Booing and champagne do not mixLaurence Edmondson June 10, 2013
It's never nice to see a driver booed on the podium. Sebastian Vettel put in a near-perfect performance in front of a packed house in Montreal, and to be greeted by boos as he addressed them not only exposed a yobbish culture among the crowd but was completely unjustified. Vettel won the race fair and square and deserved recognition not heckles.
But despite that, it's hard to deny that Vettel's popularity has taken a hit this year. After winning three consecutive titles he is arguably driving better this year than he ever has, yet his likeability appears to be in decline. Sustained success undoubtedly breeds boredom - Michael Schumacher's dominance in the 2000s is proof of that - but Vettel is still being made to work for his wins and the sport is not yet as predictable as it was in the 'Schumacher era'.
Vettel's detractors claim that he has the fastest car on the grid and, therefore, has it easy, while the likes of Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen perform heroics week-in-week-out in lesser machines. But that doesn't really stack up. Not to take anything away from Alonso, Hamilton and Raikkonen, but Vettel has been mightily impressive this year, out-qualifying team-mate Mark Webber 6-0 and outscoring him by 63 points. It's not too far a stretch to say we are witnessing one of the greatest drivers of all time in his prime. Yet few people appear to be enjoying it.
In the grandstands it's not just winning that matters but how you go about it. Vettel's behaviour at (and after) this year's Malaysian Grand Prix tarnished his happy-go-lucky image and provided ammunition to those who see him as a ruthless winning machine in the same mould as Schumacher. Vettel takes criticism well, he met the boos in Montreal with a chuckle and a grin, but it won't have gone unnoticed. After all, surely part of the joy of winning in a global sport is the respect that comes with it.
In an interview in 2011 Vettel named Jochen Rindt as one of his racing heroes, no doubt captivated by the cult-hero status F1's only posthumous world champion still has. Vettel has one eye on the past, which means he must also care about the legacy he will one day leave behind. That much is evident from how he lets his character shine through in press briefings and, for a man who tries so hard to be liked, it's difficult to believe that the boos on Sunday didn't hurt just a little bit.
But how can Vettel change his image? His first priority is, and always will be, to win world championships, and as long as he is surrounded by his current team at Red Bull he will be in with a shot at doing that. But success is not the crux of Vettel's image problem; plenty of drivers have won in the past and retained their popularity.
In Vettel's case a lot of the animosity stems from his uneasy relationship with Webber - both pre- and post-Malaysia. Webber's tell-it-like-it-is approach and underdog status at Red Bull has gained popular support and often made Vettel look like a spoilt brat. What's more, Webber is considered a good driver but not a great driver, and so Vettel's ability to consistently thrash the Australian has probably not been given the credit it deserves.
Webber's Red Bull days are numbered, however, and it is now widely accepted in the paddock that he will not be at the team in 2014. Similar rumours have floated around in previous years, but the incident in Malaysia and his increasingly underwhelming results mean it would be logical for driver and team to part ways at the end of the season.
The most popular man to replace Webber is fan-favourite Kimi Raikkonen and, oddly enough, that might be just what Vettel needs. With Raikkonen there would be no team politics and the pair are already friends away from the circuit. What's more, Vettel would have a top quality team-mate to do battle against and that would win him enormous respect in the grandstands - it's something Schumacher never had at Ferrari. Raikkonen moving to Red Bull is by no means a done deal, but if Vettel does care about his image it should be something that he welcomes.
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1