One of the most famous athletes you've probably never heard of was savoring his time in New York City last week, basking in the anonymity America's biggest city afforded. "It's so nice to come here," he said as he sat in the back of an SUV rolling through Midtown. "One of the few times I got noticed was on top of the Empire State Building. A few German tourists asked, 'Excuse me, can we take a picture?' But really, that's about it."
Sebastian Vettel may not have a high Q rating in the United States, but across Europe, Asia and Australia he's recognized as the top race car driver in the world. A year after becoming the youngest Formula One champion in history, Vettel, a 23-year-old native of Happenheim, Germany, is dominating the F1 circuit. He has won five of the seven races so far in 2011 and finished second in the other two, including the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal on June 12. With 12 events left in the season and the series heading to Valencia, Spain, on Sunday, he holds a 60-point advantage in the standings over Jenson Button. Barring a colossal collapse, Vettel will cruise easily to the title in his Red Bull Racing machine—not that many in the U.S. will even notice.
But Vettel's celebrity may soon spike in the States. Formula One hasn't raced in this country since the 2007 U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis; the only North American stop on the F1 schedule has been Montreal. Three weeks ago, however, F1 officials announced that a tentative date—June 17, 2012—has been set for the sport to return to the U.S. at the Circuit of the Americas, outside Austin. Excavation for the $400 million track, a 3.4-mile, 20-turn layout, is 95% complete. "We'll be ready to go next June," says Steve Sexton, the president of the track. "We're expecting 120,000 on race day. A lot of them will be Sebastian Vettel fans."
While in New York last week Vettel visited the training complex of MLS's New York Red Bulls, where he kicked a ball around with the team—and drew a shout out from one of the top soccer players in the world, "Now, this is the man!" yelled captain Thierry Henry, a big F1 fan, to his teammates. "No one is a bigger winner in the world than Sebastian Vettel!"
The biggest winner in F1 history is another German, Michael Schumacher, who won seven championships between 1994 and 2004. As a boy Vettel pretended to be Schumacher when he was driving a go-kart in his backyard, and now he appears equipped to go after Schumacher in the record book. He's on a powerhouse Red Bull team that is as big as any in the sport (600 people work 12 months a year in around-the-clock shifts on his cars), and Vettel drives with surgical precision.
"I can't wait to come back and race in America next year," Vettel said over lunch at a Manhattan restaurant. "Hopefully we can wake up some people over here to our sport."
Minutes later Vettel walked out onto a congested sidewalk, quietly disappearing—at least for now—into the crowd.