Tribute to a great champion

JANUARY 1, 2023

Tribute to a great champion

Sebastian Vettel, Japanese GP 2012
© The Cahier Archive

By Luis Vasconcelos

No, not to that one, not to Max Verstappen, who fully deserved his second Formula One crown, but to departing legend Sebastian Vettel, who decided to call it quits at the age of 35, after a long and successful career that rewarded him with four consecutive World Championships, something only Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton have achieved, so it’s clear the likable German is in good company.

Given his greatest successes date a while back, people’s short memories focus on his difficult final two years with Ferrari, and the largely unsuccessful two seasons with Aston Martin, so it’s worth remembering the impact the then baby-faced German had in Formula One in his first full season.

Running as third driver for BMW Sauber in the final stages of 2006 and the first half of 2007, Vettel didn’t impress the management enough, even when he scored a point in his early debut in Grand Prix racing, standing in for the injured Robert Kubica in Indianapolis.

They released him, and so Red Bull, that had co-managed the German along with BMW took him in, and they didn’t regret it.

His victory for Toro Rosso in Monza, in 2008, was the stuff of legends, for if the pole position had been achieved with the help of a good team strategy, in the wet to dry race he reigned supreme and won by a country mile, in spite of only having the fourth or fifth quickest car.

Promoted to Red Bull, he quickly established himself as the faster driver in the team, but a poor start of the 2009 season from the team meant his late charge for the title was too little too late and Button took away the crown.

But from 2010 to 2013 there was no stopping Vettel as he won four championships in a row, while Mark Webber, his team mate, couldn’t do better than three third places and one fifth.

Unlike this year, Red Bull got the completely new 2014 technical regulations wrong, so Vettel was nowhere to be seen in the first part of the season, and much like Hamilton this year, his engineering team and the driver were still trying to recreate the previous car’s balance on a platform that simply needed something completely different.

When Alonso banged the door at Ferrari, Vettel, who had signed an option with a very limited time window to join the Scuderia, had little choice but to go and his first three years with Ferrari promised a lot.

Clearly faster than Raikkonen he was the undisputed number one driver, but the team always came up short against Mercedes and the championship challenges never lasted long enough.

The arrival of Charles Leclerc in the team coincided with Vettel’s loss of faith in the Italians and the rest is history.

The man, however, is probably more impressive than the driver. Yes, toys came out of the pram often, more at Red Bull than at Ferrari, there were some dubious moves along the way - Istambul/2009 with Webber, but especially Baku/2017 with Hamilton spring to mind - but the “Multi 21” debacle was just retribution for the events of the title deciding 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, although, like Verstappen with Pérez recently, Vettel lost out by not going public with his reasons.

That all drivers have asked Vettel to remain a director of the GPDA even in retirement just shows how highly they regard him and that old foes Alonso and Hamilton were genuinely sad to see him leave the sport also gives you an idea of Vettel’s statute in motor racing.

A well-read, educated man, with a quick wit and a sharp sense of humor, Vettel is not your typical driver or German, and that’s why he gained so many fans in the paddock. Of course there were days on which he could be brash and curt - like we all do - but any chance to have a chat with him was generally pleasant and would always finish with a couple of laughs.

His recent awakening to the world’s bigger issues came as he became a father of three, but he quickly informed himself, discussed things with F1’s original campaigner, Lewis Hamilton, and together they steered the GPDA and forced the FIA and the FOM to follow suit. If nothing else Sebastian Vettel did would get him a place in the sport’s history books, that alone should do the trick.

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