Sebastian Vettel: Growing pains

Once Formula 1’s boy wonder, now the four-time world champion finds himself in a different part of the field. Could it be due to external distraction?

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It’s very easy at the moment to feel that the world has become a worse place than it was. A global pandemic that has merely punctuated a climate emergency, an economy on the verge of annihilation, increasing sections of society on the streets either protesting or living, racial tensions as though the civil rights movement of the ’60s hadn’t happened. Sport has long been an escape for fans from bigger world problems, motor sport no exception.

As crunch time approaches, it cannot ignore the environment in which its bubble exists – which is not a popular view among many fans. But it’s one that even F1’s biggest stars are confronting, none more so than Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. The process is particularly illuminating with Vettel.

Here is a guy steeped in cars, racing and competing since childhood, who was absolutely as blinkered and focused as necessary to succeed in this incredibly demanding sport. Vettel has enjoyed enormous success and yet still remained in love with what he does, even now as his career seems to be caught in a downward vortex, swirling him around below the surface over which he used to skim from one success to another. But as that has happened, as he has matured and his horizons have expanded, he has taken on other concerns, bigger ones. Here is a mature, intelligent man struggling to make sense of the world, like many at this momentous time. Except he’s in the spotlight. We are seeing him – and Hamilton – evolve in front of our eyes.

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Vettel in karts, 2001

Many may not like it, but it’s happening regardless. Here are two poster boys for a sport that used to almost celebrate its ostentatious wastefulness on the altar of free will and chasing performance for its own sake, for the sheer beauty and thrill of it. But the world’s problems are crowding in and here’s a man caught in the middle of that conflict, a four-time champion still in love with the sport, but with a young family growing up in an increasingly troubled place. He understands the charges of hypocrisy that voicing his concerns will elicit. But feels he must speak out regardless.

“Yes, people will call me a hypocrite because racing in F1 is probably the opposite of the direction the world needs to be taking,” he says. “The climate crisis is overwhelming. The scientists tell us that even if we switched off [industrial activity] for good we would still need more than that, we would need to be doing [carbon] captures. I’m not racing to damage the world. It’s my passion and I ended up by accident to be racing. But I do believe there are ways to make the world better for us all now and for future generations. I believe there are solutions where we don’t have to relinquish certain things. We are clever enough that we can work this out, where we can find a solution and still have the joy and passion and maybe make it even more exciting. But we in F1 should be doing a lot more. We have a great responsibility towards society, the planet, our own consciousness.”

Motor Sport caught up with Vettel at Monza, where 12 years earlier he’d won his first grand prix, almost as a miracle, for the little Toro Rosso team. Life was a lot simpler for the 21-year-old, who’d beaten the world’s best in the top teams.

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A string of early successes, from his Italian GP win with Toro Rosso in 2008 (above), to karting, and even owning Nigel Mansell’s Williams

“It’s completely normal that bigger things caught up,” he says. “I’ve been on this planet for another 12 years and you get to see a lot of stuff, learn a lot of stuff inside racing, outside, in the car, out the car, but also in life. When you compare yourself between 20 and 30 there’s a lot happening.”

The racing came first, picked up from his dad. “He did amateur hillclimb racing and as a family we were always travelling together. I think it was by accident that his go-kart thing came up. We went to a go-kart track and when Christmas came around – aged three – I had my first go-kart under the Christmas tree. It was a one-wheel powered, one horsepower, little tiny go-kart. I started off in the back yard going up and down and then we bought another kart, which we shared with my sisters, but I wasn’t very good at sharing. I always finished the fuel tank and never let them run so they lost interest and I kept it. Then we went to that track again and there was another boy doing practice laps on a mini kart and we saw, ‘Oh, you can do laps,’ and that’s how we stumbled into racing.”

It’s never let go of him since. His passion for the sport is total, something reflected in his unusual (for a driver) interest in its history and immersing himself into the technology of cars and motorbikes. He has a scattered collection of bikes, road cars and race cars, including his hero Nigel Mansell’s Red 5 FW14B. “It’s not that I’m nostalgic and just like collecting old stuff,” he laughs. “Well, I am nostalgic in the sense that I like old cars and bikes. They are like a vaccine. You have the vaccine for life. But I like the old stuff because new stuff is boring, just too perfect and everything hidden. You look at an old bike or under the bonnet of an old car and what you see are the working parts, not just some plastic covers and cables. But yes, the aesthetics of the old times were better, with the cars. Some of those shapes, you couldn’t do them now because of the safety legislation. Something like a Ferrari Dino 246, just beautiful. But you wouldn’t be allowed to sell it now.

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Vettel’s victory in the 2008 Italian Grand Prix sent shockwaves through the sport, and sealed his place at Red Bull’s top table. But a lot has changed in 12 years…

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“Driving, the same. Modern supercars are just too perfect and you have to go too fast in them to feel. They are too easy – anyone can drive them. Which is good because they’re not supposed to kill you but if you step into an F40 – I have one – you have some respect. No aids, the car’s a nightmare to drive by today’s standards. You can’t be lazy or not careful otherwise you will have an accident.”

So what else has he got? “The oldest is a 1958 BMW 507. I also have two Fiat 500s, a normal one and also the funny one with the wicker-basket body. I was looking at a Mk1 Golf GTI. I have the cabriolet one, called ‘the strawberry basket’ in Germany because that’s what they look like. I have some modern Ferraris but I don’t drive them that much. But I look at the machines like some look at a work of art, except you can use them, too. Bikes… I have a pre-war Scott. The challenge with that is to get it running. It takes a while. I have a Vincent Black Shadow. That’s a beast. Those bikes were really quick in their time in a straight line but cornering them… I only ride them when the weather is nice. My bum gets sore after a couple of hours.”

The conflict for such an enthusiast with the concerns he has taken on is obvious. “Where I am in life now? Okay, I’m married only for a year but I have kids, other things as well, there’s a lot of things you see and you can’t unsee. Sometimes it would be nice to be so naive – not stupid, but just naive so you were not aware of a lot of things, whereas now you are, you just can’t look back. You don’t want to not see it because it’s important. But sometimes it would make life easier. I often think, ‘How did I not see that then?’ I think that’s normal. It really started to click with me about seven years ago that the climate situation is not good.”

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The German is also known for his love of motorcycles, but does this clash with his environmental views?

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So what is the great solution? “I don’t know. But what amazes me is that we know the problem now, we know that the world is not sustainable like this. We know that. But still we don’t attack the problem properly. If this was a racing problem and you knew how to go faster, it would be stupid not to do it. We have solutions. They may not be perfect yet but that’s no reason not to develop them. We continue to empower what we know is the wrong way while not paying attention to the right way. That’s crazy. We need to do so much more. Coronavirus is serious but it has taken away the spotlight from climate change. But the climate hasn’t stopped changing.”

It’s not a popular view with many in the motor-sport world, but he feels it can no longer be left unsaid. “It used to be that sports stars or pop stars didn’t get too involved because it might be bad for their image or popularity. Subjects like climate change or the fight against racism are so big that you cannot afford any more to be apolitical. It’s not like you have to take a stand, but you should.

“If you have fans with a certain view of the world that are different from yours, so what? You should care about what’s right, not about whether they might like you or contribute to your business. Why should that stop you making a stand? Making progress is all about discussing views and moving forwards. So long as the big profile people like Lewis resonate with people and lead them to adapt these messages to their everyday life, you can have an impact. It’s not just about saying, but doing it. It’s fine me wearing a black shirt and saying we should stop racism. But I have to act like that as well when the camera is off. That’s making the difference, and that’s something we can all do. If I felt I was being used or pressured, I just wouldn’t be doing it.”

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Surrounded by fans during happier times at Monza in 2017

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The behavioural psychologist Professor Donald Hoffman has proposed the following: ‘Any organism that wastes its perceptual energy or time on the truth will not be able to out-compete organisms who are only spending their energies on the fitness pay-offs that help you win the game.’ That, he argues, is what has skewed the world in favour of ‘winning the game’ rather than truth. It’s something that might be applied to the backdrop of climate change, but equally it poses an interesting question about whether someone in as intensely competitive a sport as F1 could combine competing with addressing the bigger issues outside their sport.

Lewis Hamilton’s current form – amid his constant battles to highlight racial, environmental and mental health causes, both in person and through his huge social-media following – seems to suggest it is more than possible. But Vettel’s recent struggles might be cited as evidence of the opposite. “I think it’s probably true that it can take away from ‘winning the game’,” he says. “Sometimes it’s actually quite helpful not to get involved, not to see the problem because you just get on with the game. But I don’t think it makes it impossible to be at a very high level. There’s also the merit in wisdom and experience. The perspective is different from when you are young and it’s up to the user to use the knowledge and make it a strength. It’s not easy.”

Despite all the concerns about the future, Vettel remains resolutely optimistic. Not everything is worse than it was. Talking of George Floyd, the black man infamously killed by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck, he says, “It’s not a nice truth, but things like this happened before and were swept under the carpet. We are living in the most transparent age ever. That became the issue it did – and rightfully so – because someone filmed it on their phone and released it to the world. It was right that it blew up the way it did, and if this is what it takes to reveal what’s been going on for years, decades, centuries and we’ve not acted or implemented enough change to get rid of it, then it’s up to all of us to take command and stop it.”

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Taking the knee next to Hamilton, right. This year has shown the development of both world champions speaking out.

When we first speak, Vettel was still a few days away from being confirmed alongside Lance Stroll at Stroll Senior’s Aston Martin Racing Formula 1 revolution. At this point in time, Vettel is coy about what happens beyond his final few races with Ferrari, but he’s well aware of the rumours flying around at the time, which would ultimately prove true, and cost Sergio Pérez his spot at the team. Instead, what can he do with his current, rather recalcitrant, Ferrari?

“You have to sometimes live with it [the car] not optimised while still focusing on where it needs to go. It’s not the easiest situation, and it’s one I’ve been struggling with for the last couple of years.”

A few days later he’s happier to talk about his move: “It was not an easy decision,” he says, adding that there were two main considerations. “One is believing in the team to do well, which has already been proven by the track results this year and I believe there is more to come. And second is my own future: is it time to stop or time to keep going? And I made my decision. I have more to give and I am looking forward to the task with a new team, a new environment and a new spirit.”

He could add ‘a new challenge’. Because it is clear that both in the car and out of it Sebastian Vettel is not done yet.

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Vettel’s time with Ferrari is soon to end, with him making the move to Aston Martin for 2021

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