Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, Yas Marina, 2022

Vettel’s journey from F1’s pantomime villain to its departing hero

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“I will take care of him at the start and the first lap.”

Those were the words of Fernando Alonso, one of the toughest racing drivers in Formula 1 today, ahead of his rival Sebastian Vettel’s final start.

Alonso wasn’t alone either. Drivers and key personnel up and down the grid sent their good wishes to the four-times world champion on his retirement. The touching tributes from all in the paddock proved to show just how much he was respected as he prepared to leave the sport.

This wasn’t always the case during his career, however. The driver who left motorsport’s highest level as an inspiration to many was regarded as something of a ‘pantomime villain’ at times as his rapid rise to success, and sometimes ruthless pursuit of it, put a few noses out of joint.

Vettel infuriated Webber by ignoring order to hold position
Vettel’s record-breaking career saw him become the youngest driver to win a championship in 2010, aged just 23. That began a streak of consecutive wins lasting until 2013. He holds the record for the most pole positions in 2011 when he racked up 15 front-row starts and has the third-most wins in the sport.

In 2013 he was at the height of dominance, winning a record-breaking nine consecutive races, and a joint-record 13 in total. But as Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said on Sunday of his squad’s record-breaking season, “the higher you rise, the sharper the knives” – and Vettel had a number of clashes in his career.

The ‘Multi 21’ saga during the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix was one such example. Vettel, racing alongside Mark Webber at Red Bull, disobeyed an order not to pass his team mate, much as Max Verstappen did in Brazil 2022 a matter of weeks ago.

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Vettel started the race on pole but Webber swept past him to take the lead early on. Holding off the two Mercedes, the pair were instructed not to fight. But Vettel had other ideas and made a decision that ruined what remained of his fractious relationship with his team mate. Ordered not to pass Webber with the coded command “multi 21”, Vettel took matters into his own hands and snatched the win. A furious Webber made it clear he was not happy by cutting up his team mate on track after the race had ended.

To begin with Vettel called it “not a victory I’m very proud of because it should have been Mark’s.” But his attitude soon hardened. A few days later in China, Vettel insisted Webber “didn’t deserve” the win. “There is quite a conflict because, on the one hand, I am the kind of guy who respects team decisions and on the other hand, probably Mark is not the one who deserved it at the time.”

“I don’t like to talk ill of other people. It’s not my style. I think I said enough. The bottom line is that I was racing, I was faster, I passed him, I won.” It was an attitude that hardly helped his cause, particularly to those who had long tired of Vettel’s constant winning.

That and Vettel’s dominance in the second half of the season prompted growing resentment. He was booed at Singapore in 2013 after he snatched pole, lead every lap, picked up fastest lap and the win.

After four world titles with Red Bull, Vettel made the dream move over to Ferrari, looking to follow in the footsteps of his hero Michael Schumacher. Vettel joined with high expectations in 2015, and won 14 races in his six seasons with Ferrari. But he never managed to claim a fifth world title, despite coming close in 2017 and 2018.

Things changed when Charles Leclerc partnered Vettel in 2019 and soon began beating him. There were hints of ‘multi 21’ again as the pair were involved in multiple team orders disputes, leading to Vettel refusing to make way for his team mate when ordered to in the Russian Grand Prix.

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Matters got worse in Brazil when the pair collided while racing each other, the contact putting both Ferraris out of the race. The following year Ferrari decided against offering Vettel a new contract for 2021 and Carlos Sainz Jnr was hired as his replacement.

After accusing Hamilton of a brake test, Vettel later backed down
The tussle for supremacy with Leclerc wasn’t the only notable controversy of Vettel’s Ferrari years. During a Safety Car period in the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Vettel reacted angrily to a small coming-together with Hamilton, and appeared to drive into the side of his Mercedes rival. Vettel accused Hamilton of brake-testing him while preparing for the restart.

Afterwards Vettel backed down, retracted the claim and apologised. He wrote a statement on his website which admitted with “hindsight” he didn’t believe Hamilton had any bad intentions and regretted his actions.

“In the heat of the action I then overreacted, and therefore I want to apologise to Lewis directly, as well as to all the people who were watching the race. I realise that I was not setting a good example.

“I had no intention at any time to put Lewis in danger, but I understand that I caused a dangerous situation.”

Ahead of his final race last week, Vettel reflected on that clash with Hamilton, the pair now on far friendlier terms than when they were fighting for titles.

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“I think Baku, for me, wasn’t a great moment because what I did wasn’t right,” Vettel admitted. “And actually, I think from that moment onwards…” Hamilton interjected: “Our friendship got better.”

Feature: “We laughed so much”: Hamilton brings F1 field together for Vettel’s farewell dinner
Age and maturity have caught up with Vettel, though he still shows the inner toughness which made him such a formidable rival when all that early success came his way. But he leaves F1 as a driver regarded with more respect and affection within the paddock.

So, after qualifying in Abu Dhabi, Alonso said he would lend a hand to his rival as they shared the fifth row of the grid. “It’s not that we tried to help him,” said Alonso, “but we all tried to have an eye on him when we saw him in the mirror, when he’s coming on a fast lap or whatever, because we all want a smooth weekend for him.

“He will start ninth and I will start tenth, so I will take care of him at the start and the first lap. Let’s hope we both see the chequered flag.”

While Alonso’s car let him down before the chequered flag, his team mate Esteban Ocon had Vettel in his mirrors early on. “It was a bit stressful,” Ocon admitted. “I didn’t want to be the one touching him in his last race. But it was a good, tough fight like it always is with Seb.”

Vettel bows out with more to his name than four world championship titles and thousands of championship points. He leaves with respect from his fellow competitors and a degree of camaraderie we’ve seldom seen before: At Hamilton’s instigation, all 20 drivers came together to mark Vettel’s retirement by sharing a meal, something we’ve not seen happen since 2016.

That affection is the best barometer of how much Vettel’s presence will be missed. Perhaps less so far the unyielding competitor he once was, but undoubtedly for the great figure of the sport he became and the legacy he leaves behind.

Tributes to Vettel took place throughout his final race weekend in Abu Dhabi

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Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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15 comments on “Vettel’s journey from F1’s pantomime villain to its departing hero”

  1. I do hope he returns from retirement in a team role, possibly with his old team RB as Marko stated that he’d be happy to have him return in a non-driver role at RB. I can see Vettel making meaningful contribution to a team behind the scenes and I’d we know anything about his character, he won’t stay on if he feels his contribution isn’t mounting to much.

  2. Danke Seb

  3. Some in the media are way too obsessed with the ‘lovable looser’ type of character, to the point where their entire reporting on a person can turn on its head once they turn from the one mercilessly beating the ‘lovable looser’ into the ‘lovable looser’ themselves.

    I will never forget the media push to try and force Red Bull to implement team orders to help Mark Webber in his fight for the 2010 World Championship after he himself had thrown his chances away in Korea and his teammate was clearly quicker.

    That very effectively inoculated me against ever seeing Mark Webber as anything but a driver unable to compete with his teammate but with a knack for politicking. (which IMHO was born out, with him never managing to come even second in the WDC but getting things done to harm his teammate, like neutering DRS)

    To me, much of the positive press Seb got in the twilight years of his career was little about him or his actions changing, and mostly about him no longer being in competition for the title. As such, I would have fully expected it to be fleeting, had Aston Martin proved to be a more competent team.

    1. once they turn from the one mercilessly beating the ‘lovable looser’ into the ‘lovable looser’ themselves

      That summarises Vettel in the public opinion to me. They didn’t like him at all in the first half of his career. Once Vettel embraced his true position on the grid and became thankful rather than showing unsubstantiated continued entitlement, he turned around and so did the crowd’s opinion. I think it’s a journey accompanied by age and why shouldn’t we grow with it? (I do however still struggle with it since I only see ‘old Seb’). Maybe because we know it usually never creates a better driver, rather a more reflective which is not a good trait if you want to become a world champion.

    2. To me, much of the positive press Seb got in the twilight years of his career was little about him or his actions changing, and mostly about him no longer being in competition for the title.

      @proesterchen The interesting thing about Vettel is that there was a phase in between, the Ferrari years – especially in 2017 and 2018. If you look at the coverage about Vettel during those times it was as if half the commentators and reporters had a personal (or, let’s be honest, nationalistic) grudge against the guy. Every single little failing was blown way out of proportion. But if you look at all the wins, poles and podiums Vettel got even then, he was pretty much the only person making at least some ripples in an otherwise entirely quiet F1 world in which Mercedes could sleepwalk to half a dozen titles.

      The contrast with Leclerc this year is especially stark. Just imagine if Vettel had the season Leclerc had, in the car Ferrari had this year. You can picture the comments now: just 1 win in races where Verstappen finished, Mr. Saturday, only two more podiums than Hamilton in that Mercedes, spinning out in multiple races, not having the overview of the race to counter some of Ferrari’s more ludicrous strategies, the list could go on. It’s very easy to frame something in a negative sense and just wear objections to it down by endless repetition.

      Only when, as you note, Vettel was completely out of the competitive picture did the coverage become all about what a great and friendly guy he was with laudable interests outside of the F1 bubble. It’s all rather transparent and silly.

  4. I won’t pretend I was a fan of Vettel during his championship years but he grew on me after he left Red Bull. It made me realize that it was less that I disliked him and more I disliked Red Bull, so if anyone’s the pantomime villains it’s Horner and Marko.

    1. I think that’s a very fair comment Craig. I remember he used to annoy me with his finger gesture when he won a race, which at that time seemed quite arrogant, but is arguably less annoying than the speeches drivers give over the radio nowadays thankng the team, their famility, and their pet hamster. I think what won me over to him was his obvious sense of humour in the press conferences. I did feel he cracked a bit under pressure at Ferrari when they clearly had the car capable of beating Mercedes to the chamionship, but I don’t think you can put that down entirely as a weakness in Vettel. I have the impression that when things went wrong at Ferrari, they were quick to point the fingers instead of working together as a team to get stronger. I feel that if they’d had Jen Todt still in charge, or a Toto at the helm, that the whole team would have worked well together, and Vettel would have had another WDC.

      1. Ferrari didn’t only point fingers, but Vettel’s performance – which wasn’t flawless but was miles ahead of Räikkönen’s – also exposed the failings of other people in the Ferrari team.

        If there’s this hugely successful driver who everyone can see is thoroughly outclassing his championship-winning teammate… yet even he can’t win many races or challenge for the title, that becomes a problem to the people overseeing the design of the car.

      1. Thanks, @alexde 👍

  5. The ‘Multi 21’ saga could do with a bit of context. As Horner explained a while later, in the final race of 2012 the team had asked Webber not to get in Vettel’s way during the title deciding race and to support him whenever possible – but Webber did precisely the opposite and, at least in Vettel’s view, contributed to nearly putting him out of the race. According to Horner, Vettel plainly said this was the reason for his reluctance to stay behind Webber in the Malaysian race. Again, according to Horner, ‘that was probably about as tense as it could get’.

    1. The thing is many people that dislike Vettel because of Multi 21 would probably do the same being in his shoes. You are triple world champion, you won your last title by 3 points in very dramatic race, as previously noticed your teammate when it’s crucial plays against you and seems like openly doesn’t want you to win. And now it’s the only second race of who knows how it will go long season and they ask you to let your lovely teammate win? Why would you do that?

    2. I’d be dubious about Horner’s word. That context does sound strikingly similar to Vestappen claiming his “reason” for not helping Perez get 2nd in the championship was down to him “deliberately” crashing in Monaco qualifying, a claim which is laughable at best.

  6. British media at its finest

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