Sebastian Vettel leaves Formula 1 at the end of one of the sport’s most illustrious careers knowing he is as admired as a person off track as much as he is for his achievements on it.
The 35-year-old German ended his career with a 10th place and solitary point for Aston Martin at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix but that will not be what he remembers from his swansong weekend in a sport in which he has been a major figure for the past decade and a half.
Vettel spent the entire four days at Yas Marina being left in no doubt about the high regard in which he is held throughout the sport, by fellow drivers, teams and the media.
It started with a media day on Thursday in which several colleagues paid tribute to him, followed by a dinner with all the other drivers, which was the suggestion of Lewis Hamilton and for which the seven-time champion picked up the bill.
On Friday, at a meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, Vettel was presented with a trophy by chairman Alex Wurz in recognition of his “long-standing and exceptional services to the GPDA”.
On Saturday, Vettel invited everyone in F1 to join him in running or walking the track – and hundreds took up the opportunity.
And on Sunday, his old rival Fernando Alonso, who started alongside him on the fifth row, told Vettel before the race that he would not attack on the opening lap. Quite a mark of respect from a man of such competitive intensity, with whom Vettel in the past has not always enjoyed the easiest of relationships.
Alonso had said on Thursday that their careers would always be linked because of the two title battles they fought in 2010 and 2012, and indeed they spent the first half of the race running together, stuck behind Alonso’s team-mate Esteban Ocon, before strategy diverged their evenings.
After the race, Vettel was struggling to compute all the emotions coursing through him.
“I feel a bit empty,” he said. “It’s been a big weekend. The last two years have been disappointing but there are more important things in life.
“It’s a huge privilege to be in the position I’m in. I hope I can pass this on to the other drivers, the responsibility. There are things far bigger and more important than racing in circles.
“It’s been very special for me to have that kind of farewell. I had a great time and was able to enjoy success and win championships. From the sporting point of view, it’s been huge, but also I have been able to grow and mature in many ways, reflect about a lot of things.”
A career to rank with the greatest
Vettel’s achievements have guaranteed him a place in the history books. His 53 wins put him third on the all-time list behind only Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher. He equaled Alain Prost’s mark of four world titles, and only Hamilton, Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio are ahead. At 57 pole positions, he fell short of only Hamilton, Schumacher and Ayrton Senna.
In his pomp at Red Bull from 2010-13, when he won his four consecutive championships, Vettel was a winning machine, with what Daniel Ricciardo described this weekend as “a relentless approach, like he just wasn’t satisfied; he just wanted to ultimately destroy the competition”.
Vettel was less convincing in his years at Ferrari, which were peppered by mistakes that helped derail title campaigns in 2017 and 2018. But still in his six seasons there he scored more wins for the Italian legends than anyone other than Schumacher and Niki Lauda has achieved .
In the Red Bull period, Vettel was always funny and engaging, with an Anglophile sense of humor and love of the Beatles and Monty Python. But his ruthless will to win sometimes left him cast as the villain, particularly in his sometimes bitter fights with team-mate Mark Webber.
This was perhaps best summed up by his defiant reaction to criticism of his decision to ignore team orders not to overtake Webber for victory in Malaysia in 2013: “I was faster. I passed him. I won.”
But as success became harder to come by, Vettel matured and mellowed, even if sometimes the competitive red mist could descend, such as when he banged wheels with Hamilton in Baku in 2017, wrongly thinking he had been ‘brake-tested’.
Vettel interrupted Hamilton in a news conference on Thursday to address this episode.
“I’m actually quite sorry,” he said. “It’s your answer, but I think Baku wasn’t a great moment, because what I did wasn’t right. But actually from that moment onwards…”
“Our friendship got better,” Hamilton said.
“Yeah, a lot better,” Vettel said. “So I don’t want that moment to… not happen, if you see what I mean.”
‘A super-nice, caring person’
It was the stories about Vettel over the Abu Dhabi weekend that said so much about him.
The trophy presented to him by the GPDA, Wurz told this writer, was a replica of one the organization had handed out in the 1960s – when they were embarking on the fight for safety – to grands prix where they felt the organization had been good.
Wurz explained the origins of their eight-year partnership leading the organization, and it is worth hearing.
“The story of Sebastian and myself on the GPDA,” he said, “is I did it before with Schumacher and [David] Coulthard and it was 2014 when Sebastian reached out to me and said: ‘Look, the GPDA is really going downhill but it’s such an important organization that we really need to make an effort.’
“I said, ‘I’ve done it. It’s down to you guys, the current drivers.’ But they kept bugging me.
“He said: ‘No, but just come and address the drivers. The young ones need to hear it not just from me, but from guys they will respect.’
“So it was Japanese Grand Prix 2014. We had a meeting on Friday night. I did a presentation. And the young drivers were very happy. They said there were a lot of things they didn’t know and they understand the importance and it was Jules Bianchi who spoke a lot.
“But I still said: ‘I am not here to do the job for you guys. I am just here to tell you that you need to stick together. Not only for safety, but for looking after the sport… presenting to the world that you can fight on track but you have to be united.
“We share the same dream and passion and that is over-arching, especially once you are out of the car.”
Two days later, Bianchi suffered terrible head injuries in a crash during a dark and wet race, from which it was immediately obvious he would not recover.
“Seb said, ‘Now we will need to deal with it,'” Wurz said, “and I didn’t need any convincing to say, ‘OK, we really have to do something.’
“That was the point where the GPDA really got united and the drivers pushed a lot.
“So the trophy was a personal thank you in the name of all the GPDA members to Seb because he was instrumental to make sure the GPDA will actually survive and be stronger as an organization.”
There were other stories that revealed the measure of the man.
Max Verstappen said he would “always remember for the rest of my life” Vettel’s behavior following the Dutchman’s high-speed crash at the British Grand Prix last year, after which he was taken to hospital.
“I came back from the hospital to my motorhome to get all my stuff and he was there, waiting for me when I got out of the car,” Verstappen said. “And he said: ‘Are you OK, Max? How are you doing?’
“And that just shows how he is. You know, a super-nice, caring person who is not only there for performance, but also means well.”
Leclerc, his former Ferrari team-mate, said: “As a person, he’s been incredible. I remember, when I was in Formula 2, I was doing the simulator work [for Ferrari]which, OK, it’s not an easy work to do, because it’s really, really tiring and I thought that Seb probably didn’t even know I was on the simulator.
“And I received a letter one day, just thanking me for all the hard work. And that meant a lot to me at that time.”
And his former Red Bull team boss Christian Horner revealed: “He’d come and stay at the house. I live in the countryside on a bit of a farm and they were lambing.
“The lambs were being born in a shed and he wanted to get involved, and I just remember the local farmer turning up with Sebastian helping to pull a couple of lambs out. And he didn’t have a clue who he was – a four -time world champion, in a sheep shed.
“We’ve got a couple of miniature donkeys, and he took them for a walk. And he’s walking through the village and somebody nearly drove off the road thinking: ‘Is that Sebastian Vettel with the donkey from Shrek?’
“So, just a lovely, lovely guy, and I think we’ll all miss him in Formula 1.”
Since leaving Ferrari and joining Aston Martin, Vettel’s passion for environmental and social justice issues has come to the fore, and it seems certain that will be the direction his future career takes him, even if for now he says he has not decided exactly what shape that will take.
“I am very happy I was able to build so much off the track,” Vettel said. “A partner and now wife who I am very much in love with after so many years. We have got three kids.
“I look forward to spending more time at home with the dog, things that might sound really boring but which I have built next to the racing and will hopefully be able to enjoy.
“And then see what happens, I am restless in many ways.”