One of the best drivers in F1 history is retiring this weekend and a career spanning 298 races, four World Championships, 53 wins and 57 pole positions is coming to a close. But that success is only part of why the F1 family will miss him, as the German has become just as big a force off the track as on it.
Vettel will forever be remembered as one of F1’s all-time greats. Those four consecutive World Championships between 2010 and 2013 and his 53 wins make him the third-best driver ever, as far as the history books are concerned.
His speed was clear from the moment he topped the timing sheets in his first Practice session for BMW Sauber in 2006. In 2008, he announced himself to the world as a future champion when he mastered the wet to drag an uncompetitive Toro Rosso to an unlikely breakthrough win at Monza.
In 2010 he became – and still remains – the youngest-ever F1 World Champion at the age of 23. In the following years, the man from Heppenheim enjoyed period of utter dominance, winning 13 of the 19 races in 2013, including the last nine.
After moving to Ferrari in 2015, Vettel was the only driver who challenged the might of Mercedes in 2017 and 2018. Lewis Hamilton and his team would ultimately come out on top, but the rivalry between Red and Silver, Vettel and Hamilton, was gripping.
Rising star Charles Leclerc got the better of Vettel in his first season at Maranello in 2019, and as the Scuderia slumped into the midfield in 2020, Seb and the team parted ways. He moved to Aston Martin for 2021, and has become a true ambassador for the sport; an activist using his voice to effect change.
The 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix is perhaps the clearest symbol of what Sebastian Vettel has come to stand for. In the months leading up to the race, Hungary’s parliament passed a law banning gay people from appearing in TV shows for under-18s or in educational content in schools.
Ahead of the race, Vettel voiced his support for LGBTQ+ rights, and wore a rainbow ‘same love’ t-shirt over his race suit, in contravention of F1 regulations. After the race he was summoned to the stewards, and told the media: “I’m happy if they disqualify me. They can do what they want. I don’t care, I’d do it again.”
He was disqualified, but only because his car finished the race with less than the required one litre sample of fuel left in the tank. The penalty was especially cruel as Seb had finished second in tricky conditions, having capitalised on a crash at the race start to take a midfield car to the podium.
Lewis Hamilton became one of the most outspoken sportspeople in the world in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s death. He paved the way for his peers, like Vettel, to find their own voice. After the German announced his retirement this year, Hamilton was full of praise for his competitor:
“He has been one of the very, very few drivers in racing history that stood for much more than just themselves. He’s used his voice, and in the things that I’ve fought for he’s stood by me. He’s just a really beautiful human being and I’m really grateful to have been here in a time when he was racing.”
The 2021 British Grand Prix was another moment that earned Vettel plenty of praise. Hours after retiring from the race, he joined a small group of fans to pick up litter from the grandstands, and turned what should have been a disappointing afternoon into one of his finest.
While the rest of the motorsport world was grappling with the reality of going to Saudi Arabia in 2021 – as some wanted to downplay its human rights abuses and ‘get on with the racing,’ some argued the race shouldn’t be happening at all, and others simply tried to work out what ‘sportswashing’ actually meant – Vettel set out to make a difference in his own unique way once again.
In 2018, Saudi Arabia became the last country in the world to allow women to drive. Three years on, Vettel hosted a karting event in Jeddah with a group of young women who aspired to become racing drivers, to boost their confidence, and promote women’s sport. This was another small, simple act, not of a megastar, but of a man trying to make the world a slightly better place.
That, perhaps, is the secret to why Vettel has become so loved, why he is many fans’ hero, and why there has been such an outpouring of support for him ahead of his final weekend in F1. He comes across as impossibly down to earth for a man that has tamed the fiercest beasts in motorsport and done it better than almost everyone else, earning obscene amounts in the process.
Like all the best heroes, Sebastian Vettel is reassuringly imperfect. All the way into his Ferrari days, he was prone to the sort of ill-tempered outbursts you might expect from a driver locked in the heat of battle.
That side of the man was clearest to see in Baku in 2017, when he ran into the back of Hamilton while behind the Safety Car, and drove alongside his rival and rammed him, believing he’d been brake-checked. After tempers cooled and he apologised to Lewis, the pair actually became much closer.
Vettel has always been open with his emotions, allowing fans in to experience the joy and the heartbreak of his career alongside him. His barely audible, squeaky, and tearful radio message to his team as he won his first title in 2010 revealed the overwhelming flood of emotion of realising a life’s ambition, as he cried: “Thank you boys! Unbelievable, unbelievable! Thank you, I love you. I need a moment.”
The emotion was just as raw at Hockenheim in 2018, when the Ferrari driver slid off the track and the title started to slip out of his grasp. Beached in the gravel, having spurned what was looking like a clear win, beating his fists on the steering wheel, he wept: “F***s sake, f***s sake. Sorry guys. Aw s**t.”
His humanity, dominance, failures and activism are all parts of the Sebastian Vettel story that have endeared him to the world of motorsport. He showed his class in 2020, when as a parting gift to his Ferrari team mate, he gave Leclerc one of his helmets – one of the highest marks of respect a driver can give.
On it, he wrote “To Charles, you are the most talented driver I came across in 15 years of F1. Don’t waste it. But be sure whatever you do to be happy and smile. Thanks for everything.”
Now, as Vettel leaves F1, he should be remembered as one of the greatest forces for good we’ve come across in 72 years of F1. The motorsport family will hope that he doesn’t waste that quality, and that he too continues to be happy and smile, whatever comes next for him.