Suzuka (Japan): Sebastian Vettel has gone from `Crash Kid` to coronation as Formula One`s youngest double world champion in little more than a year.
The Red Bull driver, who in Japan on Sunday became only the ninth man to celebrate back-to-back titles, looks just the same as the cheeky-grinned youngster who celebrated his first crown in Abu Dhabi last November.
And yet, as his rivals have discovered time and again this season, Germany`s second world champion after Michael Schumacher has added maturity to his armoury and accelerated away from the chasing pack.
It was at the end of August last year, after a wildly optimistic move led to a jarring collision with Jenson Button at the Belgian Grand Prix, that McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh dubbed Vettel a "Crash Kid".
Such talk seems ancient history now. This season the 24-year-old -- the fifth youngest driver on the starting grid despite his achievements -- has been nothing short of `Mr Consistent`.
"He (Whitmarsh) has had to eat those words this year, hasn`t he?" Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told Reuters with a smile.
Vettel has scored points in his last 17 races and is the only driver on the starting grid to have finished every grand prix this season.
Not only has he done that, he has won nine races and started 12 out of 15 this year on pole position. Only once has he failed to stand on the podium, and even then he finished fourth.
"Sebastian has just benefited from more experience and the level that he has operated at has been phenomenal this year," said Horner, who has the German contracted to the end of 2014.
"He really has raised the bar. He`s come into the year as the reigning world champion and he`s performed like a true world champion... it`s been a pleasure to see."
The youngest champion, race winner, points scorer, pole sitter and driver ever to stand on the podium, Vettel has looked as assured as Schumacher in his prime.
Last season he did not lead the championship until the very end, when he won under the Yas Marina floodlights to snatch the title. This year he has led from the very start and increased his advantage race by race.
"It`s easy to forget he`s only just 24... It’s easy to under-estimate what he`s achieved," said Horner.
"I think he really has taken another gear and delivered phenomenally well."
If Vettel carries on as he is for the remaining four rounds, he will only add to his records and, as a keen student of Formula One history, is sure to give it his best shot.
The performance on the track may hint at a Schumacher-like attention to detail, and he certainly puts in the hours with the engineers, but the man once dubbed `Baby Schumi` by the German media refuses to be stereotyped.
A lover of oddball British humour and of The Beatles, as well as a collector of swear words and slang in any language, the tousled youngster has a prankster`s twinkle in his eye.
The carpenter`s son from Heppenheim has given all his cars female names, progressing from `Kate` to `Kate`s Dirty Sister`, Luscious Liz`, `Randy Mandy` and this year`s `Kinky Kylie`.
He is also very much his own man, negotiating his own contracts, while enjoying a firm friendship with Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone.
Ecclestone, who managed and was particularly close to German-born Austrian champion Jochen Rindt up to his death in 1970, can see parallels with the past.
"He reminds me of Jochen," the 80-year-old said earlier this year. "Seb will always stay grounded, no matter how big the success. That is what makes real champions. That was also Jochen`s strength. Plus both are lousy losers."
A marketing dream for Red Bull, with obvious youth appeal and a love of action sports, Vettel was born in 1987 - the same year that they sold their first can of energy drink.
Part of the Austrian company`s young driver programme, he made his debut with BMW-Sauber in 2007 -- scoring immediately -- but swiftly moved back into the Red Bull fold with Toro Rosso.
Vettel rewarded his new team with their first and only victory in Italy in 2008 and then, at Red Bull for 2009, gave the future champions a first pole position and race victory.
Last season he skirmished with Australian team mate Mark Webber, who accused Red Bull of favouring the German but still went into the final showdown ahead of him, but this year he has been in a class of his own.
He has crashed in the odd practice session but made few mistakes during races, other than running wide under pressure from Jenson Button in Canada and allowing a win to slip through his fingers on the last lap.
However, he has also learned from those errors.
"He`s hugely self-analytical so... I don`t think you`ll see a Canada situation again," said Horner. "He`s always monitoring, even when he wins a race, areas where he could be better here or there.”
"That`s the thing that`s so refreshing about him, is that he`s never satisfied with his own performance and he`ll be here later on a Friday and a Saturday evening than probably most other drivers because he`s hungry for the information, hungry for the data, hungry to know what`s happening next year. “
"He has that additional capacity, not only to drive the car quickly but to have a clear and concise understanding of what is going on around him with the car, regarding the development, the car`s characteristics, the tyres, the engine. And that`s been fascinating to see that evolve."
The single digit raised in celebration after every race, accompanied by whoops of delight from the cockpit, has become a trademark gesture -- and an increasingly irksome one for rivals much as Schumacher`s podium jump for joy was in the early years of the century.
Schumacher was a boyhood hero -- one of three Michaels he has said he admired and the only one he could aspire to emulate. The others were Jordan and Jackson.
"I wanted to become Michael Jackson when I was young," the slight, blond driver told the official formula1 website last year. "It was painful to realise that I didn`t have the voice."
First Published: Sunday, October 09, 2011, 14:06