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Vettel hit Formula One for four

Red Bull Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany is pictured as he poses for the media with the Red Bull team before the Brazilian F1
Red Bull Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany is pictured as he poses for the media with the Red Bull team before the Brazilian F1

By Alan Baldwin

LONDON (Reuters) - Sebastian Vettel was on such a record roll in 2013 that by the time Formula One rocks up for next year's season-opener in Australia it will be almost eight months since anyone else won a grand prix.

Even allowing for an August shutdown and three month winter break, that single statistic highlights just how demoralizing a year it has been for all those trying to beat Red Bull's quadruple world champion.

The cheeky-faced 26-year-old, soon to be a father, could have clinched his employers fourth successive constructors' championship on his own given that he amassed more points (397) than any other team over the 19 races.

The finger-pointing German chalked up nine wins in a row, the first time any driver has done that in a single campaign since the championship started in 1950, and 13 in total to equal compatriot Michael Schumacher's 2004 record with Ferrari.

The youngest quadruple champion also became the first to win his first four titles successively.

Rallying shrugged off nine years of Sebastien Loeb domination to crown another French Sebastien, Ogier, in a debut season for Volkswagen while MotoGP hailed the top category's youngest ever champion in Honda's 20-year-old Spanish sensation Marc Marquez.

But in Formula One and NASCAR, where Jimmie Johnson celebrated his sixth Sprint Cup championship in eight years, it was more of the same.

Some early rising television viewers may have opted to go back under the bedcovers, or take the dog for a walk, rather than watching Vettel win yet again but others were happy to give credit where it was due and recognize a special talent.

On the evidence of this year, Vettel can look forward to new milestones - and more of the tire-smoking victory 'donuts' - in 2014 as his career increasingly draws comparison with the best of the best.

Victory in Australia would make him the first driver to win 10 races in a row and take his career tally to 40 wins - just one short of the number amassed by the late Brazilian Ayrton Senna.

Another title, in a year that will see Russia make its debut and Austria return after India and South Korea bowed out, would equal Schumacher's record of five in a row.

The good news for rival teams and fans yearning for change at the top is that past performance, as any fund manager will attest, does not guarantee future success and 2014 could be very different to 2013.

"You never know what's going to happen, next year is an unknown," Vettel said in November. "I'm sure we will fight a lot to maintain our position but there's no guarantee that next year will be like this year."

END OF ERA

This year marked the end of an era, on the technical side at least, and the start of a new journey into an uncertain future.

The trusty V8 engine has been pensioned off, screaming into retirement, to be replaced by something potentially far less reliable - and much more expensive - in the form of a turbocharged V6 unit with energy recovery systems.

Ferrari, beaten to the runners-up slot by Mercedes, have waved Brazilian Felipe Massa off to Williams and welcomed back their 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen - who complained of not being paid by Lotus - as Fernando Alonso's team mate in a line-up of champions.

Whether the biggest rule change in a generation can also transform the pecking order remains to be seen, with Vettel still very much a favorite, but there is a realistic chance that it will.

Nobody knows which of the three manufacturers will produce the best engine and, in a bid to keep interest in the championship going for longer, the governing FIA has decided controversially to award double points for the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi.

The fans, some of whom took to booing Vettel on his increasingly routine trips to the top of the podium, were scathing about 'Abu Double' and what they saw as a needless gimmick - with the champion very much in agreement.

They were not too happy after this year's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang either when Vettel ignored team orders (the famous 'Multi 21, Seb') and passed Australian team mate Mark Webber for the win.

The German will not have to worry about Webber next year, with the no-nonsense veteran deciding enough was enough and leaving Formula One for a new future with Porsche in their Le Mans sportscar program.

Instead Vettel will have a younger, smilier and probably more compliant Australian on the other side of the garage, with Daniel Ricciardo moving up from Toro Rosso and a steep learning curve ahead.

TYRE CONTROVERSY

Pirelli will be pleased to see the back of 2013, even if next year promises to be another big challenge, after a year of brickbats and blowouts brought the tire supplier plenty of publicity for all the wrong reasons.

The tires dictated the pace of the championship, with Vettel's winning spree following changes forced through after a spate of failures at Silverstone in June threw the sport into crisis and the season into a tale of two halves.

There was also controversy over a 'secret' tire test carried out by Pirelli and Mercedes in Spain in May that had rivals up in arms and the German manufacturer, who won three of the five races between the test and August break, summoned to the governing body.

One of those wins was for 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton, whose switch from McLaren turned up trumps after many had predicted he was making the wrong move.

Instead it was McLaren, the team who had ended 2012 with the fastest car, who looked more chumps than champs after ending their 50th anniversary year without a single podium appearance for the first time since 1980.

It could have been worse, with Jenson Button grabbing a fourth place right at the finish in Brazil to stave off the team's worst overall performance since their Formula One debut season in 1966.

Mexican Sergio Perez was the fall guy, shown the exit after just one season at Woking with McLaren putting their trust in a younger man and signing 21-year-old Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen to take his place.

"Everything happens for a reason and I'm very confident that in one year's time I will be here telling you that it was the best thing that happened to me to leave McLaren," said Perez, before signing a deal with Force India.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Justin Palmer)

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