Sebastian Vettel's last dance
The German four-time world champion will sign off after a 15-year F1 career at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday
A dreamy eyed, teenaged German with flowing blonde hair walked into the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway paddock for his first ever Grand Prix in June 2007. Sebastian Vettel was rushed in from Formula Renault 3.5 Series to Formula 1 to fill in for Polish driver Robert Kubica, who suffered a bad crash in Canada the previous week and was declared unfit for the US GP.
The then 19-year-old made a sensational debut for BMW Sauber to finish eighth, becoming the then youngest driver to score points in the pinnacle of motorsport.
Thus began the journey of one of the most storied careers in F1 which will culminate more than 15 years later at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday. In these years, Vettel has become one of the most successful drivers in the sport, garnering four world championships, 53 wins, 57 pole positions and 122 podium finishes--benchmarks usually used to discuss greats of the sport.
It isn’t just the numbers. While Vettel came to be known for his relentless and ruthless on-track attitude--remember multi-21 in Malaysia 2013--that brought him four consecutive world titles with Red Bull from 2010 to 2013, the 35-year-old, especially in the later stages of his career, has become an activist, highlighting environmental and social concerns using the FI platform.
By the way, Vettel won all three Indian Grand Prix races (2011-2013).
After impressing the field on debut, Vettel had to wait only three races before Italian outfit Toro Rosso offered him a full-time drive mid-season, dropping American Scott Speed. In just a few races, Vettel delivered a superlative performance with a fourth-place finish in changing conditions at the Chinese GP in an underpowered car.
Next year, the German came up with what will be remembered as one of the most impressive wins in F1 history when he gave Toro Rosso their first victory on home turf. While the tifosi were hoping for a Ferrari victory, they still got to hear the Italian national anthem with Vettel’s triumph, becoming the then youngest winner of an F1 race at 21.
Noticing Vettel’s ‘extraordinary potential’, owner Dietrich Mateschitz promoted him to the senior Red Bull team with the German immediately zooming to the team’s first pole position and then victory at the 2009 Chinese Grand Prix.
Vettel finished 2009 second in the championship but the next four years became his glory era when he won four successive world titles, also becoming the youngest ever world champion.
After earning fame, money and on-track glory, Vettel signed for the sport’s most famous name–Ferrari–to replicate what his idol and compatriot Michael Schumacher achieved with the Italian outfit.
Vettel’s time with the Prancing Horse commenced in brilliant fashion, winning only his second race in red overalls, raising promise going forward. He even challenged for the title in 2017 and 2018 but Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes were better as a package with Vettel having to settle for the runners-up spot both years.
The year 2019 saw a change in Maranello. Ferrari decided to sign fast and promising Charles Leclerc, who soon displaced Vettel as the team’s No 1 driver. It was the response the Monegasque got after earning Ferrari their first victory on home soil in Monza in nine years.
The tide had turned and Ferrari decided to not renew Vettel’s contract beyond 2020 which is when Aston Martin stepped in to sign him. But the British marque were far off the front of the grid.
Despite delivering some remarkable performances--his podium at the 2021 Azerbaijan GP--Vettel decided to step away from the sport after two years with Aston Martin at 35, relatively young considering you’ve had world champions racing into their 40s lately.
Apart from sheer speed, Vettel's tactical acumen, decision making in the car despite limited data and the ability to build a team around him set him apart from his contemporaries. A clear example is this season. After 21 races, Vettel has 36 points, 22 more than teammate Lance Stroll.
An intensely private person, who kept away from social media until recently when he decided to announce his retirement on Instagram, ‘Seb’--as he is affectionately called in the paddock--has become very social, giving interviews, and acknowledging fans and admirers as he calls time on his career.
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton on Thursday said he thinks his close friend will make a return to the grid. Many greats in the past have. Niki Lauda, Schumacher, Fernando Alonso to name a few have come out of retirement to race again, and some successfully too. But one feels Vettel might not. Having always raced in championship challenging teams, perhaps merely driving for fun, for its adrenaline, may not be exciting enough for the Heppenheim-born.
Car No 5 delivered a scintillating performance in the final qualifying session of his career, making Q3 to ensure a ninth position start for the 299th and final race of his career. With both championships decided, it doesn’t matter who finishes on the top step of the podium. As two-time world champion and once rival Fernando Alonso suggested, everyone, including the drivers, will be watching out for Vettel’s last dance.