Baby Schumi is his nickname, and yet despite the return of his legendary compatriot, 2010 may be the year that Sebastian Vettel finally breaks out from the shadow of Michael Schumacher to become Germany's latest Formula 1 World Champion.
In 2009 a quarter of the Formula 1 grid was made up of German drivers, but only one warranted the comparisons with the seven-time world champion. Sebastian Vettel may have finished the season as runner-up, but for a few technical problems and rookie-like errors, he could have been top of the driver's standings.
Adrian Newey designed what was acknowledged as the most beautiful car of 2009, and it was no slouch other. Its only downfall was the absence of the double diffuser that helped Jenson Button to six victories in the first seven races. While Red Bull designers burnt the midnight oil to add this accessory to the car, Vettel still had the pace to challenge Brawn GP for race wins, and claimed his second career win in China. Vettel went on to three more victories at Silverstone, Suzuka, and the first ever race in Abu Dhabi.
Accidents in Australia, Malaysia and Monaco, and technical problems in Hungary and Valencia meant that, although chasing Jenson Button to the penultimate race of the season, Vettel fell just short of his maiden championship last year.
Red Bull won the last three races of 2009, and no doubt feel they have the momentum going into 2010. Pre-season testing has proved promising for the team, with them frequently finishing top of the timesheets, and for the most part showing sound reliability. Will 2010 be the season that Vettel comes of age?
Bernie Ecclestone certainly thinks so. The 23-year old Vettel is Bernie's prediction for the title this year, and as he matures the little mistakes that inhibited last season's title challenge should begin to be ironed out. If Adrian Newey has come up with a more robust car than last year's effort, it would be hard to bet against the young German.
One caveat however, is that this season appears to be more competitive. Despite the odd wins for Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen last season, 2009 was a two horse race in terms of the teams. Vettel and Button won ten of the seventeen races, and allowed their respective teammates two victories each as well. Pre-season testing suggests that at least McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes will be challenging for the race wins this season, and Vettel may find it a little more competitive.
Vettel's teammate Webber is back fighting fit as well. The Aussie briefly flirted with the idea of a championship challenge in 2009, but was never realistically in with more than a slight chance. He spent much of the early part of the season recovering from the broken leg he received cycling in Tasmania, but this season will hit the ground running. In the same car as Vettel, the gritty and experienced Australian could prove a tough challenge for his younger teammate.
Compound this with the prospect of Fernando Alonso in a Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton in a competitive McLaren, and the return of Michael Schumacher, and the challenge for Sebastian Vettel seems pretty daunting. However, baby Schumi has displayed enough talent in his short F1 career to convince us that he is a future champion and, given a competitive car, is sure to be challenging in 2010.