A tour de force as he swept to four straight world championship crowns and countless Formula 1 records, Sebastian Vettel’s relentless hunger for victory, as much as his outstanding talent, secure his place as one of the sport’s greats.
By his mid-20s he was already the dominant driver of his era, becoming the youngest polesitter, winner and champion in history. A second, third and fourth crown, won with either remarkable tenacity or crushing supremacy, only added to his glittering legacy.
The foundations for such a remarkable trajectory were laid early on. Vettel had been racing for more than a decade even while still a teenager, having started his career in 1995 at a local kart track in his native Germany, where he had been born in Heppenheim on July 3, 1987. It wasn’t long before he had notched up several regional championships, and bigger things beckoned. Tiring of the local competition, he began to race on a European level.
Before long he’d won the region’s junior kart title and even clinched victories at prestigious annual events in Monaco and Paris-Bercy. As he began to make a name for himself, Vettel attracted the attentions of Red Bull, who swiftly signed him up to their young driver programme in 1998.
With Red Bull’s backing, Vettel continued to perform well and in 2000 was invited to join the Austrian drinks company’s junior team. Two seasons of karting later - still aged just 15 - he was ready to make the switch to single-seaters. Debuting in the hugely-competitive Formula BMW series in 2003, Vettel faced a tough challenge, but he didn’t disappoint, scoring five wins and ending the season second in the championship.
During his second season, however, he went one better, securing 18 victories from 20 events. In fact he was so dominant he took the title with a massive 124-point advantage. Once champion, he wanted a fresh challenge and decided to move to the Formula Three Euro Series. Despite the switch, his strong links with BMW remained and in September 2005 he was invited to test a BMW Williams Formula 1 car.
Though he failed to take the title during two seasons in F3, Vettel continued to make an impact and, in August 2006, was BMW Sauber’s first choice to replace third driver Robert Kubica, who had been promoted to a race seat following Jacques Villeneuve’s sudden departure from the team.
Though many in the Formula 1 paddock hadn’t heard of him, Vettel was keen to make an immediate impression. He succeeded. After finishing his first practice session on top of the timesheets, Vettel didn’t look back and notched up a series of successful Friday outings for the German-Swiss squad. When the season finished, it came as no surprise that BMW Sauber decided to retain Vettel for 2007.
He combined his F1 testing commitments with impressive performances in the World Series by Renault, before getting an unexpected F1 race call-up for the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis, standing in for an injured Kubica. He acquitted himself in style, eighth place making him the youngest man ever to score a world championship point.
Less than two months later he was rewarded with a full-time race seat with Toro Rosso, replacing departing American Scott Speed from the Hungarian round onwards. He scored the team's best ever result with a fourth place in China and was retained for 2008, when, after a difficult start to the season, he went from strength to strength to firmly establish himself as a potential future champion, winning his and Toro Rosso’s first Grand Prix in Italy and earning a switch to Red Bull’s ‘senior’ RBR team for 2009.
Vettel's star continued to rise as Red Bull emerged as the only serious rivals to Brawn GP in the fight for the '09 championship. He scored the team's first pole and race win in China and went on to take a further three victories en route to the runner-up spot in the driver standings, just 11 points shy of winner Jenson Button. He went one better in 2010. Despite not once having led the standings prior to the Abu Dhabi season finale, victory there - his fifth of the season - made him the youngest world champion in Formula 1 history.
With championship glory came more confidence, more speed and fewer mistakes in 2011, as Vettel somehow stepped things up yet another gear. At the wheel of Red Bull’s superb RB7, he proved all but unbeatable, making team mate Mark Webber - the man who had been favourite for the 2010 crown prior to that final race - look ordinary by comparison. From 19 Grands Prix, Vettel won 11, finished on the podium at a further six, took fourth place at one, and suffered one retirement. The result was he became the sport’s youngest back-to-back champion… with four rounds to spare. On top of that he took pole position 15 times, beating Nigel Mansell’s longstanding 1992 record.
2012 was much tougher, thanks to a frustratingly slow start to the season which saw the once dominant German become only an occasional visitor to the podium. The Red Bull RB8’s patchy qualifying form and a healthy dose of bad luck meant just one win and three pole positions from the first 13 rounds for Vettel. Languishing fourth in the standings, it seemed his hopes of a third successive title were fading fast.
But then, the turnaround began. Winning four races in a row, Vettel proved untouchable in a rapidly-improving Red Bull, and with rival Fernando Alonso very much on the back foot in the Ferrari, he started to stretch out a sizeable lead in the title race. Even a pit-lane start in Abu Dhabi, an ascendant Lewis Hamilton in Austin, and a collision with Bruno Senna on the first lap of the Brazilian title finale, couldn't halt his charge.
Fighting until the very end, he clinched the 2012 drivers’ championship by three points to become only the third driver to win three successive titles - equalling the stellar achievements of Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher - and the youngest triple champion in F1 history.
The record breaking continued in 2013. Vettel’s first win of the season was a controversial one at round two in Malaysia, where he defied orders and passed team mate Mark Webber for the lead. But then the floodgates opened and he went on to utterly dominate, winning a total of 13 times - matching Michael Schumacher’s single-season record - including the last nine races on the trot, to land a fourth consecutive drivers’ crown with three rounds in hand.
Everything changed in 2014, when Vettel failed to win a race and finished a dispirited fifth in the standings. His problems, which threatened to tarnish his reputation, were attributed to problems adapting his driving style to the demands of the new technical regulations. They were compounded by new team Daniel Ricciardo, who by contrast seemed instantly at home with the revised rules, scoring all three of Red Bull’s season wins. The combination was enough to help persuade Vettel that a new challenge was needed - reviving the struggling Ferrari team, where he replaced Fernando Alonso for 2015.
It was a challenge he embraced with characteristic vigour and dedication, the result being three Grand Prix wins in his first season with the Scuderia - three more than Ferrari team mate Kimi Raikkonen, a fellow former champion, whom he totally dominated. Notably, he was also the only man all season to beat the all-conquering Mercedes team.
However, not even Vettel’s skills were able to stop Ferrari falling off the race-winning pace of Mercedes and Red Bull in 2016, and the tension showed both on and off the track. He dropped out of the top three in the final standings for the first time since 2008, despite a hard-won seven podium finishes, including an emotional third place at Monza.
His and Ferrari’s perseverance paid off for 2017, when they were title contenders from the off, Vettel winning three of the first six Grands Prix to head Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton as championship favourite. However, a combination of reliability niggles and driver errors – including running into the back of Hamilton under the safety car in Baku – saw the wheels come off his challenge and he ended the year as runner-up, 46 points shy of his rival with a total of five race victories.