Formula One bade farewell to a legend of the sport and one of the most successful drivers of all time at the 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Nov. 20, 2022, as Sebastian Vettel drove his final F1 race for Aston Martin. Though the four-time world champion had announced his impending retirement in July 2022, his career in Formula One will be remembered not only for the 53 race wins and 122 podiums, but for his dedication to using his position as a world-class athlete to stand for sustainability and social issues beyond the track.
Vettel’s rise in Formula One happened quickly, first appearing on the track in his testing debut for BMW Sauber in 2006 as he became the youngest F1 driver at the time to participate in a Grand Prix weekend. His race debut at the 2007 United States Grand Prix made him the then-youngest driver to score a point in F1, leading to his move to Red Bull’s junior team, Toro Rosso, soon afterwards. He made his place in the sport undeniably known with his first race win at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix, leading the majority of the wet race to become the youngest driver to win in F1 history.
This win cemented Vettel’s significance for Red Bull Racing, and the team chose him to replace driver David Coulthard upon the latter’s retirement for the start of the 2009 season. Over the course of his first year with Red Bull, he earned Red Bull its first pole position and win at the Chinese Grand Prix and eventually finished second in the Drivers’ Championship behind Jenson Button with Brawn GP. This runner-up placement, however, did not deter Vettel, who went on to dominate Formula One for the next four years.
Despite clashes with his teammate Mark Webber, including a memorable if unfortunate collision at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix, Vettel became the youngest World Drivers’ Champion in Formula One history in 2010 after an unforgettable drive in the final race of the season. He and Webber also secured Red Bull’s first Constructors’ Championship that year.
In 2011, Vettel became the second driver (after his hero and fellow German Michael Schumacher) to take at least 10 wins in a season, along with breaking the record for the most pole positions in a season with 15. He completed a dominant defense of his championship title that would be repeated in 2012, with an incredible comeback from a pit lane start at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as he fought back to sixth place and became the youngest triple world champion ever. His final world championship title came the following year in 2013 as Vettel set the record for the most consecutive wins in a season, sealing his fourth consecutive championship win for Red Bull.
When new teammate Daniel Ricciardo arrived at Red Bull the following year, Vettel found himself struggling with reliability and the change in technical regulations that were updated in 2014. At the end of the year, Red Bull announced that he would leave the team for Scuderia Ferrari, replacing double world champion Fernando Alonso to partner with Kimi Räikkönen.
Vettel had a stunning start to his time at Ferrari, earning the team’s first win in almost two years at the Malaysian Grand Prix and soon becoming a championship contender. Though he finished the season in third place behind Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, he would push Ferrari to become a serious threat to Mercedes’ dominance in 2017 and 2018. Vettel took an early lead in the standings in 2017 before Mercedes returned to the top following the summer break, after which Vettel was plagued by reliability issues that allowed Hamilton to win his fourth championship title.
The 2018 season was the first time that two four-time world champions were facing off on track, with Hamilton and Vettel both fighting for their fifth world title. The British driver eventually came out victorious in a disappointing conclusion to the title fight for the Italian team. Ferrari’s inner-team struggles with strategic decisions and car development continued to plague the team for years, with the same issues present in the past two seasons, as Charles Leclerc was unable to defeat Max Verstappen.
Vettel’s time at Ferrari, the F1 team he had long-revered, began its end with his final win in Formula One coming at the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix. The arrival of Leclerc as Vettel’s new teammate, replacing Räikkönen, saw the young rising star soon outshining Vettel. However, Ferrari struggled to challenge for the championship, ending the 2020 season with its lowest place finish in the Constructors’ Championship since 1980. Vettel left the Italian team for Aston Martin with what were surely feelings of relief, and the final period of his F1 career arrived. While he wouldn’t win another race during his last two years in Formula One, he earned Aston Martin its first podium at the 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix and continued to show off his driving skills even as he fought the midfield instead of the front of the pack.
Vettel’s career became increasingly difficult to watch over the last few years of his time in F1 as he struggled at Ferrari and lacked the machinery to fight with the top three teams once he moved to Aston Martin. The speed and brilliance of his rise to the pinnacle of the sport was, for many, stained by his inability to lead Ferrari to a world championship during his time there. However, his ever-present dedication to the sport and desire to fight on the track has ensured that he will always be remembered in the sport for both his victorious years at Red Bull and his spirited attitude during his final years on the grid.
While he proves through his career statistics that he is nothing short of the greatest drivers in F1 history, Vettel will also be remembered for his vocal presence in the sport as an activist and proponent of social justice and environmental issues. Amid a period when F1 has increasingly banned drivers from making political statements, Vettel was never afraid to take a political stand during race weekends, often wearing shirts and helmets that spoke out against climate change or supported LGBTQ+ rights.
Though Sebastian Vettel’s name has left the grid, he hasn’t disappeared forever. Vettel has remained present in the racing world, participating in the recent 2023 Race of Champions in Sweden, where he joined forces with Mick Schumacher to represent Germany and facing off against Schumacher in the individual races as well. With the combination of his mastery as a championship winner while at Red Bull and his outspoken activism in the later part of his career, Vettel should be remembered as one of the greatest drivers to ever enter the world of F1.
Jem Shin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.