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Flat Spot On: NASCAR, F1 Champs on Same Page

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 16 2013

Sprint Cup's Jimmie Johnson and Formula One's Sebastian Vettel have something important in common. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. –Since Jimmie Johnson and Sebastian Vettel compete in radically different forms of major league motor racing, they initially appear to have little in common other than their winning ways and preference for wearing blue jeans.

But they share more than a few things in common, starting with one familiar affliction of champion drivers: people tend to credit their cars rather than their extraordinary skills behind the wheel. Johnson has won his five straight Sprint Cup titles in the Hendrick Motorsports Chevys – and is very likely to collect a sixth on Sunday at Homestead. Vettel, who clinched a fourth straight F1 title prior to this weekend’s U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, has scored his streak with Red Bull Racing and the now famed “RB” chassis designed by Adrian Newey.

Johnson and Vettel are new models of driving champions in that they generally park the braggadocio in favor of lower profiles (Vettel’s obnoxious number one salute withstanding).

Dale Earnhardt, Johnson’s most recent predecessor in the multi-championship sweepstakes, was glad to let people know he was the “straw that stirred the drink” in NASCAR, to borrow the phrase first associated with one of the all-time great egos, baseball star Reggie Jackson. Johnson says it’s just not his style to confirm publicly what everybody inside the fence already knows: he’s the man to beat when it comes to championships.

Vettel is the first to win four straight titles since Michael Schumacher but doesn’t manifest the hauteur of F1’s version of “The Intimidator,” whose record for consecutive victories he’s trying to break in Austin.

In each case, the current dominating champions exhibit all the rarified talent of their predecessors. Last year,

Sebastian Vettel; it's not just the car.

for example, when some of the more talented shoes in NASCAR were cautions about “hustling” their cars via a technique of using soft rubber bushings in the rear suspension, Johnson was on a roll. This technique allowed drivers to carry more speed into corners on ovals. But a driver had a tail-happy car leaving Turn 2 if he dove into Turn 1 with the “moveable” trailing arms.

Certain drivers were reluctant to use this technique even though it was faster – such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya, among others. It may have been the beginning of the end of Montoya’s stay at Chip Ganassi’s team that he wasn’t willing to hustle the car in this way. Once word got around, some drivers thrived such as Kyle Busch and former dirt tracker Clint Bowyer. And so did Johnson. It boiled down to three sets of drivers – those who could and would, those who could and declined, and the lesser talents who just couldn’t manage.

Johnson fell behind in last year’s championship Chase after NASCAR cracked down on the range of motion allowed in the trailing arms, which helped pave the way for Brad Keselowski overtaking “Five Time.” But Johnson is back on top this year, stronger than ever, after adapting better than the rest to the new Gen 6 cars, which have been regarded as easier to drive than the preceding COT. But I’d bet the car keys and my Twitter account that Johnson has found a way to make the Gen 6 cars less comfortable and faster, particularly during the Chase races.

In the case of Vettel, the F1 rule makers have done their best to slow down Red Bull. In 2010, the Red Bull was not that dominant and Vettel won by virtue of Ferrari’s pit strategy fiasco at Abu Dhabi. But you have to be in it to win it and Vettel was there at the tender age of 23. The following year, Red Bull pioneered the blown exhaust and in 2011 the car was truly dominant – in the hands of Vettel but not necessarily teammate Mark Webber.

Since then, F1 has continued its campaign to limit the “blown” effect of exhausts on cars’ cornering ability. Red Bull has adapted and so has Vettel. This year, the Red Bull exhaust makes it mandatory for subtle throttle manipulation in order to get into a corner quickly and exit it. It also requires a driver, i.e. Vettel, to be “comfortable” handling an unstable car on corner entry and exit.

Sound familiar? In the modern age of F1 race car engineering, teams can no longer afford to built their car around a driver’s talent – such as the Ferraris of Schumacher or the Renaults of Fernando Alonso. Likewise, NASCAR’s dramatic changes starting with the Car of Tomorrow put a premium on a driver’s ability to adapt.

Overall, Johnson’s modus operandi is to move through NASCAR packs in short order. Like Earnhardt, he’s never in anybody’s rearview mirror long. But he’s far smoother when it comes to overtaking.

Jimmie Johnson; it's not just the car. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

Vettel’s m.o. in the no fueling era is to qualify well and then piss off into the distance at the start – which requires racing the same car that qualified so quickly, not to mention consistently good starts. And, I’d venture to say that the starting grid is far deeper in Vettel’s era than Schumacher’s.

Johnson and Vettel have been so dominant that other contemporary talents have been overshadowed. Young guns Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth all came along at about the same time, but Kenseth is the only one to score a single championship. Vettel has trailerized his lone contemporary Lewis Hamilton, still looking for a second title after winning one in 2008.

If not for Ferrari’s debacle in that finale in Abu Dhabi, Alonso and the Austrian would be tied with three titles apiece. The fact Alonso has carried a relatively desultory Ferrari team for the past three seasons confirms the obvious: the Spaniard is the one driver in the F1 paddock who can hang with Vettel other than the driver Ferrari just hired as his teammate: Kimi Raikkonen.

Both the NASCAR and F1 champions tend to put a lot of pressure on other drivers, because their competitors know they’re up against a great and experienced talent who has proven to be the guy to beat. Yet, you don’t hear Johnson or Vettel flaunting their respective positions versus other drivers. Nor do you hear either driver criticize his team – likely a similar story in private as well as public. Instead, they’re like college coaches whose every utterance is made with an eye cast on how it will affect the motivation of their team.

These are the modern champions, cool in the heat of the media eye, cooler still behind the wheel – where they make it look easy. Which it isn’t.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 16 2013
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