Bwalking out with the crowd on their feet delivering a standing ovation and chanting your name is perhaps the fondest farewell a competitor can hope for. In Abu Dhabi on Sunday Sebastian Vettel called time on his Formula One career with just such a reception. Admired and respected, Vettel’s departure genuinely leaves the sport a little bit poorer.
The 35-year-old completed his final GP at Yas Marina after 16 years in F1 and having won four world championships. It has been some career and notably for a perceptive, thoughtful character, one not of a straightforward trajectory. Here then was a man ending his career amid an outpouring of genuine affection and a sense of sadness at his departure, where once he antagonized as many as he had endeared.
The Vettel that won those titles with Red Bull between 2010 and 2013 was a driver perceived as arrogant and often cast as the villain. Nicknamed “fingerboy” for his triumphant wagging of a digit after a victory and the often ruthless, selfish, win-at-all-costs attitude of the infamous multi-21 incident with Mark Webber, where he disobeyed team orders, so determined was he to take the win.
Yet this weekend all 20 drivers took Vettel out for a farewell dinner, where his great rival Lewis Hamilton picked up the bill. They were, without exception, gushing in their praise for Vettel. Two hundred members of the F1 paddock from teams, media, and F1 turned out to run the track with Vettel at Yas Marina on Saturday night, their small way of saying “Danke Seb”, as their t-shirts read.
As a driver his talent was never in question, but as he has aged a genuinely admirable and intriguing character has come more to the fore. His absolute passion for the sport and its history has become clear. As has his commitment to putting his position to good use in highlighting racism, diversity, women’s and LGBTQ+ rights and the climate emergency.
A more mature, rounded man has emerged from the youngster who made his debut in 2007 and then took F1 by storm in becoming its youngest world champion in 2010. A man who, it became clear, it was almost impossible to dislike.
He still drove with the same commitment, indeed to the extent that there remained moments of high drama, fueled by the strong emotion that racing inspired in him. Driving into Hamilton at Baku in 2017 was petulant and dangerous and similarly at Canada in 2019 he did not take a penalty for blocking Hamilton well, but Vettel was always big enough to apologize once the adrenaline wore off.
He was ultimately a genuine sportsman, intelligent and articulate, so much so that he and Hamilton, fierce competitors, became friends. They acknowledged that it was how they treated each other off the track that mattered and recognized in each other kindred spirits in their desire to make a difference in the real world.
Vettel never hit the heights of those four titles again. He had a shot at two more in 2017 and 2018 with Ferrari but was thwarted on both occasions by Hamilton and Mercedes. Two years with Aston Martin followed when he parted company with the Scuderia in 2020. His time there was an uphill struggle in a poor car but he nevertheless gave his full commitment.
Intensely private, he leaves F1 to spend more time with his family, his relationship with whom he has always said defines him as a person much more than F1. Which is indicative of a man with his priorities in order.
Vettel departs on his own terms, then, rightly content with his achievements as a driver and as a man, and he will be missed. “I had a great time and was able to enjoy success and win championships,” he said in Abu Dhabi. “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.”