The man behind the racer – Lawrence Barretto on getting to know the real Sebastian Vettel
When Sebastian Vettel climbs out of his Aston Martin in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and hangs up his helmet for the final time, Formula 1 will lose one of the most talented, enigmatic, funny, thoughtful and loyal racers the sport has ever seen.
In a work capacity, Vettel has always been at his very best when inside the cockpit, with his visor down, concentrated on the job in hand or away from the cameras and behind closed doors.
When he’s at the race track, his complete focus is on doing the best job possible. That means long debriefs, where he digs into every detail – maybe too many details, so that not a minute is wasted in the pursuit of better performance.
If something needs doing, he’s not afraid of getting stuck in – the most recent of many examples was him helping his mechanics fix his car after he crashed in FP3 at the Hungaroring. While he’s not always the first in, he's usually one of the last to leave.
If you could sneak a peak at his iPad, you’d find pages and pages of text in the ‘Notes’ app. Vettel has always diligently taken notes. In his Formula BMW days it was a pen and notebook. Now he's upgraded with better technology. Preparation, analysis and details matter.
He's also fiercely loyal to those around him. When Vettel left Red Bull, he wrote Carlos Sainz a handwritten note expressing his thanks for all the work the Spaniard did in the simulator, referencing his appreciation for the long hours – deep into the early hours of the morning – and feedback that was critical for race weekend set-up. It was one of many letters, all personalised, that Vettel wrote to his Red Bull colleagues.
Each year, he produces a photobook for the team, which features a combination of pictures he’s taken or collated, showcasing the fun and tough moments throughout the year. He makes sure there’s at least one picture of every single member of staff in the book – and prints a copy for everyone as a Christmas gift.
He remembers those who have done right by him. When he was walking down the grid at a DTM race, he sought out Mike Krack – then BMW motorsport boss, now Aston Martin Team Principal – whom he worked with many years ago when he made his F1 debut with BMW Sauber and broke off his tour of the grid to catch up with his former colleague, speaking as if they had only last seen each other recently.
As he’s become more successful in F1, he’s put a keen focus on helping others. Pierre Gasly spoke of how he rang Vettel for some advice when he won the GP2 title and was overlooked by Red Bull for promotion to the race seat. The Frenchman was expecting a five-minute call but it went on for more than 90 minutes. And it didn’t stop there. Vettel would follow up with Gasly and be a constant source of advice ever since.
His relationship with Mick Schumacher is well known, Vettel having been very close to his seven-time world champion father Michael after growing up idolising him. He’s been an older brother figure and a confidant as Mick tries to navigate the world of Formula 1 with more pressure than most on his shoulders.
And as time has gone on, and Vettel has grown up, married and had kids, he’s taken a wider view of the world, and felt more comfortable using his platform to drive change around the world.
He’s incredibly intelligent, reads a lot and when something interests him – like climate change – he will research it hard so he’s well versed in the subject and has the insight to create meaningful campaigns and projects that can make a difference.
I’ve mostly known Vettel after he won his world championships with Red Bull between 2010-2013, during the more challenging years at Ferrari and Aston Martin. He’s a different person to then. He’s mellowed and become infinitely more likeable. His fanbase has ironically grown exponentially as his on-track results have gone the other way.
I’ve been fortunate to spend a fair bit of time with him, a few times one-on-one. While he appreciated media was a necessary part of the job, he was never a fan of it. So, in the time I had with him exclusively, I would try to steer away from F1, and chat about life to try and get a better understanding of who he was and what drove him to be one of the most successful drivers F1’s ever seen, with his 53 wins putting him third in the all-time list.
It was then that he instantly engaged. He’d hold your eyeline, gesture to highlight his passion, show you articles or photos on his phone to support a point. It had suddenly become just chat, about anything from the Sunday papers to the latest app he had downloaded. There weren’t many of them, but he loves directions, so we spent a fair bit of time talking about navigation apps. Food is a big part of his life too, from an interest in where it comes from and the importance of organics and sustainable farming, to his limited ability to cook, to his favourite restaurants around the world.
Vettel can sometimes be very difficult to interview. He doesn’t like a stupid question. And he doesn’t like answering the same question relentlessly, particularly on a bad day. Don’t ask the right question and he won’t give you any more than he has to. But that kind of challenging character has made me, I hope, a better interviewer and journalist.
Vettel is a loss to Formula 1. His talent is undeniable and while he isn’t the driver he once was, even in his 15th year, he can show a turn of speed to remind you of what he has achieved in the past. His knowledge is incredible and his role as an elder statesperson, helping the drivers have a voice, has been hugely important.
It says a lot that the drivers were unanimous in their appreciation for him when asked for tributes in reaction to his retirement. His humour made life entertaining and his interviews and the way he carried himself – a few blips aside like Multi-21 and banging wheels with Lewis Hamilton in Baku – marks him out as one of the greats.
There’s no one quite like Vettel. He will be missed.