As a four-times Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel surely has nothing left to prove, except it seems to himself. The German has endured a trying time of late but as his career enters a new phase, his passion for the sport is entirely undiminished. Vettel’s interests these days may be broader, extending from promoting the wellbeing of bees to a spot of early morning cow milking, but F1 remains the driving force.
Vettel has been competing in F1 now for 15 seasons. Yet before the Portuguese Grand Prix this weekend the eyes above his mask still make a convincing case that the 33-year-old veteran enjoys the same enthusiasm as the boy who began racing karts at eight; as the tousle-haired teenager who made his F1 test debut for Sauber in 2006 and indeed the precociously talented young man who became the youngest winner of an F1 race in 2008 for Toro Rosso at Monza.
This season, his first with Aston Martin, he is in a car that for the moment is not in contention for podium places yet he seems almost taken aback by enquiries about what keeps him going after so long in the sport. “Why am I doing it? Because I love it,” he says. “Because I still want to prove to myself that I can do what I want to do, what I used to do and in a way that I am happy with.”
He has high expectations of himself because of his own accomplishments. Vettel won four titles for Red Bull between 2010 and 2013. It was a dominance he and the team relished, little knowing that Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes would soon eclipse their remarkable achievements with his six titles since 2014.
Vettel had aimed to emulate his childhood hero Michael Schumacher in switching to Ferrari in 2015 but the hoped-for resurgence of the Scuderia in combination with a multiple world champion failed to materialise. He challenged in 2017 and 2018 but both times neither he nor the team could match Hamilton and Mercedes. Worse was to follow as Ferrari took on the talented youngster Charles Leclerc in 2019.
As Vettel struggled he was outscored by Leclerc, only the second time he has been beaten by a teammate, and before the pandemic-truncated 2020 season began Ferrari did not renew his contract beyond that year. Their car subsequently proved to be a woeful beast, down on power and hard to handle, and Vettel particularly suffered with the lack of confidence in its rear grip and stability. It was unquestionably his worst season in F1. He was soundly beaten by Leclerc and finished in 13th. With no seats at either Red Bull or Mercedes, he admitted considering retirement. Yet he could not quell the competitive instinct, nor the allure of once more tasting success.
“In the big picture the target is quite clear,” he says. “I want to be at the front of the grid, because I have been there so many times and I have learned to enjoy it.”
He took the drive with Aston knowing that in the short term at least podiums at best would be the target. But his fresh start has been hard. Their car, so competitive last season, has been hit by the new aero regulations, losing downforce and hurting Vettel because of his preference for feeling the rear of the car to be properly planted on track.
Then at the opening race in Bahrain there was another of the errors that have blighted his racing in recent years, when he hit Esteban Ocon’s Alpine. At the second round in Imola he was forced to start from the pit lane after his brakes overheated on the grid. Yet there is a refreshing honesty and forthright attitude to his accepting that there is room for improvement. “I am not frustrated, I don’t think it would help,” he says. “I am very happy where I am, in terms of results I am here to win but if at the moment a top 10 is our maximum then I am driving for that.
“I feel that my driving is good and strong but maybe not as consistent and to the level where I want it to be, I need a bit more time in the car and with the team. There are plenty of things that I can do better, that I have to do better and I want to do better.”
The German has always been a broader, more intriguing character than many in F1. He strongly supported the Black Lives Matter movement last year and recently has been invigorated by an interest in addressing environmental issues. He has supported the BioBienenApfel campaign aimed at helping to restore bee habitats by supplying free seed packets. He also spent time doing an internship at an organic farm. Getting up at 5am to milk the cows was part and parcel of the process, perhaps as far as one can go from F1’s clinical, technological bubble. There is a firmness to his belief in these environmental issues, similar to his commitment to anti-racism.
“The times that we are living in, I cannot see how you can ignore the things that are going on. It’s not necessarily only for the world our children will be living in but also the world that we are living in. It commands all of us to change, to act.”
Yet for all his willingness to look beyond the steering wheel, he knows it is racing that has truly defined him. When Vettel was winning it bears noting that he was doing so an awful lot. With 53 victories he stands behind only Hamilton and Schumacher and during that period of dominance it was the British driver who was being beaten. Hamilton’s dominance has in turn denied Vettel any further titles and the world champion has said he believes his rivalry with Vettel is the greatest of his career.
The pair were born within two years of each other, both made their F1 debuts in 2007 and Vettel believes they share a bond, forged as they have grown up racing together. “He is probably one of the drivers I have the best understanding with and we definitely share a lot of respect. We don’t need to talk about what he has achieved because everybody is aware of that but the man behind that, he has developed and come a long way and in a way maybe he feels I have done the same.
“We will see in 10 years’ time where we both are but we will always have that powerful history and memories, we have a common passion that connects us.”
Vettel is a thoughtful man and, amid the spin and subterfuge of F1, an almost disarmingly honest one. So he can be taken at his word when considering what the future holds. He will race on just as long as the enthusiasm for the sport still burns. ”As long as I still feel that will to compete I will be here,” he says emphatically. “If that changes, I won’t be. It’s as simple as that.”
There was little to choose between Red Bull and Mercedes during Friday practice at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve. In the morning session Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas was quickest, just two-hundredths up on the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, with Hamilton in fifth. In the afternoon Hamilton, who won here last year, had found his groove, heading the timesheets, a tenth clear of Verstappen with Bottas in third.