Formula 1 says goodbye to Sebastian Vettel
After veteran driver Sebastian Vettel announced that this will be his final season in Formula 1, our writer Harry Craig takes a look back over his greatest moments, and forward to the legacy he will leave behind.
After 299 race starts, 53 wins, 57 pole positions and four world titles, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix brought the curtain down on the illustrious career of Sebastian Vettel. During his most successful years at Red Bull, he was a winning machine, feared even by Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Although stints in Ferrari and Aston Martin have not brought the same success, he leaves Formula 1 as arguably the most respected driver of the modern era, for his off-track actions as much as his on-track victories.
Vettel was born in 1987 in Heppenheim in western Germany. His father Norbert, still a regular presence in his son’s garage on race weekends, was F1-obsessed and a massive Senna fan. Vettel’s formative years coincided with the emergence of Michael Schumacher, who became a massive inspiration as Sebastian began in karts at the age of three and stepped up to cars in 2003.
He leaves Formula 1 as arguably the most respected driver of the modern era, for his off-track actions as much as his on-track victories
By 2007, Vettel had shown enough success in his junior career to be promoted to Formula 1, initially with BMW Sauber. Halfway through that season, he moved to Toro Rosso, the junior team for Red Bull Racing, where his prodigal talent became widely known. In the 2008 Italian Grand Prix he took perhaps one of the most iconic first wins of all time – in a midfield car that had no right even being near the podium, Vettel put it on pole and led the race lights-to-flag, 12.5 seconds ahead of the rest of the field in wet conditions. Vettel dubbed it a “miracle”, but without Sebastian behind the wheel, it would not have been possible.
In Red Bull’s junior team, Vettel had proven he could become world champion – he had even won a race before the senior team. He stepped up to the top team in 2009, where he brought Red Bull Racing their first ever wins. Indeed, Vettel’s first win for Red Bull was another heroic effort, putting it on pole despite having a broken driveshaft and retaining the lead on race day in China.
Vettel stepped into championship contention in 2010, with a four-way battle between two existing world champions (Alonso & Hamilton), Red Bull’s elder statesman (Mark Webber), and a young prodigy in Sebastian. Few would have bet on the latter, and despite never leading the championship at any point in the season, Vettel’s pole-to-win performance in the final race in Abu Dhabi made him Formula 1’s youngest ever champion.
Vettel’s pole-to-win performance in the final race in Abu Dhabi made him Formula 1’s youngest ever champion
Three more consecutive world titles would follow. Those in 2011 and 2013 came in dominant style – he ended the latter season with a record run of nine consecutive wins, something that no other driver has come close to beating. 2012, meanwhile, delivered possibly the greatest championship battle F1 has ever seen, between Vettel and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. The title looked to have slipped from Vettel’s grasp when he was spun around on Lap 1 in the season finale, but he somehow fought back to win the title.
Despite this record-breaking success, however, Vettel’s reputation among the media and fans during his Red Bull years was mixed at best. He was often booed on the podium, and even to this day his world titles are often (falsely) derided as only being due to the car. Incidents such as the infamous Multi 21 in Malaysia in 2013, in which he disobeyed team orders not to overtake his teammate, did not help his reputation.
Vettel’s competitive reputation was harmed further in 2014, when he struggled to adapt to a new era of racing, and was beaten by his new, younger teammate Daniel Ricciardo. He switched teams to join Ferrari in 2015 – the team that had taken his idol Michael Schumacher to five world titles – with dreams of emulating Michael.
In an era dominated by Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, Vettel and Ferrari were the only pairing able to consistently compete against them. His 2015 season saw a return to form, with three wins, but Ferrari couldn’t provide a car to allow Sebastian to rival Mercedes for a title.
In 2017, it looked like that might finally have ended, as Vettel dominated the first half of the season. In the second half, however, it slipped into Hamilton’s hands again, as Ferrari were hit by repeated mechanical failures. 2018 was a similar story, and saw a litany of errors from Vettel – the sight of him sliding off-track from the lead into the barriers in a damp German Grand Prix summed up his campaign for Ferrari.
Ferrari’s signing of young prodigy Charles Leclerc in 2019 as Sebastian’s teammate was perhaps a sign that Vettel’s time as Ferrari’s golden kid had passed. Tensions escalated between the teammates on-track, climaxing with a double DNF in Brazil, and before the 2020 season even began, Ferrari chose not to renew his contract. Vettel was facing a potential forced retirement from the sport.
In spite of the lack of recent on-track success, Vettel has become admired for what he has done off-track
Racing still flowed through Vettel’s blood, however, and he joined the new Aston Martin team for 2021. Two years in British racing green did not, however, deliver the success he had hoped for, as the team could not deliver anything more than a midfield car, even despite Vettel’s consistent hard work and talent. This, sadly, was likely a major factor in his decision to retire.
In spite of the lack of recent on-track success, Vettel has become admired for what he has done off-track. His fight for environmental causes has included litter-picking after the British Grand Prix and building a bee hotel in Austria. Similarly, his allyship with the LGBTQ+ community, wearing the pride flag at multiple Grands Prix despite receiving a reprimand (take note, World Cup footballers), has helped to make the paddock more inclusive.
It is for these reasons – and so many more – that Vettel will leave a huge hole in Formula 1. He combines so many rare traits – charismatic, talented, socially aware, hard-working, exuding passion for everything he does. Despite Vettel’s notorious secrecy about his private life, having only joined social media in July to announce his retirement, the entire paddock will hope he doesn’t disappear into obscurity.
Danke schön Sebastian – we hope to see you soon.