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Vettel: Cut him some slackMaurice Hamilton August 5, 2014
The Times Magazine recently ran a feature on Sir David Brailsford, the man who transformed British cycling. Brailsford achieved success by introducing 'marginal gains', a concept that chases tiny improvements by focussing on details that, on their own, seem irrelevant but, collectively, can make a massive difference.
It's a bit like an F1 aerodynamicist spending countless hours to introduce a front wing endplate tweak worth 0.008s. Hardly worth the bother, you might think, but add that to infinitesimal but continual developments elsewhere on the car and you start getting somewhere in every sense.
Apart from the more obvious (to F1 fans, if not the world at large) monitoring and analysis of cadence, power output and gradient on each bike, Brailsford introduced cyclists' personal mattresses to ensure a good night's sleep and individualised brands of washing powder to guard against skin complaints. As performance director of British cycling, Brailsford was knighted in 2013 after eight gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics and plotting the rise of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott. Small wonder he is considered one of the most influential figures in British sport. But that, according to Brailsford, was yesterday.
Today, he is a deeply unhappy man. Since leaving his national role to concentrate solely on coaching Team Sky, Brailsford has suffered disappointment after disappointment this summer. He feels embarrassed and humiliated because, among other things, he has let people down. "You get a bit of credit when you win," he says. "You get a bit more when you win again, but then you hit diminishing returns."
I thought of Sebastian Vettel when I read those words. Coincidentally, the same edition of The Times ran a news story on Bernie Ecclestone's trial. The report also carried a teaser for a half-term F1 report by Kevin Eason under the headline: 'Did Vettel just get lucky?' Unfortunately I cannot give you Kevin's views because his piece was hidden behind a pay wall on the website; having forked out £1.20 for Mr. Murdoch's newspaper, I did not feel inclined to give the wretched man another £6.
But the headline (in fairness, probably not written by Eason) does give an indication of the feeling afoot for Vettel's season so far. Two wins and 43 points behind Daniel Ricciardo is not where we - and, you suspect Vettel - expected to find the reigning World Champion 11 races into 2014. The reasons for this are currently being discussed the length and breadth of motor sport websites with opinion roughly divided 70% denigrating and 30% in defence of Vettel's plight.
Even allowing for the sometimes subconscious gloating that accompanies the downfall of a totally dominant figure (particularly one who insists on raising a finger at every opportunity), there has been an easy-option tendency to give Vettel a good kicking to the point of some benighted correspondents declaring the man who has won 39 grands prix to be possessing more luck than talent.
That marginal assessment stood up during the Hungarian Grand Prix, but only by the same fag paper width by which he missed the pit wall after a fundamental mistake. Otherwise, I'll take the argument that he's struggling to drive a car without the aid of the exhaust-blown diffuser; I might even go along with the view that a top driver should be able to adapt; a thought that I'm sure Vettel is wrestling with right now during the lay-off.
But there are a couple of points I'd like to throw into the debate. His luck has been appalling and, when the Red Bull has worked as it should, Vettel has been there or thereabouts. It's also becoming clear that Ricciardo has the making of a very special talent indeed; witness passing moves as clever, brave and precise as you could wish to see.
On the personal front, I've no feelings either way for Vettel, having always found him to be approachable, polite and thoughtful during interviews. Despite his phenomenal success, Vettel remains a regular bloke - which leads to one final point. Considering Seb is human just like the rest of us, I can't believe one man can win championships over four consecutive years - for most drivers, one year is enough - without it having a detrimental effect in such a hugely competitive environment. Saying that, anyone who questions his motivation only needs to watch the scary 180-mph scrap with Fernando Alonso at Silverstone.
It would be good if Vettel catches sight of The Times piece and reads Brailsford's words: "For me, the pain of defeat is far more vivid than the pleasure of victory. But you learn from adversity too. Nobody wins everything. How you handle losing is every bit as important as how you handle winning."
For what it's worth, I think Vettel is handling this disconcerting downturn as well as any sports person can. Let's cut him some slack when he gets back on his bike at the end of the month.
Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.