Sebastian Vettel is a walking contradiction. The Ferrari driver is a man who works in a sport of cutting-edge high technology but who eschews many of the accoutrements of the age, such as social media.
Vettel is arguably the most cerebral and thoughtful of drivers, and without doubt one of the most intelligent, yet someone whose emotions have quite often flared into bursts of visible public anger.
He is the third most successful F1 driver in history in terms of wins, and only three men have won more world championships than him, and yet the last year of his career has been as notable for his high-profile mistakes as for the high calibre of his driving.
He is a self-confessed fan of F1, steeped in its history and lore, yet someone who happily admits to “not loving” much about the world in which he operates other than the driving itself.
He is one of the most famous sportsmen in the world, but completely shutters off his private life.
All of which makes him not only one of the best Formula 1 drivers of his era, but also one of the most fascinating.
On the eve of the British Grand Prix, Vettel talked to BBC Sport about his attempts to become world champion with Ferrari, how he deals with mistakes, his frustrations with the sport he loves, his future and much more.
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The battle to win with Ferrari
Vettel joined Ferrari in 2015 as a four-time champion with Red Bull, determined to emulate his childhood hero Michael Schumacher and take the world title back to Maranello.
But it has been a largely bruising time. Two years of building up to a position where they could challenge, followed by two years of having a car to do it but ultimately falling short, and now, this year, a slip backwards. Has it affected his confidence that one day he and Ferrari can finally beat Mercedes and Hamilton?
“Well, good and bad, you could argue,” he says. “We had better years [in] recent years than the years before, so that’s good. But obviously it is also a massive down because it didn’t work.
“We got close in some parts but overall we didn’t get close. We didn’t lose by small amounts; we got properly beaten. And I don’t like that. Defeat hurts.
“But I think that overall I am more looking forward than looking back. So it is not that I am occupied by what happened last year. It’s not that I will go to Hockenheim [for the next race] thinking: ‘Oh, this is where I binned it last year.’ I can laugh at myself and I can laugh about that, and I make a lot of jokes about that as well.”
Ah yes, Hockenheim 2018. Where Vettel crashed out of the lead of his home race. The first of a series of errors that, along with a fall-off in the competitiveness of his car, scuppered what had looked until then like a strong chance of winning the championship.
It’s fascinating that he brings it up of his own accord. And he talks about it with a refreshing candour.
Does he use that humour to help him get over it? Because it must have really hurt – that much was obvious from the way he swore over the radio straight after hitting the wall.
“Yeah, but more than that,” he says. “The swearing is just in the moment. But it did hurt. A lot. Because it was such a perfect weekend, you know? With the pole on Saturday. But just the atmosphere. You rarely have these weekends and still if I look back it is one of the best weekends I ever experienced.
“Now, you can say horrible because I parked in the gravel and not in the parc fermé, but still, from an atmosphere point of view, the whole thing, it just was missing that final bit.
“So it did hurt. But I wasn’t stuck there for long. It was my mistake. But it was a relatively small mistake with huge costs. I have had huge mistakes in races with small costs.
“But, for me, that’s racing. As beautiful as it can get, it can also be cruel sometimes.”
Bouncing back from disappointment
The error in Hockenheim was followed others in Italy, Japan and the US, and he talked at the end of last season about needing to go away and have a think about what had happened. Only now, though, does he say what he meant.
“We had a couple of incidents last year where they didn’t go our way, for sure. Maybe I didn’t look very good in them,” he says.
“If you take Hockenheim, if you take what happened in Monza. A lot of it is taking risk and racing. Unfortunately, it does not always work. That’s the way I look at it.
“I didn’t stress too much about it. I didn’t feel like I needed to have my head fixed or anything like that.
“I have a very distant view of these things, because nowadays something gets picked up so quickly and gets so much attention and then it’s not important any more because something else picks up momentum.
“I know what happened inside the cockpit. I know what I’ve done. I looked at it. And of course I hope not to do that again. But then you have to move on. Because what do you do? You hang yourself? No, so get on with it.”
The post-race theatre in Canada
The start of this season has not been easy for Ferrari. They came into 2019 expecting to battle for the title for the third year in a row, only to find the car was not as good as it had appeared in pre-season testing.
Eight wins in a row for Mercedes at the start of the season suggests total domination, but also misrepresents the reality. Ferrari could have won at least two of those races – and possibly three.
Charles Leclerc’s engine failure in the closing laps in Bahrain was painful, but perhaps even more so was the penalty for dangerous driving that cost Vettel victory in Canada, when he made a mistake under pressure from Lewis Hamilton, ran off the track and pushed the Mercedes wide as he rejoined.
Vettel ranted over the radio about it during the race, and then engaged in pure theatre after it, refusing to go to the podium before changing his mind, then moving the first-place board from in front of Hamilton’s car and to where Vettel’s would have been had he not parked it at the wrong end of the pit lane and stormed off.
The “number board thing”, as he puts it, was improvised, not calculated as some speculated.
“Obviously it came up in the moment, completely, going out of the door and not knowing where to go, and then I saw that and also I thought it was very funny.
“The thing is, I don’t like [that] we are criticising our heroes. First, we put our heroes up so high. I didn’t ever ask to be put that high. But then it seems like they only wait for the moment to try and shoot them down and then say, ‘You see, he’s not that special after all.'”
When he says “they”, does he mean the media?
“Yeah. It is more that I find it funny, actually, that in a way people ask for a show, for emotions, characters… then they get a bit of it and people throw themselves on it and criticise it.
“I just think that passion doesn’t go without emotion. You can’t say, ‘I’m very passionate about this.’ And then something goes right and you are quiet. Or something goes wrong and you are quiet.
“That’s what I find a bit of a paradox. Why are we criticising if somebody shouts in the radio in a moment? We’ve all been in that moment. It’s just sport has the ability sum up and compress life in a way.”
Vettel’s place in the sport
Does Vettel care how he and his achievements are perceived?
“I mean, everybody cares to some [extent]… That’s the thing. Yes, I do. But the question is how much? And compared to maybe other people, very little.
“In the end, we all care what people think about us. You don’t want to have anybody telling you you look horrible, or what’s this, or what have you done there. Of course you would rather hear nice things. But how much do you actually depend on it? That’s the point.
“I’m aware of the numbers, but not so much of my own. I am aware of the numbers as in what people have achieved.”
And where does he stand within that?
“Of course I would rather have five than four championships. But I am not looking back to ‘I won four championships’. I am more looking forward to ‘I want to win the championship’, if you see what I mean.
“And if anything, the fact that I have won already, I have fulfilled my dream. Then I fulfilled it more than once. But the first one is very special and after that you just want to do it again.
“I love racing. I love working with the team. If we get into a flow of winning races, succeeding, doing well, that is the ultimate thrill. So it is really the path, the way to get there. That is the real excitement.”
Vettel on the state of F1
Vettel has been central to so much of the debate this year – be it Ferrari team orders, the future of the sport or, most recently, on-track racing ethics, which has become a major talking point since Vettel’s penalty in Canada and other incidents since.
He has made it clear he feels there are too many rules governing the drivers on track – but when asked how he squares that with the fact that some drivers would inevitably take things too far if there were no rules, he initially refuses to answer, worried his response will be taken out of context.
Eventually, he says: “In short – and the mild version – is if you look back in the past, people got along quite well on the track managing on their own. There was some naughty stuff, yes. Sometimes it was tolerated but sometimes it was not.
“Now, it is difficult to say, ‘Let’s go all the way back.’ Because I think with some things we just know better. But you should let us do our stuff.
“Will we ever be able to create the perfect racing world? No, we won’t. Will we ever be able to stop people getting impeded in qualifying? No, it’s impossible.
“My point is no two incidents are ever really exactly the same. So of course we have guidelines. We have guidelines growing up and you play by these. We’re not growing up as mad young boys crashing into each other. There are rules and boundaries, which is fair, and if somebody oversteps the mark it needs to be penalised.
“But what we are doing now looks like over-policing. And calling things dangerous that are not dangerous just for the sake of leading somebody into a penalty and all this.
“The wording we use sounds very much like lawyers and officials rather than people. Nobody talks like that.”
Vettel on his future
Vettel recently turned 32 and has been facing questions about his future all year, as the Mercedes juggernaut rumbles on and Leclerc threatens his position as Ferrari team leader.
He admits he “doesn’t love F1 as a world”, by which he means the politics and the spotlight and the need to be careful of what he says because he’s worried about how it might be twisted. But in the same breath he admits that position is “not fair – because everything is connected”.
He adds: “I love the racing bit of it, standing on the grid, seeing that so many people get excited about what we do collectively, racing these cars.
“That really does something. It gives me a lot of adrenaline, makes me nervous on Sunday morning when I wake up. I still feel different than waking up today or Monday.
“And I want to succeed. I want to make this work [with Ferrari]. If I will succeed, I don’t know, but that’s what I want, and that’s what determines the future. And what’s happening now, but it also depends on where the sport is going, and so on.”
Ask him about the pressure that comes with leading Ferrari and not winning, and his answer is both surprising and revealing.
“When people say there is more pressure here and so on, I don’t know,” he says. “It depends on the pressure you have on the inside. I expect myself to do well, and if I don’t, I am the one who is most upset. Not the guy who is watching on the pit lane. Not the investor behind, or whoever. I can’t imagine they are more frustrated than I am. It is just not possible. Not sounding egomaniacal.”
Is the frustration of the situation burning him?
“Yes. Or if things go wrong, the anger, you know? Of course. Because I know best what happened. If people from the outside think they know, they can see on TV and from seven different angles and replays. But I was there.
“What I mean is, you are your best judge. Not just with driving, but with anything.
“When you look yourself in the mirror, you know the truth, and is there really more pressure here?
“A lot of stuff happened, good and bad – a lot of good especially – that I look on to, and I have reason to look forward, too. Does that make sense?”
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