Few athletes have the good fortune of retiring before they begin to decline. Sebastian Vettel, who announced yesterday that he will retire from Formula One at the end of the 2022 season, will not be one of them.
Five years from now, maybe a decade, the haze of retrospect will likely be kind—just look at Nico Rosberg, and what retiring after beating Lewis Hamilton in equal machinery in 2016 did for his legacy—but with four World Championships to his name Vettel will retire this year, out of all the years, driving an Aston Martin car that’s been embroiled in a plagiarism scandal and can barely limp its way into the points each race. An injustice of timing, maybe; slightly sad in the stark contrast between now and then, definitely.
Sebastian Vettel was great. One of the greatest. Young once as well, if you can believe it. If you were to pinpoint a year in the early 2010s, before hybrid engines came in and issued in a Mercedes dynasty, you would not guess that Lewis Hamilton would define their era of racing. Vettel didn’t allow room for speculation of that sort—he became the youngest polesitter and youngest race winner in F1 history when he was 21 (Max Verstappen now holds the record for youngest race winner) while at Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s B-team. After Pierre Gasly won the Italian Grand Prix in 2020, the first Red Bull sister team win since Vettel won at the very same race 12 years ago, Vettel called Gasly and reminded him—in the midst of some of the toughest years in Gasly’s career—that the last person to do that went on to win four consecutive World Championships, one of many marks that Vettel has left on younger drivers.
Four consecutive! Vettel became a Red Bull driver in 2009 and followed up his Toro Rosso campaign by giving the team its first-ever pole and win. The following year, he gave Red Bull its first World Championship. He was the youngest ever to win one, too, at 23 years and 134 days. Then he won the next one in 2011, and became the youngest ever to win two. And then he won the next one, in 2012. And then—you guessed it—he won the next one in 2013, clinching the championship in India with three races left in the season. For good measure, he won all three of those races, finishing out the season with a record nine races won in a row.
When you amass a laundry list of records like that, it almost becomes easier to dismiss your accomplishments. People look at four consecutive World Championships and say, Well, then it’s just the car. But it’s never easy to win a championship in F1, much less make your teammate look like a pylon in comparison. Over the course of those four seasons, Vettel had never been out-qualified by his teammate. In 2010 and 2012, Vettel didn’t win the championship until the last race of the season. In 2010, he hadn’t even led, not until he crossed the finish line in first and waited for the stragglers to follow, his race engineer, Guillaume “Rocky” Rocquelin, saying in his ear, “You just wait, sunshine. You just wait.”
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As natural as it is unfair, public sentiment only shifted in Vettel’s favor when he began to lose. Along with the declarations of how Vettel lost his form came a kinder picture of him. Of course, a fair bit of this could be ascribed from how Vettel went from being a total menace to, well, slightly less of a menace when he moved from Red Bull to Ferrari. Gone is the Vettel who disobeyed team orders and passed his teammate for a race win, later explaining the situation to the media by saying, “I was racing, I was faster, I passed him, I won.” The Vettel that once called another driver an “idiot” and a “cucumber”—well, maybe that part stuck. It’s not as though all of that vanished, anyway. Vettel intentionally hitting Hamilton behind a safety car in 2017 sticks out as a more recent moment—coupled, though, with his apology following.
Beyond how Vettel may have matured, you can’t be gracious in defeat unless you’re losing. Vettel, at the peak of his dominance, spent most of the 2013 season being viciously booed—a rarity in F1—until he won in India. He was a pest, annoying, arrogant. Then put him in a car that doesn’t net championship wins, and it’s easier to share moments like Vettel spending much of his post-race interviews haranguing the Mercedes drivers, or affably makes quips like, “I’ve got balls, but none of them is crystal.”
Not that Vettel spent the entirety of his Ferrari tenure losing. In 2017 and 2018, he was runner-up in the championship to Hamilton, the primary rival to Mercedes dominance. But the hallmarks of Vettel’s time at Ferrari are the mistakes made by either him or the team. A crash in damp weather during the 2018 German Grand Prix, and the lost rest of the season, the spins, the illegal Ferrari engine, the 2020 Ferrari that Vettel simply could not get a handle on. And the arguable mistreatment: At the beginning of the 2020 season, Ferrari signed Carlos Sainz Jr. to a multi-year deal, blindsiding Vettel, who suddenly became a four-time World Champion scrambling for a seat for the next year, pushed out from the team he grew up a fan cheering for.
“Everybody’s a Ferrari fan,” Vettel said in 2018, dodging a question about team strategy. (Some things never change.) “Even if they’re not, they are a Ferrari fan. Even if you go to the Mercedes guys … they are Ferrari fans.” Vettel grew up idolizing Michael Schumacher, and idolizing Ferrari in turn. Schumacher, for him, went from hero to mentor and friend. (Vettel paid this kindness forward. Michael Schumacher’s son, Mick, once said, “I think what my dad was to Sebastian, he is for me.”)
How often do you get to live out a childhood dream? In 2015, Vettel goes to the team where Schumacher won five consecutive championships, a team which has produced the most iconic cars and drivers and, yes, fans—if you wish to both fear and respect the Tifosi, just look at the Italian Grand Prix—and he does not win.
F1 is a cruel sport. Injustice, right?
Sebastian Vettel steps into the burden of all that history and adoration, and he does not win.
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There is no one who is more of an F1 fan than Vettel, and no driver who is more open about their love. “The Grill the Grid” videos F1 puts out as promotional material, beyond being great entertainment, also reveal the depths of Vettel’s knowledge. He can name every single World Champion since F1’s inception. He can tell you about the time that Niki Lauda won the 1984 World Championship by half a point.
It’s Vettel’s love for Ferrari, for racing, that highlights what we will lose when he stops. Who knows what part of his 16-year career will leave the strongest impression; what we do know is that whatever the answer, Vettel doesn’t care, not for something as silly as legacy. We also know what he intends to leave us with. Gone are the fears that he will simply disappear off the face of the earth after retiring. After years spent expressing an admirable apathy towards the concept of social media, Vettel has now made an Instagram to help continue his work protesting climate change and social injustice. If that’s the primary mark he cares to leave, it’s a good one, especially in a world where the only drivers to consistently advocate for justice and change are named either Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. And it speaks to everything that Vettel is that he cares for this, not what mark he leaves on racing.
As for his racing legacy—because it does matter to fans—we can open up to any, every chapter of Vettel’s career, starting from the first time Sebastian Vettel wins a World Championship. We can listen to the radio, again, after Rocky pronounces him World Champion—”DU BIST WELTMEISTER”, to be exact.
“Thank you boys! Unbelievable. Unbelievable,” Vettel says in response, choked up. “Thank you, I love you.”
Over the course of a long, storied career, Vettel has embodied every single part of F1. He has won and kept winning until it seemed like he might never lose again, until he did lose, and then it seemed like he would never be able to clamber back to where he once stood. He has raced for Ferrari as he had always wanted to, and he will never win a championship for Ferrari. There is no driver who loves F1 as much as Sebastian Vettel does, and so he inspires the same kind of love in turn. There is admiration for his successes and amusement at his charm, and then a strange type of secondhand sadness at his failings—the sort of gross empathy that you can really only have for athletes, heroes, one and the same.
As for what image of Sebastian Vettel will stick with me—the 2018 German Grand Prix will, yes, and the sense memory of something slipping out from your grasp. But, more than anything, it will be the image of Seb after winning his fourth consecutive World Championship in India, after being booed the entire season, bearing everything that came before and everything that’s yet to come, climbing out of his car before bowing to it on his knees, the machine that carried him to victory. Everything you feel when you win.