If you are in any way, shape, or form a fan of Formula One, you were probably as surprised as everyone else after the Hungarian Grand Prix at the end of July. This was when four-time World Driver’s Champion Sebastian Vettel posted a short one minute video to the internet, announcing his retirement at the end of the 2022 season at the same time he notified the FIA. While the rumors had been floating around for years, his career seemed to experience a resurgence when he moved to the Aston Martin F1 Team following several years at Scuderia Ferrari.
Much like other drivers that suddenly announced their retirements, it seems that Seb, as he’s affectionately known to friends and fans alike, decided to pull the plug while still achieving moderate success and bow out in a dignified fashion after over a decade in the sport to spend more time with his kids and extended family.
As he is one of the winningest champions at the pinnacle of motorsport, it is only appropriate that—as this chapter of his life closes and a future where he can focus on his family and other interests opens—we look back at just what made Seb one of the best ever.
This is a profile filled with examples of natural skill, heated moments with teammates and opponents alike, and some amazing drives that closed out the final years of the V8 era of Formula One with a bang. Quite hotheaded for a German (who are usually seen as calm, collected drivers on the F1 grid), Vettel’s career can be equally defined as explosive and determined, and we will explore all aspects of it.
Sebastian Vettel’s Early Years
Sebastian Vettel was born on July 3, 1987, in the sleepy countryside town of Heppenheim (Bergstraße), in the Hesse state of what was known then as West Germany, as the second youngest of four, with a younger brother and two olders sisters. While not the most affluent of families, the Vettels realized after putting him in a kart at the age of three in 1990 just for fun that he had a serious natural talent for driving, and they focused on registering Sebastian for local karting events and drop-in races.
By the time he was four, he was winning karting events, and became a fervent fan of what he dubs as the “Three Michaels:” Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Michael Schumacher. He was fully intent on becoming a singer like his idol Jackson, until he realized that he enjoyed karting quite a lot (and that he also didn’t quite have a singing voice that would make him a pop star).
Instead, due to his natural talent and raw speed, in 1994, a seven year old Seb won a seriously competitive karting competition, with the grand prize being a meet and greet with Michael Schumacher.
This was his first encounter with one of his heroes, and despite the saying of “never meet your heroes,” 1994 was also the year that Schumacher won his first World Driver’s Championship. To a young Sebastian, he was an inspiration to both push hard for what he wanted—which was to win, but to also remain humble as possible, as Schumacher dedicated his first title to the man that was his main rival, the recently passed Ayrton Senna, for the trophy.
In 1997, at the age of 10, Vettel moved to the professional leagues and won both the DMV Karting Championship and the NRW German Championships back-to-back. Of course, this drew the attention of professional scouts for the newly formed junior academies of major Formula One teams, and in 1998 at age eleven, he was signed to the Red Bull Junior Academy.
With some serious backing behind his name now, Sebastian was able to move up to international karting events, and continued to win races. The highlight of his karting career, however, was his victory in 2001 at the Junior Monaco Kart Cup, racing in the top tier KF3 super karts.
This was a milestone for Vettel, as the kart track uses the entire lower half of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit, and was sanctioned by the Automobile Club de Monaco, who also run the entire Grand Prix weekend for Formula One. It was also an international cup overseen by the FIA, as it was one of the most prestigious karting cups you could win before moving to higher category open wheelers.
Formula BMW, Formula 3, & Formula Renault
In 2003, with support from Red Bull, Vettel was able to enter open-wheeled Formula car competition and joined the German Formula BMW ADAC series. He was placed in the Eifelland Racing Team and partnered with Andreas Wirth, a future endurance car professional racer. Despite Wirth being in his second season of Formula BMW, Vettel outmatched him at almost every event, consistently driving faster and qualifying higher.
In fact, during his rookie season, Vettel finished second in the Formula BMW ADAC Championship with five wins, five poles, and twelve podiums in nineteen races. Maximilian Götz, a future ADAC GT and FIA World Endurance champion, was the only driver to beat him.
2004, however, was the year that Sebastian Vettel made himself known as a seriously fast, destined-for-the-big-show driver. Switching to the Berlin-Brandenburg team, Vettel’s sophomore season was a display of utter domination, leaving every other driver in the field in the dust.
In a twenty race season, he won eighteen, and he was on the podium for the other two that he did not win. At that time in the FIA rankings, Formula BMW ADAC was akin to national Formula 4 series, and as the champion, Vettel had the option of moving up the FIA ladder.
The Next Step: Formula 3
He did so in 2005, signing to the German ASL Mücke Motorsport Formula 3 Euro Series team. As the cars were much faster, much more aero dependent, and much higher tech than the Formula BMW cars, Vettel struggled throughout the first half of the season to produce strong results.
He was consistently in the midfield, however, and after getting to grips with how much more finesse the F3 cars took to drive seriously fast, he was able to return to a front running position, often challenging a young British driver by the name of Lewis Hamilton for race wins. In the end, he scored five podiums from twenty races, while Hamilton went on to be the 2005 F3 Euro Series champion.
A highlight of his 2005 season was being invited to participate in two of the most prestigious F3 races in the world: the Macau Grand Prix and the Masters of Formula 3. At Macau, Vettel showed absolute determination and skill, coming in third behind Lucas di Grassi (2010 Virgin F1 Team driver and 2016 Formula E champion) and a young Polish wunderkind, Robert Kubica. At the Masters of Formula 3 event, however, he got mired in the midfield and finished a respectable, if midfield, eleventh place.
His performance did impress, however, and he was given a test day with the Williams Formula One Team later on in 2005 for his performance in the Formula BMW series, and after he won the Rookie Cup for F3 with 63 total points, the highest scoring rookie, he was invited to test with BMW Sauber Formula One. During both tests, he showed immense natural feel and speed with both cars, and was lapping within a few seconds of the professional F1 drivers for each team by the end of both test days.
This raw speed and feel for the car saw Vettel get his foot in the door in 2006 with BMW Sauber, as he was signed as their official test driver, while also participating in the 2006 Formula 3 championship. Not satisfied with just the test driver position and Formula 3, Sebastian also entered the European Formula Renault 3.5 Series, at that time a direct feeder series to Formula One.
He showed immense pace in Formula 3, trading the points lead in the championship with future F1 driver Paul Di Resta almost every race weekend. When he was put in the more powerful Formula Renault car, however, he blitzed the field, taking the win and second place in the first two races at Misano.
Reality Comes Crashing Down
It was during the 2006 Formula Renault 3.5 Series race at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps, however, that the first bite of the true dangers of racing hit Sebastian full force. In the front half of the pack during the first race of the weekend, Vettel was pushing hard, showing his pace and talent, when an accident happened in front as the cars crested Radillon after the famous Eau Rouge corner.
The crash resulted in shards of carbon fiber being scattered everywhere, and by pure chance, one of the airborne pieces of carbon fiber sliced across his knuckles, nearly severing his right index finger. The injury was serious enough that he was withdrawn from Formula Renault, and it was expected that he would be out of the cockpit for months.
The video of the crash does involve, well, a crash, so viewer discretion is advised—and instead of embedding the video, we’ll simply link to it here: Sebastian Vettel 2006 Injury At Spa.
To everyone’s surprise, seven days later at the Masters of Formula 3 at Zandvoort, the Netherlands, Vettel showed up with his finger wrapped in a flexible cast, and subsequently placed sixth in the race. He continued racing for the remainder of the 2006 F3 season, but due to his injury, was not able to match his pace from the first half of the year, which ultimately saw him come second in the championship.
Formula One: A Rough Start
2007 started off for Sebastian Vettel like many before him, with him entering a series and showing utter domination from the word “go”. For this season, he elected to participate in Formula Renault 3.5 full time, and won the German round at the Nurburgring. He was steaming ahead of the field in points, easily in command of the championship, when what many F1 drivers simply say is “the call” came.
At the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix, BMW Sauber driver Robert Kubica went through what was one of the most violent crashes that had been seen in the sport for nearly a decade, getting bumped off the track at nearly 180 MPH, hitting an access road that caused his front wheels to lift into the air, and smashing nose first into the inner barrier before the famous hairpin at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
The car literally shattered into pieces, the only not breaking apart being the extremely robust safety cell that surrounds the driver. After tumbling, spinning, and being exposed to high g-forces, as well as sustaining minor injuries to his feet, Kubica was out of competition for the foreseeable future.
As such, when it came time for BMW Sauber to travel to the next round at Indianapolis, they called Vettel up to the team. Although he had taken part in free practice sessions in 2006 for BMW Sauber, this was his first call up to the top tier of motorsports.
Despite the buzz surrounding his call-up, Vettel remained calm and provided a mature drive for the 2007 US Grand Prix, qualifying seventh and finishing a respectable eighth. This made him, at 19 years and 354 days, the youngest ever points-scoring driver in Formula One—a record he held for many years.
Red Bull/Toro Rosso
This performance showed that Vettel had the ability and skill to handle a Formula One car at race pace for an entire weekend and provide results. Still a member of the Red Bull Junior team, BMW Sauber and Red Bull Formula One came to an agreement shortly after the US Grand Prix, and Sebastian was released from BMW Sauber to be immediately signed to Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s junior and development team. He replaced the American driver Scott Speed, who had been released after the US Grand Prix for not providing expected results and being given all the chances he could have had.
This was it. This was the promotion to a team under the Red Bull banner he had been working towards for nearly a decade, and he finally had made it. But be it from youthful enthusiasm or coming to terms with the fact that his dream was “really happening,” at the rain-soaked 2007 Japanese Grand Prix at the Fuji International Circuit, things nearly came undone for him.
After working his way up to third behind Red Bull’s Mark Webber and the McLaren of race leader Lewis Hamilton, he lost focus for a moment during a safety car period and crashed into Webber, forcing both cars into retirement. This would have been Toro Rosso’s maiden podium, and one of Webber’s up-until-then best finishes—and with one mistake, he wiped out two nearly guaranteed podium finishes for the Red Bull camp.
Vettel’s One Weakness: The Temper Starts to Show
To say that Mark Webber was, in a word, “pissed” about Vettel’s mistake is an understatement. He did not hold back any criticism, and even went as far as to say that he thought that Vettel had been moved into Formula One too early. He was given a ten-place grid penalty for the following round at the Chinese Grand Prix—however that penalty was nullified after eyewitness video showed that Hamilton might have not been following correct safety car procedures, causing Webber to slow down, with the domino effect of the distracted Vettel hitting him.
Despite this, it seemed that Vettel’s confidence was shaken, and he qualified a dismal seventeenth. Yet, once the five red lights went out, the raw talent surged through. In a race of mixed conditions, Vettel moved all the way up the field to finish fourth, which caused Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateshitz to make the ultimately prophetic statement that he thought Sebastian would be a world champion in the next five years.
Despite being billed as intelligent, mature, and extremely involved in the technical side and small details of tuning the car to his driving style, the young German also started to show that he was, at times, quick to anger and that he had a particular temper. It is expected, to say the least, that when you’re one of the twenty best drivers in the world, your ego can be about as big as a hot air balloon, but most drivers keep it under control.
This would come to the fore in the first four races of 2008, where Vettel scored four consecutive DNF’s (Did Not Finish), with retirements in the first lap for three of them. He was shown on TV broadcasts as throwing his fists around after hopping out of the car in frustration, and he was very brusque with the media. This famously got him in a bit of hot water with the Red Bull team, and after a “consultation” with the team bosses, he was much calmer at the Turkish Grand Prix, although again he seemed to lose confidence, finishing fourteenth.
Once again, after a confidence shakeup, Vettel returned to form at the 6th round of 2008, the Monaco Grand Prix. A track that is notoriously difficult to pass on, Vettel qualified seventeenth, yet was able to finish the race in fifth, scoring his first points of the year.
At the following race at Valencia, Spain, it seemed that something had been switched on in Sebastian, causing Toro Rosso’s technical director, Giorgio Ascanelli, to comment that suddenly Vettel had figured out how to drive a Formula One car consistently fast. This would again prove to be a prophetic statement, as the Toro Rosso Miracle was but a few months away.
2008 Italian Grand Prix
Monza. The Temple of Speed. The second fastest circuit that Formula One visits after Spa-Francorchamps. The holy ground of the Ferrari Tifosi, where the prancing horse is venerated and any Italian team that scores a point there is applauded. As Toro Rosso is Italian for Red Bull, and the team was based just down the road from Monza, it was a popular car with a seriously fast young star driver.
Of course, Monza is all of those things listed above when it is dry. However, the 2008 Grand Prix weekend was plagued by rain, and a wet track separates the great drivers from the legendary ones. Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when during a rain soaked qualifying session, at 21 years and 72 days old, Sebastian became the youngest driver to ever achieve pole position, a record he holds to this day.
When it came race time on the Grand Prix Sunday, the torrential rain saw one of the few safety car starts of a Grand Prix. Because of his vantage point of being in pole position and not buried in the rooster tail spray from the extreme wet weather tires, Vettel catapulted away from the field and led the race nearly the entire way through.
In a mature drive that saw speed balanced with exceptional car control in the most challenging of conditions, Vettel crossed the finish line in first, 12.5 seconds ahead of the second place McLaren of Heikki Kovalainen.
At 21 years and 73 days old, Sebastian Vettel was the youngest driver to win a Formula One Grand Prix event, a record he held for 8 years. It was dubbed the Toro Rosso Miracle, “the race that was,” a coming-of-age for both the very young team and the young driver.
In fact, after Toro Rosso boss Gerhard Berger commented that Vettel could not only win races, but was destined to win championships, the German media gave him the nickname of “Baby Schumi,” a name he had no problem accepting as Schumacher was one of his childhood heroes. This race also saw the beginning of one of Vettel’s more controversial celebrations, where he would raise his right index finger—the one that was nearly severed—and emphatically pump his fist around.
At the end of the 2008 season, Toro Rosso had been cemented as a viable team, Vettel had proven to be a natural talent and a race winner, and subsequently he was named the 2008 Rookie of the Year at the Autosport Awards. However, as the saying goes, the story had just begun.
Red Bull & The Rise of the Champion
2009 & Leading the Charge
After David Coulthard retired at the end of the 2008 season, Vettel was promoted to the main Red Bull team—on the back of his 2008 Toro Rosso campaign giving the first win and the first pole position for the junior team since its inception.
The 2009 RB5 was an absolute beast of a car, with a screaming V8 engine revving to 18,000 RPM, and unlike many of the cars that were eligible, it did not run the new KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) hybrid drive. It was as if the car and Sebastian had been made for each other, and he proved to be immediately a front runner the instant he first turned a wheel in anger on a track.
At the first round in Australia, Vettel was on track to place second, a podium in his first outing for the main team, when he crashed out after colliding with Robert Kubica as the two fought over second place. Two races later, at the 2009 Chinese Grand Prix, he went on to qualify in pole position, the first pole for Red Bull, as well as lead almost all of the race laps, giving Red Bull their first win in F1.
Vettel would go on to win at Silverstone, Red Bull’s home grand prix at the time, to the delight of the team and fans alike. At the Japanese Grand Prix, Vettel scored the second ever Red Bull pole position, and dominated the race, leading every lap to come home in first.
At the first ever final round Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, he won that race, and through his efforts across the season, came in second in the driver’s championship to Jenson Button. The Constructors Championship was also very tight, with Brawn GP, which would become Mercedes-AMG GP in 2010, beating Red Bull by just 18.5 points.
2010: The Year It All Came Together
2010 was a banner year for Formula One. With the birth of Mercedes-AMG GP, seven-time world champion and fellow German Michael Schumacher came out of retirement as the highest profile signing in many years to give the team an experienced, albeit older, driver as their lead.
The son of World Champion Keke Rosberg, Nico, was signed as the second driver for the team, forming an all-German ownership and driving team. Another driver named Nico also entered Formula One in 2010, the much loved “Hulk,” Nico Hulkenberg, who would go on to be one of the most successful drivers to never win a race (and a definite fan favorite).
It was also the year that saw the expansion of the points system to its modern style, with 25 points awarded for a win, 18 for second, 15 for third, and so on down to 1 for tenth, which allowed for more drivers to establish themselves as point scoring racers. What most teams had not counted on, however, was the fact that Red Bull Racing, using the award money from coming in second in the Constructors Championship, had developed one of the most dominant and technologically advanced F1 cars seen since the legendary Ferrari F2004, the RB6.
Sebastian immediately put the car on pole at the first round of 2010 in Bahrain, and led most of the race until a spark plug failure caused a misfire, and he dropped back to fourth. At the second round in Australia, Vettel again placed the RB6 on pole, but retired from the race on lap 26 after a brake failure sent him spinning off into a gravel trap. It was also in Australia that he was appointed as director of the newly reformed Grand Prix Drivers Association, as he had no qualms about being outspoken and direct.
His first win of the season came at the third round in Malaysia, where Mark Webber had secured pole with a brilliant and brave switch to slicks as the often rain soaked track was drying near the end of qualifying, with Vettel putting his RB6 in third. At the start of the race, he powered past Nico Rosberg in second, and moved inside Webber at the first turn to take the lead, and there was no looking back from there. With Webber coming in second, this was the first 1-2 finish in Red Bull Racing’s history.
Despite the successes, there was a rift starting to grow between Webber and Vettel, with the older, more experienced Australian, who was technically the primary driver of the team, feeling like the young upstart German was taking unnecessary risks to get to the front of a race, including passing dangerously close to Webber on multiple occasions. Despite the low-boiling animosity, the two were able to still race cleanly at the Spanish GP, with Webber first and Vettel third, and chalking up another 1-2 at the next round in Monaco, with Webber finally winning at the legendary race and performing his now classic backflip into the pool atop Red Bull’s paddock suite.
Despite both drivers being in good spirits about Monaco, the rift was firmly and permanently sealed in place at the next round in Turkey. As Webber had often commented, the two Red Bulls were running comfortably in first and second, with Webber in the lead, when Vettel made a dive-bomb passing move to take the lead of the race… or at least that was his intention. Instead, he crashed into Webber, spinning out of the race with Webber screaming on the team radio to the pit wall about Vettel’s impetuousness and impatience. Mark was able to continue, but would have to nurse home the RB6 with minor damage, dropping down to finish third.
Neither driver took responsibility for the collision, with Webber insistent that Vettel had tried to force a pass that was never going to work. Vettel countered that Webber had moved his car to block him, and the two never truly saw eye to eye after that.
They would trade wins and podiums throughout the rest of the first half of the season, both garnering enough points to be almost even in the top four spots of the drivers championship, mixed in with Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. During the second half of the season, however, a resurgent Ferrari with Alonso and new updates for the McLaren of Hamilton saw both those drivers win multiple races, with the Red Bulls often in second, third, and a couple of times not even on the podium.
By the time the season wound its way to the final race at Abu Dhabi, any one of Webber, Vettel, Alonso, or Hamilton could win the title if they won the race. Red Bull Racing was already the Constructor’s Champions with a solid showing at the previous round in Brazil, but coming into the final race, Vettel was 15 points behind Alonso, 7 points ahead of Webber, and if all three of them retired from the race and Hamilton won, he had a chance to take the title.
The race was a seesaw battle between Button, Webber, Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso, although with some excellent strategy calls from the pit wall, Vettel emerged from his final pit stop outside of any real challenge for the win of the race, with a ten second gap as he crossed the finish line to second place Lewis Hamilton, third place Jensen Button with the two most dangerous challengers, Alonso and Webber, finishing in seventh and eighth respectively.
Once the pit wall had confirmed that Vettel had enough points, firstly, Vettel’s race engineer confirmed the places as they finished, then called out “DU BIST WELTMEISTER!” Christian Horner, team principal at Red Bull, keyed up the radio next and spoke his now famous line, “Sebastian Vettel, you are the world champion!”
All the prophetic statements by all of the personnel over the years at both Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing came true in an instant, and at 23 years and 134 days old, Sebastian Vettel became the youngest World Drivers Champion in the history of F1, a record that has not been broken since 2010.
Title Defense & Three More Years Back-to-Back
Vettel started the 2011 season with strong wins at both Australia and Malaysia, coming in second place at the Chinese Grand Prix third round as his radio was broken and he couldn’t communicate his tire wear to the team effectively. He also won rounds four and five, before his radio failed again at the sixth round in Monaco.
The pit crew were not ready when he entered the pit lane for new tires, which led to him both having a slow stop as well as being sent out on the wrong set of tires. He was able to hold Fernando Alonso and Jensen Button behind him until the race was red flagged near the end, allowing him to change tires under the red flag rules and subsequently win the race.
He came second at the Canadian Grand Prix. At the European Grand Prix at Valencia, the FIA implemented a ban on engine mappings, which many saw as a thinly veiled attempt to reel in Vettel’s massive points lead. Sebastian responded by recording his first hat trick of the season, with pole position, fastest lap, and the race win.
Another rule change at the next round at Silverstone targeted the blown diffuser aerodynamic device, which Red Bull had pioneered for 2011 and was achieving great success with. Despite the change, Vettel was able to hold off teammate Webber, who had ignored team orders and was pushing to take second place off of Seb. That second place marked another entry in the record books where a driver had placed no worse than second in the first nine races in the season, winning six of those races.
Vettel would finish fourth at his home Grand Prix in Germany, second at Hungary, and then was back on the top step at Spa-Francorchamps. He tied Ayrton Senna when he nabbed his tenth pole position in Italy, being only the second driver to have taken ten pole positions in two separate seasons, and he won from pole without much challenge.
A win at the next round in Singapore put him mathematically within reach of securing the title, and with a second place at the following round in Japan, he had accumulated enough points and was declared the champion with a shocking five races left in the season, marking him the youngest back-to-back champion in the sport’s history as well as the youngest to win two titles. With a win at the next race in Korea, he also joined Michael Schumacher as the only other driver at the time to win more than ten races in consecutive seasons.
At the end of 2011, Vettel claimed the record for the most pole positions in a season at fifteen, as well as racking up eleven wins, seventeen podiums from nineteen races, and a record setting 392 points in a season.
2012 was a bit of a different beast, which saw multiple drivers gaining ground and a highly competitive season unfold. At the Malaysian round, Vettel’s temper would once again get frayed after a collision with backmarker Narain Karthikeyan caused him to finish outside of the points. He snapped after the race, calling him “an idiot and a cucumber.”
By the time the season had reached the summer break, he was fifth in the driver’s standings and looking like he might not make it to a third title. It was, in fact, a deficit of 39 points to Ferrari’s Alonso with seven rounds remaining that was making things look grim.
What happened next is one of those second halves of a season drivers dream about. He won at Singapore, took a hat trick at the Japanese Grand Prix, and surged to within 4 points of Alonso as the latter retired during the race. Wins in Korea and India saw him return to the top of the standings, and by the time the season came to the final round at Interlagos in Brazil, he had a 13 point cushion over Alonso.
Things looked bad, however, when a first lap collision with Bruno Senna sent him spinning off the track and to last place. With a heroic drive, he recovered to sixth place to win the title by a scant three points—one of the narrowest margins a title has been decided by.
This placed Sebastian in rarefied air, joining names like Schumacher and Fangio as a triple title winner, as well as being the youngest triple consecutive title winner—a record he still holds to this day.
2013: Multi-21 & The Fall from Grace
By 2013, there was no denying that Sebastian Vettel was one of the best drivers to sit in a Formula One car. Yet, his title defenses and wins had been marred by his often explosive criticisms of other drivers, his single finger fist pumps that had started out innocently but were getting more and more in the face of other drivers as he did them, and his temper sometimes getting the better of him. It was after a third place finish at the opening round in Australia that the now infamous “Multi-21” incident happened at the second round in Malaysia.
Teammate Mark Webber had never won the Malaysian Grand Prix, and as the race unfolded, he held the lead on the road, with a hard charging Vettel closing in on him in second place. Sebastian made several dangerous passing attempts, coming close to contact with Webber on multiple occasions, which caused the Australian to radio the pit wall to literally ask what Vettel was doing.
In a now famous radio message, Red Bull told Vettel to go to engine mode “Multi-21, Multi-Two-One.” There was no such combination of knobs and dials on the steering wheel to set such a mode, however—as it was code for team orders to hold position and to not pressure Webber so that he could go for the win and Red Bull would get a 1-2 finish.
However, Sebastian blatantly defied team orders, to the point that he used KERS deployment and DRS (Drag Reduction System) on the front straight-on lap 46 to slipstream Webber and try to slingshot around him. Webber, incensed, closed the door and pushed Vettel to within a few inches of the pit wall while both were screaming down the road at over 180 MPH.
Four corners later, Vettel was able to cut around the inside of Webber to take the lead. This prompted the team principal, Christian Horner, to cut over the radio in a rare direct order and say “This is silly, Seb. Come on!” in the hopes he would obey team orders and return the place to Webber. Webber famously came on the radio and in a very dark tone reported “That’s good teamwork, yep”, with his rage barely restrained.
Vettel would go on to win the race, and further infuriating Webber, did his typical fists-pumping-in-the-air victory motions from the cockpit. This caused Webber to accelerate and cut across the front of Sebastian with mere inches to spare, which caused Vettel to have to brake hard during his celebrations.
After the two had climbed from their cars and were in the cool-down room before the podium ceremony, a visibly furious Webber looked at Vettel and simply said “Multi-21, Seb. Yeah. Multi-21.” During the post race press interviews, Webber was close to smashing the table every time he put down his water glass, and as soon as the interviews were done, tore from the room and headed straight to Horner.
This single incident permanently soured the already rocky relationship between the teammates, and Horner called an extremely rare sit down with each driver separately that night. He explained to Webber that he had been known to push to the boundaries of team orders, something Webber did have to relent on. The more vicious criticism was reserved for Vettel, though, explaining to him that he had taken a rare win away from Webber, who had been in the sport for a decade and only won a handful of races, and that in doing so he had not only hurt the teams image, he had also acted selfishly and egotistically.
Vettel, properly mollified after the full impact of his actions resonated in that he had done his teammate a serious wrong, flew back to the Red Bull Racing factory in the UK, where Webber was, and offered a full apology, which Webber accepted… barely. Vettel was not reprimanded by the team, albeit his management team had brought in lawyers in case any punishments were administered.
After Webber’s comments about Vettel’s racecraft emerged in the media, by the time the Chinese Grand Prix came around three weeks later, Sebastian would provide the most scathing withdrawal of his apology he could to the media: “Obviously I realized at that moment there was quite a conflict. On the one hand, I am the kind of guy who respects team decisions and on the other hand, probably Mark is not the one who deserved to win at the time. The bottom line is I was racing, I was faster, I passed him, I won.”
This caused such an uproar that Red Bull CEO and founder Dietrich Mateschitz personally called Mark Webber when he was between races back home in Australia to get a first hand oral and written account of what had happened. Rumors began to circulate that Webber might not hold his seat for much longer, which were summarily dismissed by Webber and Red Bull as a whole, with Mark even offering a tiny olive branch stating that he was “not an angel at certain other events here and there.”
This whole incident, including Vettel’s retraction of his apology and the fact that the company CEO was furious at him caused his rapid tumble from grace in the eyes of many. He would still race, and race hard, throughout the rest of the season, and won the last nine races of the season, including two more hat tricks back to back, becoming only the third driver to ever achieve that after Alberto Ascari and Jim Clark.
When the checkered flag fell on the 16th round in India, Vettel had become the youngest ever four-time title winner, including a new record as the youngest to win four titles back to back. Holding four titles also made him one of the top five drivers, ever, in Formula One.
During the remainder of the year after the Multi-21 incident and the subsequent drama, Vettel was very often booed by crowds, an act which the paddock and the other drivers frowned upon. Sebastian would admit to the media in 2020 that during the 2013 season, he had not tempered himself and the booing did get to him, causing to have serious doubts about continuing in the sport. This incident also provoked Mark Webber to retire from Formula One a year earlier than he had expected, and he went on to have a successful run in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
2014 saw Daniel Ricciardo take Webber’s seat after being promoted from Toro Rosso, but the damage to both Vettel’s confidence and image had been done. He struggled to get to grips with the new Turbo Hybrid V6 RB10 car, and when the curtains fell on the season, he earned another record, becoming only the second defending champion since Jaques Villeneuve in 1998 to fail to win a race during a season after their last title.
2014 also saw him released one year early from his Red Bull contract. Things had soured so much that Vettel had expressed interest in—and been accepted for—moving to Scuderia Ferrari to “begin anew” and help take the prancing horse back to the top of the championship like Schumacher had done in the 1990s and 2000s.
2015 to 2020: The Ferrari Years
Sebastian Vettel, like almost any other Formula One driver, had aspirations to race with, and win races with, the Scuderia since he was of a young age. Ferrari was and is a legendary name within the sport—the only manufacturer to still have raced in every race and every season since the formation of the first codified rules of Formula One in 1950. Legendary names had raced in the scarlet racing red machines, such as Fangio, Hill, Lauda, Surtees, Mansell, Prost, and, of course, Schumacher.
Vettel’s first appearance in a Ferrari was in November of 2014, after the final race of the 2014 season had finished, driving the F2012 V8 around Fiorano, Ferrari’s test track behind the main Ferrari road car factory. However, once the spring test arrived, it appeared that Vettel and Ferrari had pulled another Vettel and Red Bull, as the Ferrari SF15-T F1 car was extremely quick, stable, and suited Sebastian’s driving style perfectly.
This was demonstrated with a strong third position at the season opener in Australia, and then steamrolling to a win at the very next round in Malaysia. This was his first race win in over a year, and the first win for Ferrari for two years. A series of podiums followed, and Seb remained a viable championship contender, trailing Lewis Hamilton by only 42 points.
The second half of 2015, however, was when the unraveling of fate occurred. Despite a coming second to the roar of the Tifosi at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, and gaining a pole position in Singapore and winning that race after Hamilton retired, Vettel was never able to claw back the deficit to Hamilton, and ended the season with three wins, thirteen podiums and a few pole positions.
Vettel declared it was “a miracle” that he came in third, and much as prophecy seemed to follow Sebastian around, his own words proved to be the curse of his Ferrari years.
2016: The Year of Crashes
2016 was unofficially dubbed the Year of Crashes, due to how many drivers collided with each other or the track furniture. It was also the season that solidified the less-than-amicable nickname for Max Verstappen, “Crashstappen.” Third place in Australia was followed by a very rare Did Not Start at Bahrain as the car died halfway around the formation lap.
At the Russian Grand Prix, Vettel famously gave Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat the nickname of “the Russian Torpedo” after a suicidal pass attempt that saw the Red Bull hit the rear of the Ferrari instead of the planned dive-bomb down the inside. Vettel would later retire after Kvyat crashed into the back of him a second time, this time destroying his diffuser and damaging the rear wing, making the car undriveable.
At Mexico, Vettel went for a bold move to overtake Verstappen, but the Dutch driver weaved and then lost control slightly, going off track but rejoining it right away in a manner that did not give him a lasting advantage. Vettel’s temper flared and he went on a curse laden tirade on the radio about Red Bull, Verstappen, and the race director, Charlie Whiting. A visually mollified Sebastian immediately apologized for his comments during the pit lane interviews, especially as Whiting was seen by many drivers as very strict, but also very fair in a highly politicized sport.
The rest of 2016 followed suit, with Vettel getting two points on his license and a ten-grid place penalty for dangerously blocking Ricciardo during a divebomb pass by the Australian. Despite seven podiums, there were no pole positions and crucially no race wins, and he came in a distant fourth with 212 points to Ricciardo’s 256 points in the championship.
2017: A Return To Form—For A While
2017 started out for Vettel with a race win in Australia, his first win in a year and a half. As the start of the season continued, he led the charge with a win in Bahrain, multiple second place finishes, and crucially winning the Monaco Grand Prix.
This was important, as it seemed the promise of Vettel leading Ferrari to the top step again was coming true, and it was the first Ferrari win in Monaco since Schumacher in 2001. However, Vettel’s now infamous temper reared its head again in Azerbaijan, where during the Baku GP, under the safety car, he ran into the back of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.
Claiming that he had been brake checked, he furiously drove up on Hamilton’s left side and intentionally turned into him, clashing wheels and being extremely lucky not to cause damage to either car’s wings or barge boards, crucial aerodynamic devices. This incident led to Vettel being issued the maximum in race penalty, a ten second stop-and-go.
The FIA investigation was thorough after the race, and the decision was reached that the penalty applied and served during the race was appropriate. Ferrari, however, felt let down that Vettel’s temper had shown in a scarlet red car, and Vettel issued a full public apology for the incident, taking responsibility and pledging to use personal time over the next 12 months to further educational opportunities at FIA sanctioned events.
By this time, Vettel was well ahead in the points, and looked to be on track to break Lewis Hamilton’s streak of championships. However, the second half of 2017 was a half season that Ferrari would probably like to erase from history. Apart from a pole and win at Hungary, all the other races were plagued by crashes (such as the infamous one at Singapore where the top three cars were wiped out before the first corner), reliability issues (such as his turbo failing during qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix), or simple and pure bad luck.
That last one happened in Mexico, when Vettel became the fourth driver in F1 to claim 50 pole positions, but he collided with Hamilton during the race, damaging his car, and because of the difference in the points standings, it gave Hamilton just enough points to claim the championship. This marked the first time in Vettel’s career that he did not win a championship in a season where he had led it at one point.
2018: The Fight for Five
The 2018 season was one of the most hyped up in the history of Formula One, as the media dubbed it “The Fight For Five.” For the first time since the inception of the sport, two four-time world champions were in competitive machinery on the same grid, Vettel and Hamilton. As before, Vettel took the lead with a win at Australia. That race also marked his 100th podium, and he became only the third driver to have led over 3,000 laps.
A series of pole positions and wins were dotted all over the first half of the season, with victories in Bahrain and Canada, and three back to back pole positions in Bahrain, China, and Baku. At the Canadian Grand Prix, Vettel’s win was his 50th win, and he became one of only four drivers at the time to achieve that milestone.
Then came what many now consider to be the turning point of Sebastian’s career, the moment it all went wrong: The German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.
Vettel was comfortably leading the race, and was looking at an easy win. However, a few laps earlier, he had been defending and battling to hold first place, and had done so over multiple sausage kerbs—raised tarmac that is meant to prevent a car from cutting too much of a corner or to direct it back towards the track. He had unknowingly damaged his front wing over a few of them, which resulted in enough of a loss of downforce, causing understeer. On top of that, it was raining and the tarmac was being rapidly cooled by the chilly storm.
So when Vettel came to the stadium hairpin section of the track near the end of the race, the wing finally gave up, which immediately dropped his downforce at the front. He turned the wheel left to go around the hairpin, but his Ferrari speared off the track and hit the wall.
A visibly upset Vettel could be seen pounding the steering wheel in sheer frustration, and was literally in tears on the radio to the pits, repeating “F**k’s sake! F**k’s sake… sorry guys.”
The season spiraled downhill from there. There was a win in Belgium—but contact in Italy (Ferrari’s home race) saw Vettel drop to the back of the field and only manage to recover to fourth. Things got worse in Singapore, where Ferrari’s allowed development upgrades for the car were fitted to both Vettel’s and Raikkonen’s cars, only for them to have the adverse effect of slowing the cars down.
Reverting to the old chassis at the US Grand Prix saw the car return to being competitive, but it was too little, too late. In Mexico, Vettel claimed his first podium at that race, but Hamilton secured his fifth title.
2019: A Changed Man
There were two major developments that marked the start of Vettel’s 2019 season. The first was that he had a new teammate in the massively talented, much younger Charles Leclerc. The second was that the Sebastian Vettel that showed up to race this year was a much calmer man.
It could be that he had a good talking to from the Ferrari management regarding his temper and the public image he was presenting of the Scuderia. It could be that he realized that his temper and bursts of anger caused him to make mistakes. No one really knows.
The Ferrari SF90 F1 was a complete rethink, taking the good from the previous few seasons, meshing it together into a car that many pundits and experts believed would be the car to finally return Vettel to the top step at the end of the year. However, Mercedes, with their W10 F1 car, had not deployed full power like Ferrari had during testing. As such, the speed and stability of the Mercedes cars stunned everyone in Australia, being so fast during the straights and holding so many Gs around the corners that the SF90 simply couldn’t keep up.
Fourth in Australia, third in China and at Baku. Vettel managed to claim pole in Canada, his first in 17 races. During the Canadian race, however, he suffered snap oversteer while defending from a hard charging Lewis Hamilton, crossing a grass median and returning to the track directly in front of Hamilton, effectively cutting him off. For the incident, he received a five-second time penalty for not entering the track in a safe manner, which he disagreed with vocally. He crossed the line first, but the five seconds dropped him to second.
In one of only two real shows of the old Vettel temper, once the top three cars were parked behind their position stands, with his own SF90 parked up at the entrance to the pits in protest, he switched the first and second place stands. He moved the first place stand to the empty spot where his car should have been, did his one finger raised fist pump to say “First place,” and then went off to the podium ceremony.
He was unable to run in qualifying for Germany, however he did manage to recover from the back of the field to second place. Ferrari’s home race at Monza was a disaster, with snap oversteer causing Vettel to spin at the Ascari Chicane, where he clipped Lance Stroll’s Racing Point as he reentered the track, causing the Canadian to spin out.
Vettel received a 10 second stop-and-go penalty for the incident and finished 13th. The only other good moment of the season came when both Ferraris ran extremely well during the Singapore Grand Prix, with Vettel winning, making him a five times winner at the track.
Retirement with an MGU-K issue in Russia and a pole position but a jump start that almost stalled his car in Japan were then overshadowed by the Brazilian Grand Prix. In the second of the only two moments of his old temper, a safety car restart caught him mildly unaware, and both Red Bull’s Alex Albon and his teammate Leclerc were able to pass into the first corner, Leclerc aggressively so.
This caused Sebastian to charge off after his teammate to retake his position, and while running along the right side of Leclerc, he seemed to steer slightly to the left. The cars touched, with Leclerc’s front right tire deflating so violently it broke the suspension, and Vettel’s left rear tire also explosively deflating, damaging his left rear suspension.
Leclerc speared off the course into the runoff area, and Vettel was able to limp the car a few more corners before his suspension completely failed and he had to pull off of the track. His radio spoke to his anger, as he screamed “Mein Gott muss das sein?! So ein bockmist aber auch!!!”
While there is a bit of slang in the radio message, it roughly translates to “My God, does this have to be?! Such bullsh*t too!”
Interestingly, Vettel did not walk back to the pits after he was forced to abandon the race, instead leaning against the tire barrier and rubbing his face forlornly. The mature, calmer Vettel had realized his temper had caused another mistake. He seemingly felt so badly about knocking both Ferraris out of the race, as well as losing any points the team desperately needed for the constructor’s championship, that he stayed at a nearby marshall’s post and watched the race from there, finally walking back after the race finished.
He finished fifth overall in the championship, and was outscored by Leclerc—only the second time that had happened to him in all his years in Formula One.
2020: End of An Era & The Global Pandemic
2020 was set to be a season of redemption for Vettel, having been humbled by the mistakes that had caused two major incidents in 2019. Preseason testing showed that Mercedes had a new steering system called DAS (Dual Axis Steering), which allowed the driver to change the inward toe angle of the front tires during a race.
Inward toe angle is how much the tire is pointed inwards to the nose of the car, and you want to find the balance between a sharp angle for cornering, and a shallow or even neutral angle for the straights. DAS allowed for the driver to relax the toe angle during the straights, and it would return to the preset angle for cornering, all through an ingenious system that was activated by pulling or pushing the steering wheel to change the angles.
That same preseason testing also showed that the Ferrari SF1000 was a second and a half slower around Barcelona than the 2019 car. This was the cause of some uproar, because most of the other teams had complained in 2019 that the Ferrari team was outpacing Ferrari-powered cars on the grid by a shocking margin.
The FIA investigation was focused on the power unit, and after examining everything, there was no penalty applied to Ferrari. However, the technical regulations for 2020 were changed slightly, mandating that all cars needed to have a second bespoke fuel flow sensor that sent its data not to the teams alone, but also to the FIA and the race stewards.
In Australia, Red Bull was prepared to challenge the investigation’s findings if Ferrari placed on the podium, but that all came to a screeching halt as the Australian Grand Prix was canceled, and the season put on hold, due to the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19. A modified, shortened season, with the return of some tracks that had not been raced at in many years was hammered out so that there would be racing, but no fans would be allowed in the stands, and each team had to maintain extremely strict social bubbles to prevent possible inter-team transmission.
At the Austrian Grand Prix, Vettel placed 10th, and was also given a reprimand on his record for breaching the social bubble rule to chat with members of Red Bull, his old team. Vettel retired with wing damage after being struck by Leclerc during the opening lap of the Styrian Grand Prix, run on the same Red Bull Ring circuit as the Austrian race.
That is pretty much what the rest of the year was like for Vettel. His highest result was third in Turkey, but multiple non-points placings, retirements, and the fact that he felt that Ferrari was placing all their efforts into Leclerc led Sebastian to not negotiate for a renewal of his contract, with Ferrari announcing that his contract would not be renewed for 2021. By this point, Vettel was simply waiting out the days until the season was over, and ended 2020 in 13th place, his lowest ever placement in the championship standings.
He was able to gain a race seat at the newly formed Aston Martin F1 Team, partnering with Canadian Lance Stroll. Lawrence Stroll, Lance’s father and a billionaire, had bought heavily into Aston Martin as both the car maker and to create an F1 team, and he wouldn’t pair his son with anyone that had not won multiple world championships.
Vettel settled into the mentor role comfortably, having put his temper behind him, and helped develop Lance’s skillset, which has since been apparent in a few moments of brilliance by the Canadian.
However, with a car that was a mid-field competitor, and being—at 35—the second oldest driver on the grid behind Hamilton, the calmer, more mature Sebastian Vettel announced his retirement. He stated that he hoped to spend more time with his family, invest more time in his new found passion of championing for sustainable energy and fighting climate change, and quite simply because it felt like the right time.
Will Sebastian Vettel Stay in Motorsports in Some Way?
The answer to that question is a very strong “maybe”.
We say maybe, as Vettel recently confirmed that he will take part in single events during the coming years. These include the Race of Champions and the Formula One Legends races, as he owns a few classic F1 cars. He will also stay somewhat involved in electric and sustainable fuel racing development. However, it is very unlikely that we will see Vettel back in open-wheel Formula racing, as that chapter is closing for him come the end of the 2022 season.
As well, he has three young children with his wife Hanna Prater, with the oldest being 8 years old. With the travel and multiple weeks or months away from home to race in Formula One, he has outright stated that his first priority will be being there to see his kids grow up, as well as spend more time in general with extended family.
Honestly, when you’re a four time world champion, and had your head given a good shake before 2019, even for us, as fans of the sport, it just feels right. He achieved what he set out to do—to be a world champion. He led the charge with Ferrari, a team he always wanted to race for since the famous days of Schumacher, leading the team to 7 titles, four on the run.
Vettel is still young enough that if he wants to dedicate himself to an entirely new career, perhaps as an analyst for the German broadcasts of F1, or joining fellow German world champion and ex-F1 driver Nico Rosberg in his efforts to combat climate change and push sustainable fuels and electrification to new levels, he has the time to do so.
Whatever he ends up doing, we just know that for about 20 of his 35 years, Sebastian Vettel grew up racing, entered the top tier of motorsports, became one of only five drivers to ever win four or more drivers titles, and has more than earned his retirement.