Farewell Sebastian Vettel, a champion who stood for something bigger than F1

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Murmurs had been brewing for weeks: will he? Won the? But if truth be told, for a four-time Formula 1 world champion who is no longer at the top of the timesheets, this was one we should all have seen coming. From climate activist and LGBTQ+ rights activist to litter collector and war critic, Sebastian Vettel has long seen his role as much bigger than just a race car driver.

However, today’s inevitable announcement that the youngest ever Formula 1 world champion will retire at the end of this season has still shocked many. Indeed, there was an insatiable excitement among F1 fandom last night as the German joined Instagram and shunned social media throughout his career.

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But in a way befitting a person who has become an elder statesman for truly unavoidable matters off the track, Vettel’s first post was a nearly four-minute video announcing his decision to call it a day. Staring grimly through the lens, one line caught my eye early on: “Being a driver has never been my only identity.”

Since joining Aston Martin in early 2021, with race wins out of his reach, the 35-year-old has used his platform to express his stern and admirable view of the world we live in. Indeed, this season Vettel has often appeared in the pit lane wearing a T-shirt with a clear environmental message, from rising sea levels in Miami to saving the bees in Austria.

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A week after his race in Florida, Vettel was perfectly and well articulated in his second language on BBCs question moment, speaking with refreshing common sense on issues like Brexit and climate change. When asked by presenter Fiona Bruce if he was a hypocrite for starring in a “gas-guzzling” sport and campaigning to reduce carbon emissions, he replied, “It does.” Hypocrisy will no longer reign in 2023.

Usually athletes in the sport build up to the top of the mountain step by step in tandem with their prominence, before bowing after an inevitable descent. But for Vettel – a world champion in his third full season in the sport – his resounding successes in the early 2010s with Red Bull paradoxically coincided with his popularity. Memories of the 2013 “Multi 21” saga with teammate Mark Webber in Malaysia only served to fuel that fire. There was even a time when, during his period of relentless success, Vettel was labeled as dull, not even inspiring.

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After a season of underperformance at Red Bull in 2014, Vettel switched to Ferrari in 2015, following in the footsteps of hero compatriot Michael Schumacher. A World Cup triumph for the Scuderia – itself starved for titles twice in the final race under Vettel’s Red Bull reign – was the next goal as the hybrid era got underway.

Sebastian Vettel carries his trophy after winning the 2010 world title in Abu Dhabi, his first of four

(Getty Images)

Still, Ferrari and Vettel were unable to keep up with Mercedes’ roaring machine as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg took advantage of a car ahead of the pack. Vettel had his chances, particularly in 2017 and 2018, but two second places were as good as it gets. After 38 wins in his first six years in Formula 1, only 14 have followed in the eight and a half years since.

But the record books won’t remember that. Instead, they will have the most wins in a single season (13) and the most consecutive wins in a season (nine) in F1 history. In 2011, at the age of 15, he achieved the most pole positions in a campaign. He is also the youngest Grand Prix winner from pole position, after a memorable weekend in wet Monza at the age of 21 for Toro Rosso; the moment the world knew something special was brewing.

However, now in his mid-thirties and 14 years after that first win and with podium finishes virtually unattainable, Vettel’s priorities have changed. “In addition to racing, I’ve got a family and I love being around them,” the father of three said in his retirement video. “My goals have shifted from winning races and fighting for championships to watching my kids grow, passing on my values, helping them up when they fall, listening to them when they need me, not having to say goodbye and especially be able to learn from them and be inspired by them.”

Most refreshing of all, athletes often retreat into the abyss of the unknown when the prospect of a life after retirement becomes a reality. But after a 300e and the final Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November – a fitting figure to end on – the German’s broad interests and passions could frankly take him anywhere. Pitlane, politics, activism, philanthropy, media – you name it.

Vettel has the world at his feet and, in the words of the man himself, there is still a race to win. Only time will tell what that race will be.