deserve his success. But in the end, it was thanks to the timely developments that took the Red Bull car to the next level that Vettel, and not Alonso, is F1's latest triple champion.