Sebastian Vettel may be greatest athlete America doesn’t know

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Sebastian Vettel appears ready to equal his racing hero and German countryman Michael Schumacher and also Juan Manuel Fangio as the only drivers in Formula One history to win four consecutive World Championships. That alone places him in the Mount Rushmore of legends in the sport; since entering in 2007 as a teenager, Vettel has stormed through the F1 record books with nearly every single Grand Prix.

Schumacher’s all-time marks of 91 wins and 7 World Championships are eventually going to be in range for Vettel, who thus far has 35 and 3 at age 26. He’s already the youngest to win three titles. Schumacher had runs of seven and five straight wins in 2004, the year of his final title. Fangio never won more than three races in a row and won just 24 races in his career, but raced during an era when only nine to 11 Grands Prix were on the calendar.

Yet while his status among the all-time greats of F1 is being solidified, his awareness to an American fan base is not at the same level as his on-track achievements.

Compared to some of America’s most dominant and recognizable stick-and-ball athletes – such as LeBron James, Tiger Woods, and Tom Brady/Peyton Manning – Vettel matches up from a dominance and success level.

LeBron’s at least a third of the way to his “not three, not four, not five, not six” proclamation with back-to-back rings. Brady’s run of success netted three Super Bowls in a four-year run earlier this century. Woods’ streak included holding all four major titles at the same time from 2000 to 2001, and his total of 14 majors is still unrivaled among other golfers even though he’s been stuck on 14 since that U.S. Open win over Rocco Mediate in 2008.

And yet Vettel’s got a record streak that would trump them all, with four successive season-long championships assuming he caps it off this weekend in India. One site rates his marketability behind that of NBA star Blake Griffin and tennis player Sloane Stephens, not to mention fellow F1 driver Lewis Hamilton.

So why is he not as well-known in these parts? Several factors, actually.

The obvious, of course, was the lack of a United States Grand Prix until the event’s return at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas last year. Still, you can catch him for this year’s race on Nov. 17 on NBC, or in person at the track.

Looking historically, Vettel actually made his debut at the last USGP in Indianapolis in 2007 – as a then-long-haired, blonde, 19-year-old as an injury replacement for Robert Kubica at the BMW Sauber team. He scored a championship point with eighth place, the youngest driver to do so, and began his march on the record books.

Those who paid attention that weekend – and are F1 devotees – will know they witnessed the beginning of the legend. The more casual observers, though, likely would not have known of Vettel until the series’ return a year ago.

Second is his sponsor, Red Bull. For all its marketing brilliance over the years, Red Bull has not opted to make Vettel the focal point of its ads in the U.S. since he joined the team in 2009. There’s been more ads from new Red Bull partner Infiniti this year – one with generic Red Bull Formula 3 cars racing through streets I can think of off the top of my head – and Vettel’s not included directly.

Red Bull got more mileage from a marketing and buzz standpoint out of the “Red Bull Stratos” event last October, when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner free fell from more than 125,000 feet in space. It truly felt like “an event;” a Vettel Grand Prix win seems like “just another Sunday.”

You could argue Mobil 1 has made McLaren driver Jenson Button and, previously, Hamilton bigger names in the U.S. Hamilton and fellow Mobil 1 driver Tony Stewart memorably exchanged rides for a day in a made-for-TV 2011 event, and the two were in commercials together as well. This year, Button’s starred opposite “Smoke,” as the term “Soda cookies” has officially entered the vernacular.

All three – Vettel and the pair of English World Champions, Button and Hamilton – are much bigger on the other side of the pond compared to here. The Barclays Premier League has gained recent traction in the U.S., but it and F1 are the two major sports in England by contrast to here, where the NFL rules all.

Perhaps comparable examples for Vettel in the U.S. are Spanish soccer players Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta, who have won multiple titles with their club team, Barcelona, and international trophies with Spain. But a U.S. sports fan may be hard-pressed to pick either out of a crowd. The same applies to Vettel.

Third, and the issue all F1 stars worldwide all seem to have here, is that the races often come on in the overnight or early morning hours. Only the most devoted, fervent fans have the desire and passion to want to wake up that early, or stay up that late, to watch Grands Prix.

And with Vettel’s recent run of success – five straight victories heading into this weekend – it has the potential to turn fans off with the notion that a race is as good as decided before it even begins. Say what you will about what it takes to achieve that, but unless you’re a fan of dominance and watching the best at their peak, it can get old.

We know Vettel’s an excellent shoe and from those who cover him every Grand Prix weekend, he has a sunny disposition, quick wit, sharp, insightful answers to journalist questions and an enthusiasm for winning that is evident every time that finger waves “number one.”

It just hasn’t waved “number one” here in terms of awareness of his level of dominance.

WATCH: Red Bull GRC opener at Memphis, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET on NBC

Photo: Louis Yio/Red Bull Content Pool
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Red Bull Global Rallycross kicks its 2017 season off with its first tip to Memphis, on a 1.18-mile “roval” course this weekend.

Coverage airs Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on NBC for the high-intensity rallycross championship. Toby Moody, Anders Krohn and Will Christien have the call.

Scott Speed looks to open his 2017 season strong in pursuit of his third straight championship with Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, but teammate Tanner Foust and strong factory efforts from Honda and Subaru are poised to upset him and the VW Andretti team.

Besides the Supercars, GRC Lites also open their 2017 season at Memphis. That coverage airs on Tuesday, May 2, at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Phoenix (VIDEO)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass is back for NBCSN’s third Verizon IndyCar Series race of the season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (tonight, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) from Phoenix International Raceway.

NBCSN IndyCar and Indy Lights reporter and IndyCar’s “Up to Speed” host Katie Hargitt fills in for Anders Krohn this weekend. She checks in with the following drivers in this weekend’s episode:

  • With Josef Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, who won at Barber.
  • With JR Hildebrand, driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, back this week after missing Barber.
  • And with Zach Veach, who deputized for Hildebrand at Barber and is here this weekend in his IndyCar Radio role as a pit reporter, and preparing for the Indianapolis 500 with AJ Foyt Racing.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


Hamilton confused by lack of pace in Russia F1 qualifying

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Lewis Hamilton was left confused and disappointed after finishing half a second behind pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel in Formula 1 qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Hamilton arrived in Russia looking to cut the gap to Ferrari driver Vettel in the championship standings after falling seven points behind last time out in Bahrain.

Vettel rallied to take his first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday in Sochi, while Hamilton finished half a second back in fourth place, lagging behind Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton has long stated his desire to have Ferrari fighting with Mercedes at the front of the pace, but he was disappointed not to be able to fight Vettel for pole in Russia.

“This means we have a real race. It’s just a shame today, I definitely wasn’t at my optimum,” Hamilton told NBCSN after the session.

“Normally I’m a lot quicker than I was today. I need to go and work out why and if I can do anything.

“Obviously I can’t change the car, so I’ll see what I can do tomorrow.”

Speaking in Mercedes’ post-qualifying release, Hamilton said that he is hopeful of making use of the long straights at the Sochi Autodrom to catch and pass the Ferrari driver, with Mercedes bidding to maintain a 100 per cent record at the track.

“Sochi isn’t the easiest track to follow on, but there are long straights which should offer the opportunity to move forward. That’s our goal,” Hamilton said.

“I’m on the dirty side of the grid so I haven’t done myself any favours off the start. But that was the best job I could do today. We’ve got a real race to look forward to.

“There’s no point being upset. We’ll channel our positive energy and hopefully Sunday will be better.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Q3 traffic costs Raikkonen shot at first F1 pole in nine years

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Kimi Raikkonen was left lamenting traffic at the start of his final qualifying run in Sochi after narrowly missing out on his first Formula 1 pole in almost nine years.

Raikkonen last started a grand prix from pole in France back in 2008, but sat on provisional pole after the first Q3 runs had been completed in Russia on Saturday.

The final laps saw Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel improve to wrestle pole away, with a mistake sending Raikkonen wide at the final corner, meaning he was unable to improve.

Raikkonen was left to settle for second place, 0.059 seconds off Vettel’s time, with the Finn saying his inability to get his tires up to temperature early was the main issue.

“Obviously the aim is to be in the front. The feeling has been more better this weekend,” Raikkonen explained.

“Now we just got some traffic on our out lap in the last set and couldn’t really make the tires work as well as the first run. It was a bit more trickier. They were thereabouts and I just about got it back in the last corner, but obviously didn’t pay off.

“I’m happier than previous qualifyings, but obviously we had all the tools to be in the front today. One-two for the team is not bad.”

While Raikkonen was unable to take pole, Ferrari did capture its first front-row lock-out since the race at Magny-Cours in 2008. Raikkonen took pole that day ahead of teammate Felipe Massa, with the latter going on to win the race.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.