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A lot of commentators have given Sebastian Vettel a lot of criticism for his apparent inability to win from anywhere other than the front of the grid. As he rapidly approaches his fourth World Drivers’ Championship I wondered if this was a valid complaint.

Of the current twenty two driver’s active in Formula 1, nine have won races, and between them they have won 148 races. In fact since the start of the 2007 season the only other drivers to have won races are single wins from Kubica and Kovalainen in 2008 and a pair of wins for Barrichello in 2009.

Of these 148 wins over half (76 or 51.35%) have been won from pole position and a further quarter (36 or 24.32%) have been won from 2nd place. Thirteen races (8.78%) have been won from third place, eight races (5.41%) have been won from fourth place leaving only fifteen races (10.14%) that have been won from lower than the second row.

Of the nine active drivers to have won a GP, one (Maldonado) has only won from pole, a further three (Massa, Webber and Rosberg) have only won from the front row, and only three (Alonso, Räikkönen and Button) have won from fifth place or lower. Vettel then shares the distinction of only having won from the first two rows with Hamilton. Admittedly Lewis has won twice from fourth place, but then Sebastian has converted 24 of his 42 poles into wins, while Hamilton has only managed to convert 12 of his 31 poles into wins.

As I have posted in the comments before, even Fangio only ever won from the front row (grids being 3-4-3 when he raced). Michael Schumacher only won seven races (out of his 91 wins) starting from fifth or lower, Senna won precisely one race starting from fifth (the other 4 were from the front two rows). Prost on the other hand won eleven of his 51 wins from behind the front two rows.

Overall then, while it might make a nice soundbite to say that Sebastian Vettel can only win from the front, but the sad fact is F1 teams and drivers spend two days before each race to make sure the fastest man and machine start at the front, it is hardly surprising that most of the Grand Prix winners start there.

So what do you think, has Vettel proved himself to be one of the greats, or is there more he needs to achieve before you would consider him for a place in the top echelon of drivers?

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An F1 fan since 1972, NC has spent over 25 years in the technology industry and as a CTO, he focuses on technology integration in commercial workspace design, AV systems integration, digital media strategies, technology planning, consulting, speaking, presenting, sales, content strategy, marketing and brand building.
  • Andreas

    “So what do you think, has Vettel proved himself to be one of the greats…”

    Yes, absolutely. As you point out, winning from pole or the front rows is quite common, simply because you tend to get to the top of the starting grid by being one of the fastest that weekend. Personally, I can’t see how the achievement of winning the amount of races Vettel has would have been diminished if he’d also been the fastest in qualifying each time… Now, we know that he hasn’t, but that doesn’t change things for me. If you win three (most likely going to be four) consecutive championships, you are one of the greats.

  • Shocks&Awe

    If he gives me half his salary for the remainder of his career, I’d be happy to endorse him as one of the great drivers of all time.

    But seriously, and I pretty much despise Vettel, there’s no question anymore that he’s in the upper echelon of drivers. Sure, Newey has had a lot to do with that, but you could say the same about the technical director for every champion F1 has ever had. No one has won a world title without a very good car. You don’t get to win 3 or 4 titles without being really good. 1 title? Maybe. 4? No way. He’s clearly demonstrated that he’s a very good qualifier and that he can take care of his tires. I don’t think he’s the best passer out there, but he get’s the job done, and let’s be frank, he hasn’t had a lot of practice lately.

    So while I’ll never be a Vettel fan and will always begrudge his victories and Championships, I’ll never say he’s not a top driver. My life would just be that much brighter if he wasn’t.

  • Rapierman

    I think the better question is “Can Vettel win despite adversity”? I used to think “no”, but the performance in the Japanese Grand Prix turned it into a resounding “Yes!” The evidence before my eyes showed that he might panic a little after a poor start, but then he settles down and fights back over the long haul. So, if that means that he can win without getting pole, then I’ll definitely say “yes”.

    • mini696

      I dont think his drive was very “settled”. I have never seen so many minor mistakes in the opening laps from Vettel as we saw in Japan. He was driving like Webber for a while there.

      • Rik

        Well, he certainly made far less mistakes than Lewis Hamilton with that GP2 start he tried to make.

  • Jack Flash (Aust)

    Aw ‘come on’…
    I am a big fan of Webber, but I am not myopic in my fanatacism.
    I also have massive respect for the driving talent of Seb Vettel.

    This question of whether he can only win from Pole is getting pretty tiresome. Very.
    The guy is a truly great F1 pilot. End of story. (Great guy? Mmmmm… not so much to me…) JF

  • mini696

    Its hard to win from any other position when all you get is poles.
    I think Vettel has done enough to prove he is one of the all time fastest drivers.

  • uan

    It always takes a bit of luck to win from further down the grid. A safety car, rain or changeable weather, retirements, etc. Alonso’s win last year at Valencia is a great case in point. Starts down the grid, great start and then works his way up to 4th. But then there’s a safety car which pulls the grid together. As everyone pits, Hamilton in 3rd has one of the usual 2012 McLaren pit stops from the nether, and Alonso jumps into 3rd. On the restart, Alonso is brilliant in passing Grojean, helped in part by RG’s inexperience. Then Vettel’s car gives up the ghost as he was cruising to a win. In Malaysia 2012, the Ferrari was horrible in the dry but was untouchable in the rain. Dry qualifying followed by a wet race played beautifully into Alonso’s hand. Good thing it stayed wet and cool as long as it did or Perez may have pipped him at the finish.

    Vettel’s come close to some of these drives (last year 11 to 2 at Spa) and again at Monaco (11, iirc, to p4). That was an interesting race. At one point he was about 2-3 seconds from having pit stop on Webber. What scuppered his strategy was the threat of rain without it raining. If it had rained when he was in the lead he would have been golden. If there was no threat of rain, people would not have pitted as late as they did, making his alternate strategy less effective.

    I think Vettel and Hamilton could easily do the same as Kimi and Alonso given the right set of circumstances. They can make up the places to get to the front end of the grid, and then from there a little bit of luck never hurts.

    One thing with Hamilton and Vettel though, is that they usually qualify their car up near the front and they’ve not really been in cars that have been poor in qualifying but fast in the race. So they rarely qualify out of position, so if they have a race winning capable car they are usually starting at the front.

    Btw, big thanks for breaking down the stats on starts and finishes. Great to see that. It would be great to see for those drivers winning from outside the first 2 rows, if there were safety cars/retirements in front of them and how many.

    • uan

      One thing Vettel can do pretty well are Grand Chelems. He even knocked out 2 in a row (Singapore and Korea). That’s Jim Clark territory. He has 4 in his career and is tied for 3rd with folks like Aryton Senna and Jackie Stewart. The only other current driver on the grid that has a GC is Alonso with 1 to his name. The kid has legitimate speed and consistency.

    • MIE

      ‘It would be great to see for those drivers winning from outside the first 2 rows, if there were safety cars / retirements in front of them and how many’.

      Three of the current drivers have won from behind the front two rows: Alonso; Räikkönen and Button.
      Alonso has won one race from each of the following positions: 15th; 11th; 8th; 6th and two races from 5th. The 15th start position was Singapore 2008, so certainly had some unusual outside influences, two safety cars and Alonso only overtook one person on track. The 11th position was the European GP in 2012, where there were safety cars and Vettel breaking down once he had got into second place, although Alonso did overtake four cars once past the first lap. The 8th place start was Malaysia 2012 which was affected by rain early on, once past the first lap Alonso didn’tovertake anyone, and was passed once himself on the lap before the first safety car.
      Räikkönen has won single races from starting 17th, 10th and 6th, with three wins when starting 7th. The 17th start was Japan 2005 where he had a ten place grid penalty for an engine change. A good start followed by an early safety car really was the key to this race, but he had to pass six drivers on the track. The 10th place start was Belgium 2004, a race affected by three safety cars, although a good start was the key to this win, with only two on track overtakes being required after lap 1.
      Button has won from 14th, 7th and 5th. The start from 14th place was his debut win in Hungary 2006, a wet race with a safety car mid race, but Button had to pass five cars on track from laps 2 to 7 to make it work. The race from 7th was Canada in 2011, which was certainly affected by rain, but did see him drop to the back of the race for the re-start and a total of 17 on track overtakes.

  • Manuel

    Yes I think Vettel has proven himself, but there is one thing I see about Vettel I dont like from what I’ve seen in the past 2 seasons, and that is how his level of driving changes depending on his position on the grid. When he starts from pole he usually just sprints away into another universe and wins without even losing the lead, but when he doesn’t manage to do that we allways see a very unconfortable, tense and prone to error Vettel. In abu dahbi while he did manage to get to third lets remember that he often got out of focus once almost crashing into a toro rosso, damaged front wing, yelling over the radio on the verge of losing control over the situation, he did pull it together and took advantage of the safety cars and the rest is history. This past GP we saw that Vettel was consistently locking up his front right during the GP and you could se he was unconfortable until he got the lead and then we saw the out of this world Vettel. This small glimpes of error are the ones that take me to the conclusion that Vettel is not at the level of say Alonso who rarely makes mistakes and allways keeps his cool in order to take maximum advantage of what he can achieve.

    Vettel might be winning his 4 championship in a row but I guess he still has something to prove to me at least, his ability to remain calm at all situations. (Not taking anything away from him, he’s doing an amazing job and is delivering every weekend , just an observation)

    • Mansell’s_Stache

      The only thing Vettel proved to me after Japan is that he is a petulant child…

      “Get out of the way! I’m losing time.”

      “Charlie, get him out of the way. That is not fair.”

      What a baby. Cry to Charlie because you, one of the “best drivers” in THE best car, can’t get around Perez?! While my disdain for his comments are in large part because of the comments themselves, the manner in which he delivered them was the greatest cringe inducing factor.

      Srs…Vettel seems to exhibit a healthy aversion to actually having to race. This is not the mark of a great driver, IMO.

      • uan

        I recall in Canada Hamilton calling to get Sutil out of the way “Blue Flags, Blue Flags”. Or Webber in the same race harping about GVDG in the Caterham, who then hit Webber at the hair pin – though if it was Vettel being hit by GVDG I guess the comments would be “Vettel can’t pass, made a more decision, should have waited to pass on the straight with a faster car and DRS, shouldn’t feel so entitled etc”. In China Kimi was complaining about Perez. Button has complained about Perez. I believed Alonso complained about Perez in Monaco.

        Perez was being lapped and while it sucks to be blue flagged, he doesn’t have the right to hold up other drivers. It’d be no different if it was Grojean or Webber or Alonso etc.

        If you don’t like Vettel, that’s cool. But don’t pick on things that all drivers, including whomever is your own favorite driver, or the one you respect the most, do as well. As for the delivery, you do realize these guys are operating in an environment similar to fighter pilots in a dog fight? Hot, cramped quarters, heart rate at 180-200 bpm, 3-5G loads, at speed with very little margin for error, while manipulating gears and levers and switches up to a 100 times a lap? How many times this season alone Hamilton has said “don’t talk to me when I’m in a corner” or stuff like that. He sounds like a positive whinger, but he’s not. Alonso has sounded cringe worthy over the radio as well. (Not to mention calling his team idiots during qualifying in Monza).

        Next I guess we should go after players and coaches complaining to the umpires and referees in basketball, football, etc.

        • Mansell’s_Stache

          ALL DRIVERS who whine to race control about Blue Flags need to sack up and get on with the program.

          Any driver who sounds like THAT will get the Stache blast…it’s not just Vettel…it’s just it was Vettel in Japan.

  • Turbophoenix

    I just wish this question would die already. Like you’ve mentioned, they spend so much effort getting to pole in the first place, it’s not like pole position is something given to drivers for free. I don’t think it would be as much of an issue if he didn’t just streak ahead from the first lap, and had to defend a bit more, but it just shows how good he and the car is that he can do that in the first place. Yep, he’s a great. Why is it even a question?

  • Sam Field

    There is also a skill in getting the poles in the first place… it means the guy is really really fast. his Q2 run in Singapore was one of the few laps I’ve ever seen that as a lay person jumped off the screen at me. It was so smooth

  • Philippe

    Let’s look at some facts:
    Vettel won 68% of his wins from pole, 26% from 2nd and 6% from 3rd.

    Now, let’s compare with a certain Ayrton Senna:
    Senna won 71% of his wins from pole, 12% from 2nd, 12% from 3rd, 2% from 4th and 2% from 5th.

  • Matt_D

    Among pilots, there is a saying, “The superior aviator uses his superior judgement to avoid having to use his superior skills.”

    Professional lifeguards have a similar albeit briefer saying, “The good lifeguard never gets wet.”

    In other words, ensure your success by eliminating all conditions that might otherwise prevent it.

    Vettel is on the verge of taking his fourth consecutive WDC by following that practice to the letter. So long as he is so successful at keeping himself on the first row, he will continue to rack up titles and it doesn’t matter one whit whether he can’t win with a midfield start.