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Column: Not so fast with the Vettel-mania

Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany prepares to sing his autograph on a picture card for a fan during an event at the Nissan Motor Co. headquarters in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo, Monday, Oct. 10, 2011. Vettel visited the Japanese automaker's global headquarters a day after being crowned the 2011 Formula One drivers champion, the youngest racer ever to win two straight driving titles. Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany prepares to sing his autograph on a picture card for a fan during an event at the Nissan Motor Co. headquarters in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo, Monday, Oct. 10, 2011. Vettel visited the Japanese automaker's global headquarters a day after being crowned the 2011 Formula One drivers champion, the youngest racer ever to win two straight driving titles. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
By John Leicester
AP Sports Columnist / October 10, 2011

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PARIS—Should Red Bull designer Adrian Newey somehow mislay his genius between now and the start of the next Formula One season, all those likening Sebastian Vettel to legendary drivers like Ayrton Senna or speculating that he could overtake Michael Schumacher's records of seven world titles and 91 race wins are going to feel pretty stupid.

Becoming F1's youngest two-time champion doesn't put Vettel in Schumacher's league. Not even close. And the 24-year-old German still has some questions to answer before he can be considered a legend -- notably, if Newey's design for 2012 isn't as dominant as the Red Bull RB7 was this season, will Vettel still find ways to win?

Fernando Alonso, the last consecutive world champion before Vettel, can testify to how quickly F1 fortunes can change when you're not lucky enough to be driving a car capable of winning the championship. Many used to regard the Spaniard as the best driver in F1, as some now think of Vettel. But put Alonso behind the wheel of a golf cart -- or, in his case, this year's ho-hum Ferrari 150 Italia -- and talent alone won't secure him a third world title.

The same, in reverse, is also true of Jenson Button. It's not that the Briton used be a bad driver and then, when he won the title in 2009, lo-and-behold suddenly became a fabulous one. Rather, with the 2009 Brawn BGP 001, Button finally got a car good enough to make him a contender, having previously wasted chunks of his career driving lemons like the 2007 Honda.

In other words, F1 is not as pure a gauge of raw talent as, say, track and field. No one disputes that Usain Bolt is the quickest human. Is Vettel the fastest F1 driver? That's much harder to judge because F1 is so dependent on the machines.

It takes both a winning car and a winning driver to make an F1 champion. Have absolutely no doubt that Vettel owes much of his success this year -- 70 percent, 80 percent, more? -- to his car that he christened "Kinky Kylie" because of its "nice back end" and the Red Bull team that enabled him to exploit its speed to the full.

If next season's RB8 turns out to be known as "Slow Joe," then all the talk of the "great" Vettel perhaps eclipsing Schumacher will disappear faster than the tail light of the next world champion, whoever that may be.

If Newey keeps delivering winning cars and if Vettel stays as focused as he has been this year and if he is able to adapt to the next set of F1 rule changes and if he doesn't make the mistake of switching for more money to another team and if ... then, yes, maybe in 5 or more years Vettel could be hammering on Schumacher's door. But that is a lot of "ifs."

As Tiger Woods or Yelena Isinbayeva could tell you, it is unwise to count your records before they hatch. When Woods won his 14th major golf championship in 2008, Jack Nicklaus' mark of 18 seemed within reach, almost a formality. But a few injuries, swing adjustments, cocktail waitresses and actresses later, Nicklaus' record now looks as distant for Woods as the moon. And, increasingly, Isinbayeva looks like she'll fall short of matching Sergei Bubka's feat of setting 35 pole vault world records.

Youngest driver to score a championship point; youngest to qualify in pole; youngest to win a Grand Prix; youngest world champion and, now, youngest double champion. Vettel is leaving an impressive mark on F1.

His driving in qualifying this season, in particular, has been astounding, heart-in-the-mouth stuff, sprinting along the razor's edge between risk and disaster with millimetered precision, courage, finesse and speed.

That Red Bull started from the pole in all 15 races so far this season shows how far ahead of the competition Newey's design has been. That Vettel won 12 of those poles to just three for teammate Mark Webber shows how important his contribution as a driver has been, too.

So far, Vettel has managed to accumulate wins and precocious success without also getting a big head, which is refreshing. An F1 champion who also is a Monty Python fan, good combination. He also seems to have Schumacher's attention for the finer details: he was the only F1 driver who actually went to meet the people at tire-maker Pirelli before the start of the season.

But Vettel isn't infallible, as he showed with his last-lap slide under pressure that allowed the chasing Button to win the Canadian Grand Prix in June. Was that mistake an exception? Or a sign that Vettel could buckle more often when -- or if -- Red Bull's rivals narrow the performance gap next season?

Two world championships. Fully deserved.

But "Baby Schumi" still has a long way to eclipse the real thing.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester