Sebastian Vettel’s win at the Hungarian F1 Grand Prix was a historic moment: it was the German’s 41st victory in motorsports’ main category, equaling the feat achieved by Senna in 1993. Ahead of both drivers, in a number of wins, we find two great F1 champions: Alain Prost (with 51) and Michael Schumacher (91).
Obviously, the cold nature of numbers must be put into perspective when comparing drivers from two distinct times – which explains, for instance, the fact that Senna was voted the best of all time by specialists, despite his statistics being technically inferior to Schumacher’s.
But the fact that Senna’s and Vettel’s number are very similar remains. Both drivers’ fearless styles and successful careers invite some comparisons, even though Senna’s F1, back in the 80’s and 90’s, was very different from Vettel’s current one.
Both drivers started relatively early in the category. But Senna was 24 years 4 days old when he debuted at the 1984 Brazilian GP, which would make him actually old, by today’s standards, considering that, in 2015, 17-year–old Max Verstappen competed in a F1 GP, setting a new record for young age.
Vettel raced in F1 for the first time when he was 19 years and 349 days old, with BMW Sauber, in the 2007 United States GP. Soon after, he’d complete that season’s second half as a Toro Rosso driver.
The Italian team, just like Senna’s Toleman, was nowhere near the front of the starting grid, but allowed the talented young driver to show the world what he was made of in a rainy race, as Senna did in Monaco 1984. Vettel’s landmark race was the 2008 Monza Grand Prix, in which he beat his own main team, Red Bull Racing.
That would be another similarity between the two drivers if the Monte Carlo race hadn’t been interrupted in a controversial decision, leaving Senna with the second place. Nevertheless, the Brazilian’s first win, statistically speaking, came before: Senna won his 16th Grand Prix, also in the rain, at Estoril, while Vettel only had that honor after 22 starts.
The German, however, set a new precocity record by being the youngest GP winner ever, at 21 years and two months of age – beating another F1 great, Fernando Alonso.
Another coincidence: the partnership between Senna and McLaren yielded historic achievements. In a four-year period, from 1988 to 1991, the Brazilian won four world titles – not to mention the controversial decision in Japan 1989 that prevented him from picking up a possible fourth trophy.
Vettel and Red Bull Racing, on the other hand, ruled F1 from 2010 to 2013, winning four titles in four seasons. Unlike Senna, who had two-time world champion Alain Prost as a teammate for two years, the German’s teammate was Mark Webber (not that it was easy sharing a team with the Australian, since a few discussions and even accidents occurred).
Vettel’s appetite for pole positions is also reminiscent of Senna’s style – so much so that he holds the record of 15 poles in a single season, 2011. Obviously, that feat would be much harder in Senna’s time, since there were just 16 races per year, versus 19 or 20, nowadays.
But the Brazilian held the record for a while, by scoring 13 poles in the 1988 and 1999 championships. Senna’s overall number of pole positions is still way ahead of the German’s: 65 against the current Ferrari driver’s 45.
Take a look at a few records and statistics from both drivers’ careers, and note the many similarities between Senna’s 161 GPs and Vettel’s 149.
GPs 161 Senna X 149 Vettel * (up until Hungary. By the end of the year, Vettel will have 158)
Wins: 41 Senna X 41 Vettel
Grand Chelem (hat trick + start to finish): 4 Senna x 4 Vettel
Titles: 4 Vettel X 3 Senna
Most pole positions in a single year: 15 Vettel (2011) X Senna 13 (1988 and 1989)
Hat trick (pole, win, fastest lap): 8 Vettel X 7 Senna
Poles: 65 Senna X 45 Vettel
Start to finish wins: 19 Senna X 12 Vettel
Wins from pole position: 29 Senna X 27 Vettel
Wins in driver’s own country: 2 Senna (91-93) X 1 Vettel (2013)
Podiums: 80 Senna X 73 Vettel
GPs before first win: 16 Senna X 22 Vettel
GPs before first pole: 15 Senna X 21 Vettel
Most poles in a row: 8 Senna (1988/89) X 5 Vettel (2010/2011 e 2011)
Consecutive wins at the same GP: 5 Senna (Mônaco 89 a 93) X 3 Vettel”