SUZUKA, Japan (AFP) - Sebastian Vettel has endured boos and his dominance has been called boring but he stands on the verge of true Formula One greatness by sealing his fourth straight world title this week in Japan.
One more crooked-finger victory salute from Vettel, coupled with an off-day by nearest rival Fernando Alonso, and the Red Bull man joins Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as only the third four-in-a-row champion.
The amiable German, still only 26, would also tie Alain Prost's career haul of four titles, and lie one off Fangio's total of five compiled in the 1950s.
And yet another world championship next year in his rampaging Red Bull would see Vettel match Schumacher's five in a row won with Ferrari from 2000 to 2004.
After unsavoury booing greeted Vettel's irresistible form, including victories in the last four grands prix, debate has raged over whether fans should salute his mastery or yearn for more competitive days.
Vettel's victory from pole position in South Korea last Sunday opened a 77-point lead, and with only 125 points available from the remaining five races he is home and dry if Alonso cannot reach the top eight on Sunday.
The Spaniard has all but thrown in the towel, even if he does manage to postpone Vettel's celebrations until India or Abu Dhabi, the next two races after Japan.
"The championship is a low priority at the moment," said Alonso, champion with Renault in 2005 and 2006. "Second in the constructors' championship is more realistic." And Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali has already congratulated Red Bull on their expected victory.
"We know it is almost impossible to win the title, so congratulations to him (Vettel) and to what they are doing because at the end of the day if they have (the title) they deserve that," he said.
Lewis Hamilton voiced concern that Vettel's vice-like grip over Formula One was sending fans to sleep, comparing it to the era of seven-time world champion Schumacher.
But the Briton quickly took to Twitter to clarify his comments and praise the "true champion" who was doing a "perfect job".
"I admire his dedication and ability to consistently perform without mistakes," said Hamilton, world champion with McLaren in 2008. "This is the mark of a true champion." Vettel has racked up eight victories out of 14 this year and is on course to beat his previous season best of 11 in 2011, when he also clinched the title at Suzuka, his favourite track.
"Even though it looks very good, it's still not over so we shouldn't feel too comfortable," said Vettel.
"There's still a chance for Fernando, so we have to stay on top of our game," he added.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner said Vettel is "right up there" with the greatest of all time, a view that would be strengthened if he wraps up the title with four races left.
However, safety could yet play a role. Last week in South Korea, Mark Webber's Red Bull exploded into flames after getting a puncture and then being hit by Adrian Sutil.
Shredding tyres sparked fury among drivers, with Webber accusing tyre makers Pirelli of putting the drivers at risk.
"The drivers aren't super-important," said the Australian, convinced his blowout was caused by running over debris from an earlier puncture suffered by McLaren's Sergio Perez.
"The tyres are wearing a lot and they also explode a bit, but that is for Pirelli to sort out." Three months after a British Grand Prix marred by puncturing exploding tyres, Pirelli will again come under close scrutiny.
"We've absolutely no fears going forward," insisted Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery.
"The structure we use now is what we have used for the last two years and there hasn't been an issue. Of course you will get racing incidents, but that's life."