Vettel’s activism defined latter years but talent burned brightest on track

“Everyone in the paddock loves him,” observed Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz of Sebastian Vettel. “You will not hear a bad word about Seb.” One perspective on Vettel, who announced his impending retirement on Thursday, that reflected a uniformity of opinion that is rare, almost unheard of, in Formula One’s fractious and egocentric atmosphere.

Sainz was spot on. Vettel is admired, respected and genuinely liked. When he takes his final flag at the end of the season the four-time champion will also be missed.

Vettel’s decision to retire did not come as an enormous surprise when it was made before this weekend’s Hungarian GP. The 35-year-old has of late had the demeanour of the demob-happy after 15 years in F1, having secured 53 wins, behind only Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton.

He has had a carefree air that suggested F1 had ceased being the centre of his universe. Indeed as he grew his hair out and began sporting a tousled beard there was more than a little of the LA Woman-period Jim Morrison relaxed, swagger to him. Without Mr Mojo’s extra pounds of course.

There had been statements of his increasing internal conflict in his feelings towards F1 and its contribution to the climate emergency, not least in admitting he felt like a hypocrite on the BBC’s Question Time.

This was no simple Damascene conversion. He had devoted his life to F1, as driver, fan and scholar. Few could name all of F1’s champions. Vettel could, right back to the first, Giuseppe Farina in 1950. Yet his commitment to environmental issues had come to play increasingly heavily on his mind. He cited this, alongside a desire to spend more time with his family, as one of the reasons to call it a day.

He will leave a legacy as, alongside Hamilton, one of the drivers that stood up to be counted, on racism, diversity, LGBTQ+ rights and the climate emergency. Yet while this activism has perhaps defined the latter part of his career, he burned brightest on track, a remarkable talent. The four titles with Red Bull between 2010 and 2013 displayed a dominance that had been off-putting for some as was the exultant pointing of his finger to indicate the number one on victory, the exuberance of youth, pumped up by success and adrenaline.

Yet his racing career was really defined by being of two halves, the titles a peak he thought he could recapture, yet never did.

He turned in some superb performances, not least his debut win in the wet at Monza in 2008 for Toro Rosso, outperforming his car to deliver notice of an immense talent. Similarly his victory in India in 2013, scything through the field, was a demonstration of relentless, precision driving. At Monza in 2011 he won having passed Fernando Alonso round the outside of the Curva Grande, putting two wheels on the grass to do so. It was breathtaking and put paid to suggestions he was a flat-track bully who could dictate only from the front.

He could be ruthless, not least when passing teammate Mark Webber at Malaysia in 2013, disobeying team orders to do so in the “Multi-21” incident and petulant too as ramming Hamilton in Baku proved in 2017.

All too human then, as was demonstrated when the second half of his career proved disappointing and questions were raised about his ability to challenge when not in a dominant car. He had mastered the Red Bull and its blown diffuser, adjusting his style to devastating effect but when regulation changes removed them in 2014 he struggled.

Switching to Ferrari and in the heat of battle with Hamilton, he was also found wanting. Crashing out while leading at Germany in 2018 midway through a fierce title fight, while the British driver pressured him into an error at Canada in 2019 that cost him a win as did his misjudgment in crashing at Singapore in 2017. He enjoyed arguably the better car over Hamilton for much of 2017 and 2018 but the seven-time champion came out on top in both.

That he is still held in such regard as a person is what stands out. His commitment to making a difference, as well as his sense of sportsmanship, was acclaimed across the paddock, not least by Hamilton, a rival who became a friend.

“He was incredibly quick, very, very intelligent,” Hamilton said. “Just a great all-round competitor. Very fair but also very strong. He’s never been someone to blame other people for mistakes, he would always put his hand up and say it was his fault, which I always thought was honourable.”

In practice at the Hungaroring, Sainz had the edge in the first session, up by one-tenth on Max Verstappen, with Hamilton in seventh. In the afternoon session Charles Leclerc was quickest for Ferrari, with McLaren’s Lando Norris in second. Verstappen was fourth, with Hamilton 11th and his Mercedes teammate George Russell in eighth. Saturday’s qualifying is under threat however with heavy rain storms forecast all day in Budapest and the session may be delayed until Sunday morning.