Race Weekend Central

F1 Midweek: Sebastian Vettel, The Epitome Of A Champion

With the checkered flag at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on Sunday came the end of 2022 Formula 1 season.

With it came the retirement of Sebastian Vettel, a monumental figure in the history of grand prix driving.

It’s hard to put into words just how big an impact Vettel had on the sport. A German boy who grew up idolizing Michael Schumacher, Vettel’s career saw him become the youngest F1 champion in 2010 at the age of 23.

The crown jewel of the Red Bull Junior program, Vettel had ascended all the way from joining the program in his karting days all the way to winning an F1 title with Red Bull Racing. Since the rise of Vettel, Red Bull has remained a top team in F1, only failing to win a race in 2015 in the years since.

Vettel backed up that success with three more championships in the next three years, a feat that at the time only four other drivers — Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio and Alain Prost — had achieved. Only Schumacher and Fangio had broken it with seven and five, respectively, and those two were also the only ones who had won four or more consecutive championships.

At the same point, Vettel was vilified by many fans following the series as a bit of a brat, due to winning a lot and occasionally his actions. His 2013 season in particular was marked with the infamous Multi-21 controversy early in the season, prior to dominating the second half en route to what ended up being his final championship.

Vettel, only 27 to start 2014, seemed to have the world at his fingertips. He had routinely beaten out teammate Mark Webber in his Red Bull tenure and also won championships against the likes of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. But 2014 was the start of the turbo hybrid era, a period during which Mercedes dominated the next eight seasons, and Vettel’s dominance over the field was instead transferred over to Hamilton.

Vettel didn’t go quietly in the night, moving from Red Bull to Ferrari in 2015 and serving as the main competition to Mercedes for the next four seasons. But unlike his hero Schumacher, who moved to Ferrari at a similar age and cemented his legend as the undisputed greatest of all time at that time, the results expected never fully came.

It wasn’t a complete disaster; after all, Vettel won 14 races for the Prancing Horse. That’s more than most drivers win in a career. But the only years where Ferrari gave Vettel a car that had a serious chance of contending for a championship were 2017 and 2018. And even then, Vettel was unable to close the gap and at least take the championship battle with Hamilton to the final race in either year.

2019 and 2020 ended up being nothing seasons, where he went from pretty easily beating Kimi Raikkonen in the teammate battles in the years prior to being thoroughly beaten by Charles Leclerc. 2020 in particular was a lame duck year where everybody knew before the first race that he was out after the season. And that’s obvious looking at the stats, as he finished a dismal 13th in point standings in a car Leclerc could at least get to eighth.

Vettel would move on to Aston Martin, the rebranded Racing Point team, which itself was a rebranded Force India team under new ownership. The team’s 2020 car had been the best of the midfield teams, but the virtually identical 2021 car never had the pace to challenge for consistent podiums.

In 2022, the new car was even worse, making a good argument to be the worst on the grid to start the year and Vettel himself lost precious development time when a case of COVID-19 forced him to miss the first two races of the season.

Vettel was always a fantastic wet driver, with his first win being that legendary 2008 Monza triumph and his last excellent drive in F1 being his battle with Alonso in the wet in Suzuka in 2022.

A big reason for Vettel’s success in the latter years of his Red Bull dominance was because of his superior tire management. No driver seemed to take to the new high degradation Pirelli tire philosophy quicker than Vettel at the time. A mid-season tire change in 2013 back to the previous year’s tires gave Vettel and even greater edge on the competition, with Red Bull’s chief designer Adrian Newey admitting as much at the time. Vettel still holds the record for most consecutive grand prix victories with nine in the final nine races of 2013.

But eventually, the tire advantage did go away, and although Vettel remained an expert on that particular variable throughout his career, the gap was eventually closed as the years went on. Especially by Hamilton, who has won six championships in the years since Vettel’s final championship.

Vettel’s awareness and focus could be a bit of an issue in his career — even in 2010, he lost a lot of points during the year making errors of his own accord — but they came to bear in the final years of it. He developed a habit of spinning out in his final three seasons at Ferrari, enough to the point where Hamilton had to defend him publicly after a Vettel spinout while challenging for the lead at Bahrain 2019. 

Vettel’s detractors also like to point out that he never won a grand prix starting lower than third on the starting grid, but that is such a nothing in the grand scheme of things. His wins at Monza in 2008 and 2011, Spain 2011, and his drive to win the championship in Brazil 2012 were all-timers where he was able to perform under insane amounts of pressure. 

But what Vettel will be remembered for, ultimately, will not be the dominance at Red Bull or the bridesmaid years at Ferrari. It will be his evolution from immature kid who hid behind lawyers in the aftermath of Multi-21 to the elder statesman who stood his ground on issues much larger than F1.

Along with Hamilton, Vettel became one of the most outspoken on problems with the world in the final years of his career. He joined several drivers in taking a knee following the killing of George Floyd in 2020. In 2021, he responded to Hungary’s anti LGBTQ+ laws and discrimination by wearing a Same Love shirt during pre-race ceremonies.

During pre-season testing in 2022, Vettel said he would outright refuse to race in the Russian Grand Prix in light of the Russian invasion on Ukraine, which started a snowball effect that eventually ended in the race itself being canceled a few days later. In addition to protesting the war, the German also spoke up more and more on climate issues, pointing out Miami’s potential flooding due to elevated sea levels in the future and protesting the mining of tar sands in Canada.

Vettel did not need to speak out on these issues, nor did he financially benefit from doing so. The Aston Martin team sponsor is literally Aramco, and doing so actually could have jeopardized the sponsor’s relationship with the team. 

It’s unclear what exactly the future holds for Vettel. Judging by the shirt store he launched prior to retirement, advocating for solutions to those issues will probably play a large role in his life post-F1. An eventual return would also not be shocking, with Hamilton saying as much before the Abu Dhabi weekend.

Vettel is also a gigantic history nerd, so he knows that the greats don’t just hang it up at age 35. Of the 12 drivers with the most wins in F1 history, two are Hamilton and Verstappen, Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna both died young, and the rest of the drivers on there eventually came back to F1 after a sabbatical with the exception of obviously Vettel and Jackie Stewart. Further down the wins list, Alan Jones and Raikkonen also won a championship and took time off before returning eventually.

Statistically speaking, it is thus highly probable that this is only a bye for now, not forever. It also seems likely that he will be a major advocate for the return to the grid of Mick Schumacher, the protégé that he has taken on with Mick’s father Michael no longer in public life.

But in the event that it is forever, the four-time champion absolutely lived up to his accomplishments both on and off the track. Only Hamilton and Schumacher have more race wins than Vettel, and only those two and Senna have more career poles. And throughout his trials in the latter portion of his career, his refusal to give up and instead insistence to speak up for those who couldn’t made him the epitome of a champion.

He’s the standard that every driver in other forms of motorsport should look to as an example of all the things great for it. As James Allen said in commentary of that Monza race, he “just makes you love with Formula 1 all over again”.

In the first race of Vettel’s career, he finished in the final points-paying position and scored a point. Fifteen years later, in the final race of Vettel’s career at Abu Dhabi, he finished in the final points-paying position and scored a point. After so many years, so many travels, so many miles, he ended up in the exact same place he started in. But then again, that is the nature of motorsport. It’s not the start or the destination, that’s always the same. It’s the journey getting there.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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