By Alan Baldwin
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - They called him 'Baby Schumi' when he first came into Formula One but Sebastian Vettel has blown away even Michael Schumacher with his third successive title at the age of 25 and after just 101 races.
The youngest triple champion the sport has ever seen, the Red Bull driver is only the third - after the late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio and Schumacher himself - to win three championships in a row.
The younger German is the only man, however, to take his first three titles in consecutive years.
Vettel's latest moment of triumph came on Sunday at a Brazilian Grand Prix that saw Schumacher finally depart the stage at the age of 43 and after a record seven titles and 91 wins in a career spanning more than two decades.
Schumacher started out racing the likes of Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost and he leaves with the sport dominated by a man who was four years old when the older German made his 1991 debut.
It took Schumacher 143 races to become a triple champion at the age of 31.
Vettel, less baby-faced than he was but still cheerfully cheeky, has always been a man in a hurry from the day he came into Formula One in 2007 and immediately became the youngest driver to score a point.
He became the youngest grand prix pole sitter, race winner and driver on the podium with Toro Rosso in 2008, the youngest champion in 2010 and, unlike Schumacher, has a strong sense of Formula One history.
When Schumacher retired for the first time in 2006, the sages opined that his records were unlikely to be matched in the foreseeable future.
They did not foresee the arrival of Vettel, who before Brazil had won 26 percent of the races he had started and been on pole position in 36 percent of them. He had also finished on the podium 46 times in 100 starts.
Whereas Schumacher left Benetton for Ferrari after his 1994 and 1995 championships and spent years helping the Italian team to their first drivers' title in 21 years, Vettel has so far resisted a move.
There is every chance, with a team that has won the constructors' title for the past three years and has the brilliance of designer Adrian Newey keeping them a step ahead of the rest, that the German can bite deeper and deeper into Schumacher's records.
Once dubbed a 'Crash Kid' by McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, Vettel showed a new maturity last year when he ran away with his second title.
He has been less dominant this season, at least in the first half, but has been rewarded for his consistency in an unpredictable championship.
"I think from the first year when he won in 2010, you'd say his consistency is quite a bit better from that year," said McLaren's Jenson Button, 2009 champion with Brawn GP, who was on the end of a jarring collision with Vettel in Belgium in 2010 that triggered Whitmarsh's comment.
"He was making quite a few mistakes, I felt. I think he's grown in confidence over the last two years and you can see that in the consistency that he's had. Obviously he's been in a great car over that time as well but the consistency has been there."
In 2010, Vettel did not lead the championship until the moment when it really mattered, after the final floodlit race in Abu Dhabi when he clawed back a 15-point deficit on Ferrari's Fernando Alonso.
The following year, he wrapped up the title in Japan with four races to spare. He ended that same season with a record 15 pole positions and 11 race wins.
The German has found it harder to assert himself this season with seven different winners in the first seven races but Singapore proved the turning point, and he went on to win four races in a row to take the lead from Alonso in South Korea.
"It's all too easy to say he's had the fastest car because on numerous occasions this year he hasn't," said team principal Christian Horner.
"He came back from the summer break almost 40 points behind the championship lead. He focused hard, he worked hard at it and he maximised his chances. I think he's driven superbly well this year," added the Briton.
A carpenter's son from Heppenheim, Vettel has given all his cars female names, progressing from 'Kate' to 'Kate's Dirty Sister', 'Luscious Liz', 'Randy Mandy' and last year's 'Kinky Kylie'.
This year's model was simply 'Abbey', a name Vettel insisted was not linked to his love of The Beatles album 'Abbey Road'. Abbey is also a familiar corner at Silverstone, the circuit nearest to Red Bull's Milton Keynes factory.
He is very much his own man, negotiating his own contracts, while enjoying a firm friendship with Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, with whom he sometimes plays a relaxed game of backgammon.
Ecclestone, who managed and was particularly close to German-born Austrian champion Jochen Rindt up to his death in 1970, has seen parallels between the two.
"He reminds me of Jochen," the 82-year-old said last year. "Seb will always stay grounded, no matter how big the success. That is what makes real champions. That was also Jochen's strength. Plus both are lousy losers."
A marketing dream for Red Bull, with obvious youth appeal and a love of action sports, Vettel was born in 1987 - the same year that they sold their first can of energy drink - and started out with their young driver program.
He made his debut with BMW-Sauber in 2007, scoring immediately, but swiftly moved back into the Red Bull fold.
Vettel has been partnered by Australian Mark Webber in all three of his championship years and the two get along well enough despite occasional moments of friction in 2010.
The single digit raised in celebration after every race win, accompanied by whoops of delight from the cockpit, has become a trademark gesture - and just as irksome for rivals as Schumacher's podium jump for joy in the early years of the century.
Schumacher was a boyhood hero and the two have forged a strong relationship away from the track, combining as a winning German partnership in the annual Race of Champions event.
The pair embraced after Sunday's race and Schumacher had earlier let his compatriot go through to take sixth place in the closing laps.
"When I met him the first time, obviously I didn't know what to say because I didn't want to ask something stupid," Vettel recalled last week. "(It's) very special the relationship we share and I think he will always be an inspiration for myself."
(Editing by Alison Wildey and Sonia Oxley)