MELBOURNE, March 15, 2012 (AFP / Tim Collings) - Sebastian Vettel may have won back-to-back world championships and experienced a life transformation that few people can dream of, but he remains the same easy-going young man he was five years ago.
Then, talked of as a potential star, breaking records as a 19-year-old wunderkind and known as much for his love of British humour and relaxed nature, he was still able to stroll around the paddock without being mobbed.
The boy from Heppenheim was that rare breed -- a German who understood English jokes, laughed at John Cleese and old Monty Python sketches and taped episodes of Little Britain.
But he also loved motor racing and understood its demands, glamour and history, characteristics of his outlook that have remained with him these last two years of mounting success and glory.
For Vettel, much as he loves his speed, his machines and his fun, the huge salary, lavish lifestyle and public spotlight are not big motivators. He races rather for the thrill and love of the experience.
In his words, it is all about "passion".
And it is the same passion that controls him now as that which has seen him revel in his racing throughout his life since first gaining a taste for speed and thrills.
Born on July 3, 1987, Vettel is the youngest double champion and the youngest achiever of many Formula One landmarks: youngest to take part, to race, to score points, to win and to triumph as champion.
And this season, if he can maintain his levels of extraordinary success, he will join legendary Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio and his fellow German Michael Schumacher as only the third man to have won three championships in a row.
This is a feat that eluded many great racers of the past including Australian Jack Brabham, Briton Jackie Stewart, Frenchman Alain Prost and Brazilian Ayrton Senna.
But if Vettel can do it this year, he will cement himself as one of the truly great stars of the sport's long history.
"It is great to enjoy all of this, the statistics and the records, but it is not what it is all about in the end," he said. "It is about the feeling that you have.
"Last year, we had a fantastic season. You don't have a year like that very often, not at all. Even if you look at what Michael (Schumacher) had, we did something very special!
"But at the end, it is the same as every other job. You need to love it to succeed. You have to feel you are doing the right thing don't you?"
Last year, Vettel won pole position 15 times in 19 Grands Prix, won 11 races and finished on the podium 17 times.
"Yes, it was nice," he said with a wide grin. "And it is really nice when people remind you of it, but it is the next race that matters and the car and the next lap."
Vettel freely admits he is still full of admiration for the man who was his inspiration as a child -- Schumacher, the great champion who became his mentor.
"When I grew up, he was a hero for everyone in Germany. He was the one for us all.
"I remember once, there were 120 kids and we were all trying to qualify for a kart race organised by Michael. The final 34 got to compete in the race and Michael waved the chequered flag -- it was a big deal for all of us!
"To be part of that was a dream for me and I was lucky and very happy. I got there and I finished seventh -- and I got a trophy."
He met Schumacher, too, and the pair have remained great friends, Schumacher helping guide his path in F1 when needed and giving him support as he rose to the top.
"Michael has the passion -- he doesn't do this just for the money," said Vettel. "That's what I mean about this sport. It takes you over!"
This year, in his new RB8 car, he hopes not only to defend his title a second time, but also to lead the Red Bull team to a third constructors' title. But as he prepared for the season-opening race, he admitted that he had still not resolved one of his most pressing problems: what to call the car.
After "Julie", "Kate", "Kate's Dirty Sister", "Luscious Liz" and "Kinky Kylie", the RB8 has a tradition to maintain.
Vettel's smile acknowledges two things: he enjoys the fun involved in picking a nickname and, though he may be a champion, he is still enjoying life as much as he did five years ago.