Formula 1 witnessed the end of the career of one of its most successful drivers on Sunday night, as Sebastian Vettel climbed out of the cockpit for the final time, scoring one more point at the very same venue where he won the first of his four world championships.
Those titles leave him fourth on the all-time list, and add in the 53 victories that took him there and you end up with the third-highest total that a single driver has managed in the sport.
But Vettel has achieved something far more special in a sport that sometimes seems to struggle on this front: He’s almost universally liked and respected.
The fact this has come despite his winning opportunities all-but-disappearing is even more remarkable.
The majority of those wins and all four titles came with Red Bull, and as is so often the case, it was a spell where Vettel received massive praise and simultaneously faced skeptical critics.
Time since has shown that he was the best driver in the world in that era of Red Bull car, capable of both dominating or scrapping his way to championships from 2010-13. But it has also shown that he was perhaps a little more sensitive to his surroundings than some rivals appear to have been, as the Ferrari dream never delivered a title and his star faded, leading to his Aston Martin move.
At the same time that mistakes were becoming a little too common and his hopes of signing for another top team receding, Vettel was evolving into the ambassador that F1 needed.
Holding the sport to account, speaking his mind, promoting hugely important environmental and global issues — these were traits that emerged not because he’d slipped down the grid, but started when he was still very much part of the high pressure environment at Maranello.
“Everyone’s a Ferrari fan,” was one of Vettel’s many popular quotes from his career, and that move certainly endeared him to a whole new fanbase even if the results didn’t deliver what had been expected in 2019 and 2020. But leaving Ferrari did appear to release the shackles even further when it came to being truly who he wanted to be.
It’s not that Vettel had ever refrained from being honest, as Red Bull had given him that ability while he delivered such huge success. But the failure to win a title with Ferrari really seemed to sap a lot of his energy as he focused on trying to make the partnership work — so keen he was to emulate his idol Michael Schumacher — and he could then put so much more into wider topics once he moved on.
In some ways, it could be argued that Vettel’s career never quite featured the bitter rivalries that can alienate a group of supporters. He was part of such a big group fighting for titles in 2010 — including Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Mark Webber — and then only had 2012 in a one-on-one fight against Alonso and Ferrari. Replacing the Spaniard probably kept the Tifosi on his side.
Then his chances faded, and it was only against the might of Hamilton and Mercedes that he was fighting in 2017 and 2018, which at the time was a welcome challenge after three years of utter dominance from the Silver Arrows.
As this final race week has unfolded, it has become even more clear why Vettel enjoys such huge support. There’s not a driver with a bad word to say about him because he has actively had good ones of his own to say about everyone, both publicly and privately.
It was usually even more private given his lack of social media presence until announcing his retirement plans. Vettel was never a driver who needed people to know what he was up to, good or bad.
Defending drivers who have made mistakes, reaching out to those in a time of difficulty, offering support or apologizing for mistakes — Vettel could separate the intensity of F1 with its actual insignificance in the universe. And he did that better in recent years while still maintaining a world class ability that shone through when his machinery allowed.
“I have to say that was some of the best racing I’ve ever been involved in,” Kevin Magnussen said of Vettel at the United States Grand Prix less than a month ago. “The way he drove was just incredible. It’s almost like I feel privileged to be able to race against someone like that. It’s great, and I’m going to take that lesson and treasure it.
“Racing against him, it doesn’t feel like it’s at the end of his career.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be. Vettel’s still clearly good enough to be racing at the very front in F1, but he feels he has more important things to go and focus on now, and for that he only earns even more respect.
“I feel a bit empty to be honest,” Vettel said after finishing his final race. “It’s been a big weekend. I can only repeat that the last two years have been very disappointing from a sporting point of view but very, very important and useful for me in my life. A lot of things, I realized. I think it’s a huge privilege to be in the position we are in and with that comes a huge responsibility, so I hope to pass on some of the good work.
“It’s great to see that we have the power to inspire you (the fans) with what we say. There are far bigger and far more important things than racing in circles, but obviously it’s what we love. Through that, if we can transfer some of those important values, I think that’s really big and for that, I think the last two years have been great for me.
“Thank you for the support, thank you for all the messages, and all the love in general. I will miss that. It’s been an absolute joy throughout my career, so thank you.”
Thank you, Seb, for being one of F1’s greats, both on and off the track.