As Formula One enters its off-season, nearly every driver and team has a simple goal: Find some way, any way, to get past Sebastian Vettel.
Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber managed the feat Sunday to win the Brazilian Grand Prix, but only because Vettel’s car developed a gearbox problem in the season finale that left him with a second-place finish.
Otherwise, Vettel, who already had clinched his second consecutive Formula One championship, might have captured his 12th win of the year, because he had jumped out to an early lead before his mechanical problem set in.
Nevertheless, Vettel dominated the 2011 season, his 11 wins in the series’ 19 races translating into a whopping 122-point margin of victory in the title standings over Jenson Button of McLaren Mercedes. Webber finished third in the standings.
No doubt Vettel drives for one of the strongest teams, but he is methodically staking a claim to being one of the best Formula One drivers ever because the German is only 24. He’s already the youngest two-time champion in series history.
“It’s really incredible — going into the season we thought we had a competitive car and that maybe we could win some races, but it has been phenomenal,” Vettel said Sunday in post-race comments relayed by Formula One.
To put Vettel’s accomplishment in perspective, no other driver had even half his number of wins this season.
Button and his McLaren Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton — the 2009 and 2008 world champions, respectively — were second in victories for the year with three each. Two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari won one race.
“It’s been a long year, and I want to say a huge ‘Thank you’ to the team,” Hamilton said. “I’ll be attacking next season; 2012 will be my year.”
Vettel’s childhood hero, seven-time champion Michael Schumacher of Germany, had his second trying year in a row since coming out of retirement to drive for the Mercedes GP team.
The 42-year-old Schumacher failed to reach the podium (for the top three finishers) all season, with his best result, fourth, coming at the rain-soaked Canadian Grand Prix in June.
He finished eighth in the title standings with 76 points, only four more than he earned in 2010, as the Mercedes team struggled to produce cars on par with those of the Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari teams.
But Schumacher gave no indication of retiring again. “We very much look forward to next season,” he said after finishing 15th in Brazil. “With all the effort that is being put into the development of the  car, I am confident we can make another step forward to where Mercedes belongs — fighting at the top.”
For now, Vettel is the only one on top, and the effort to displace him begins anew with next season’s opener March 18 at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.