| SAO PAULO
SAO PAULO Sebastian Vettel would love to come across as a more charismatic and colourful Formula One world champion but the spirit of the age is against him.
The 25-year-old Red Bull driver is poised to join the sport's all-time elite on Sunday as a triple champion, the youngest ever and only the third to win three titles consecutively.
The German need only finish fourth to join some of the greatest names in the sport - triple champions like Austrian Niki Lauda and late Brazilian Ayrton Senna - but he was asked at the Brazilian Grand Prix on Thursday whether he could be truly compared to the giants of yesteryear in terms of character.
It was a question he found difficult to answer.
The issue arose because Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, the 82-year-old who is close to Vettel, was quoted by Germany's Bild newspaper as saying that the German and his generation lacked the charisma of outspoken champions like James Hunt, Senna and Lauda.
Ecclestone, always one to create eye-catching headlines before a race, suggested modern drivers were too pampered by their teams and muzzled by the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA).
"I don't know exactly what he said but maybe he was just taking the piss..." said Vettel, quickly correcting himself.
"Sorry, maybe he was just taking the mickey out of the newspaper which is very possible with Bernie."
The self-correction, to laughter as the FIA's Formula One delegate theatrically placed a hand lightly on Vettel's shoulder, was telling.
The FIA sent a letter to all teams earlier in the month reminding them, after swearing on the podium in Abu Dhabi, that their drivers should mind their language during public media events such as post-race interviews.
Vettel pointed to how things were in the days of Hunt and Lauda, in the 1970s and 80s.
Then, a racing driver might down a beer or two with his rivals after qualifying, smoke a post-race cigarette on the podium and let off steam with strong language before partying the night away.
Drivers expressed themselves in forthright terms and enjoyed a level of camaraderie rarely seen in the modern grand prix paddock. As old drivers like to recall, it was a time when the cars were dangerous and the sex was safe rather than the other way around.
Vettel, a joker with a cheeky grin and a love of oddball British humour derived from spending time with a British-based team, recognised that it was harder in the modern era of close media attention and sponsor commitments for any driver to express himself.
"Hopefully I have a little bit left in the sport so I can make up a little bit, but also I think these days are very different to the previous days in terms of the freedom that we have," said the man who has given all his car's women's names ranging from Kinky Kylie to Randy Mandy.
"To give you an example, imagine that you find all of us sitting here on Saturday night having a beer, even if it's just one beer," said the German. "It would be a massive scene on Sunday."
He reminded reporters that last weekend's U.S. Grand Prix in Austin was the first held in Texas since one in Dallas in 1984.
That earlier race was won by Keke Rosberg, father of current Mercedes racer Nico, who lit up a cigarette after stepping out of the car.
"I'm not sure whether people would be too happy with that, when they already get excited when sometimes the language is not appropriate after just getting out of the car," said Vettel. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Mark Pangallo)