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Driving Around in Circles: What Happened to Seb?

Illustration by Minnie Leaver

Passing the checkered flag at the Indian Grand Prix in 2013, Sebastian Vettel won his fourth consecutive world championship. Against all protocol, consumed by the moment, he pulled onto the pit straight and revved his car around and around in a series of donuts. Through the tyre smoke, with the sky turning to night, he got out of his car, embraced the crowd, then got down on his knees and worshiped the car. I remember feeling mesmerised. The moment was pregnant, another height of a barnstorming career.

In his first race in 2007, Vettel became the youngest Formula One point-scorer. In 2008, he glided to victory in the wettest of wet conditions at the Italian Grand Prix, taking his midfield Toro Rosso car outrageously far out of its league. With it, he became the youngest driver to start a race from first place and then the youngest to win a race.

Following his promotion to Red Bull the following year, the wins continued. He became the youngest world champion in 2010. By 2013, he was one of only four drivers to win four world championships, and by far the youngest, also holding the record for the most first place starts, podiums, wins, consecutive wins, and points in a season. In 2011, out of 19 races, he started first 15 times, won 11 times, and stood on the podium 17 times; in 2013, he won nine races in a row.

“We have to remember these days,” he said to his team on the radio during the celebrations. “There’s no guarantee that they will last forever.”

The observation was prescient. The following year, he would be beaten by his new, young teammate Daniel Riccardo. Moving to Ferrari, the car was good enough to put Vettel in title contention in 2017 and 2018, but both times, he was bested by Lewis Hamilton, largely due to a series of costly and unforced errors that would have jeopardized any other driver’s place in the sport. In 2019, he was once again beaten by a new, young teammate – this time Charles Leclerc. 

Vettel did win a race in that 2019 season. On the podium, eyes watering, voice quietly shaking, he dedicated his win to fans who had reached out with their own stories of how to deal with bad times. 

But this would not be a renaissance; it would be his last win. Ferrari announced that he would not be given a contract extension for 2021, even before the 2020 season started. He tried to fill the vacancy in his old team, Red Bull, but they wouldn’t have him. He now spends his days moseying around towards the back of the grid, clutching a few points on a good day.

What happened to Seb?

One answer is that he was never that good in the first place. His Red bull was simply the best car. The best drivers are those who can prove themselves in several teams – Michael Schumacher winning for both Benetton and Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton for both McLaren and Mercedes – which Seb failed to do. 

His now trademark errors were always present too. In Turkey in 2010, trying to pass his teammate for the lead, he clumsily jinked to the right, taking them both out. In the final race of 2012, he blindly cut in front of another driver at the start, causing him to spin to the back of the grid and almost lose the championship. 

And although he won four championships, he did not dominate all of them. In 2010, he only led the championship at the last race. In 2012, he only beat Fernando Alonso – driving a markedly slower car – by three points.

An alternative explanation is that Seb’s heart is no longer in it. He’s no longer the puppy, all-consumed by winning, with everything to prove. He now has a wife and three kids. He’s the only driver without a social media presence because he values his privacy. And he’s openly asking questions about the morality of the sport. He’s considered quitting because of its environmental footprint.

At pre-season testing last year, he intervened with the sport’s CEO to stop aircrafts from practicing their flypasts and wasting fuel, and after Silverstone, some fans saw him litter-picking hours after most people had gone home. He organized a women’s karting event in Saudi Arabia and was the first to promise to boycott the Russian Grand Prix after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He discussed many of these issues – as well as intricate geopolitical details of the transition to renewable energy – on BBC Newsnight last week.

But these two explanations are imperfect. You don’t win four championships by chance. He still clearly loves driving cars fast. And finding personal stability and purpose often helps athletes to improve their performance.

The most charitable explanation – and the one I like most – is that Seb was a truly extraordinary driver at his peak. Peaks simply don’t last forever, and some people’s last longer than others. If anything, his struggles today only go to show how good he once was.

We shouldn’t forget that.