Murmurs had been brewing for weeks: will he? Won’t he? Yet if truth be told, for a four-time Formula 1 world champion no longer featuring at the top of the timesheets, this was one we should have all seen coming. From climate activist and LGBT+ rights campaigner to litter-picker and war-critic, Sebastian Vettel has long seen his role as much bigger than simply a racing driver.
However, today’s inevitable announcement that F1’s youngest ever world champion will retire at the end of this season has still shocked many. Indeed, there was insatiable excitement among F1 fandom last night when the German joined Instagram, having shunned social media throughout his career.
Yet in a manner befitting a person who has become an elder statesman for truly unshunnable matters off track, Vettel’s first post was a near-four-minute video announcing his decision to call it a day. Staring starkly down the lens, one line early on stood out: “Being a racing driver has never been my sole identity.”
Since joining Aston Martin at the start of 2021, with race victories out of his reach, the 35-year-old has used his platform to express his stern and admirable views of the world we live in. Indeed, this season, Vettel has often turned up to the pit lane sporting a T-shirt with a clear environmental message, from rising sea levels in Miami to saving the bees in Austria.
A week after his race in Florida, Vettel was consummate and well-articulated in his second language on BBC’s Question Time, speaking with refreshing common sense on matters such as Brexit and climate change. When questioned by presenter Fiona Bruce on whether starring in a “gas-guzzling” sport and campaigning for reducing carbon emissions made him a hypocrite, he replied: “It does.” Hypocrisy will reign no longer come 2023.
Usually in sport, athletes build step-by-step towards the summit of the mountain in tandem with their notoriety, before bowing out after an inevitable decline. Yet for Vettel – a world champion in his third full season in the sport – his record-breaking achievements in the early 2010s with Red Bull ran paradoxically with his popularity. Memories of the “Multi 21” saga in 2013 with teammate Mark Webber in Malaysia only served to fuel that fire. There was, in fact, a time when Vettel was labelled as boring, even uninspiring, during his period of ruthless success.
After a season of underachievement with Red Bull in 2014, Vettel moved to Ferrari in 2015, following in the footsteps of hero compatriot Michael Schumacher. A World Championship triumph for the Scuderia – themselves starved of titles twice in the final race during Vettel’s Red Bull reign – was the next target as the hybrid era got going.
Yet Ferrari and Vettel could not keep up with Mercedes’ rip-roaring machine, as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg benefited from a car streets ahead of the pack. Vettel had his chances, most notably in 2017 and 2018, but two second-place finishes were as good as it got. After 38 race 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. Rather they will register the most wins in a single season (13) and most consecutive wins in a season (nine) in F1 history. 2011 saw Vettel record the most pole positions in a campaign, at 15. He is also the youngest Grand Prix winner from pole position, after a memorable weekend in the wet of Monza at 21 years of age for Toro Rosso; the moment the world knew something special was brewing.
However, now in his mid-30s and 14 years on from that first win and with podium spots virtually unattainable, Vettel’s priorities have changed. “Next to racing, I have grown 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 seeing my children grow, passing on my values, helping them up when they fall, listening to them when they need me, not having to say goodbye, and most importantly being able to learn from them and let them inspire me.”
Most refreshingly of all, athletes often retire into the chasm of the unknown as the prospect of life post-retirement becomes reality. But following a 300th and final Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi in November – a fitting figure to end on – the German’s wide-ranging interests and passions could, frankly, lead him anywhere. Pit lane, 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.