Sebastian Vettel still loves Formula 1, but the fulfillment has disappeared as the wins have dried up.
After 16 seasons, the last two with a struggling Aston Martin team, Vettel is retiring and relieved to be leaving, although he still does not know what he will do next.
“I know how much dedication goes into this, and if you do it I am convinced you have to do it the right way,” Vettel said. “The aim has always been to win and compete at the front, so I don’t get much pleasure from being here and just being part of it.”
On Sunday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Vettel, 35, will start a Grand Prix for the 299th time, as he leaves a sport he entered in 2007.
His career has yielded four world titles, with Red Bull, and 122 finishes on the podium, which include 53 wins. His last win came in 2019 in Singapore when he was with Ferrari, where he spent six seasons.
“I’m very much looking forward to having nothing scheduled, no commitments,” he said. “What that does to me? I think it will do a lot of things to my head, but I’m curious to find out what exactly that will be.”
Vettel said he had “lots of ideas and things I would love to do.” Over the past few years, he has shone a spotlight on sustainability and the environment and spoken out on behalf of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
Formula 1: On and Off the Track
- Listening to the Radio: With the press of a button on the steering wheel, drivers communicate with their team. It’s an improvement from when they used hand-held signs.
- Covered From Head to Toe: Drivers are loaded with equipment, like a biometric sensor and fire-resistant overalls, to keep them safe in racecars. Please, no jewelry — and let’s discuss the underwear.
- Rubber Meets the Road: During a race, determining which type of tire to use and when, can turn a loser into a winner — or vice versa.
- How Do Drivers Fight Jet Lag? It affects performance, so they use caffeine, avoid light and shoo away hotel housekeeping. And how about some golf?
- More on Formula 1: Stories about drivers, teams and issues.
“My concern for the environment is one of the factors that definitely played a role in my decision to retire, seeing the world changing and seeing the future in a very threatened position for all of us, and especially for generations to come,” he said.
“I understand that part of my passion, my job, relates to things I am not a fan of. I am traveling the world, racing cars, burning resources. It is something I cannot look away from, and once you see these things, once you are aware, I don’t think you can really unsee.”
Vettel has helped students in Austria build a bee hotel, collected rubbish from the grandstands at Silverstone after a British Grand Prix and visited a plant in Iceland that collects carbon dioxide from the air.
Before last weekend’s São Paulo Grand Prix, Vettel visited the SOS Mata Atlantica organization to learn about the reforestation of a logging area of Brazil.
“At some point, all of us will have no choice that we are all going to be activists because we have to actively push to survive,” Vettel said. “It sounds really dramatic, but it’s something that will catch up with us very, very soon.
“The more I look and the more I get into all of this, it’s great to raise awareness, to plant a seed and make people look at what’s going on and help to understand, because once you understand, you start to care, and once you care, you’re happy to help.”
Formula 1 has provided Vettel with a platform to voice his opinion. He said his “views would not be retired and abandoned” because he was retiring.
“It would be the wrong motivation to keep doing what I have always done just to express an opinion on some topics,” he said. “Maybe I will lose voice and reach, but they have never been at the foreground.”
Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes said he was “sad” to see Vettel leave Formula 1, as a rival, friend and fellow activist.
“It has been an unexpected relationship and friendship,” said Hamilton, a seven-time champion. “It is so difficult when you are so competitive and you are both fighting for something you are passionate about.”
He said Vettel was “one of the very, very few drivers in racing history that has stood for much more than himself.”
“He’s used his voice in things that I’ve fought for and stood by me. He’s gone on his own journey and stood on the grid and fought for things that he believed in, and for the greater good.
“He’s just a really beautiful human being, and I’m really grateful to have been here in a time that he was racing.”
Christian Horner, the team principal of Red Bull, where Vettel won his four titles from 2010 to 2013, said he would never forget when Vettel dominated. Vettel holds the record for being the youngest champion, at 23, after winning his first title in 2010.
“He was a massive part of our team and a pleasure to work with,” Horner said. “He was committed and unrelenting in his pursuit of performance. Probably the hardest-working driver I have come across.
“Beyond that, just a really nice guy. We had so many special moments, those four world championships, there were days he was just in a league of his own. Very special memories.”
Valtteri Bottas of Alfa Romeo said Vettel at his peak “was pretty untouchable.”
“He’s had a great career, he’s given a lot to the sport,” he said. “But his values in life have changed quite a bit recently and now he has lots to give but for the world.”
Vettel said he was leaving Formula 1 without “any real regrets.”
“I had a lot of highlights, a lot of great races, great people that I got to know and work with,” he said. He recently said that his first win, at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix, stood out: “It was an incredible race with incredible emotions.”
Vettel said he had had a good time in his career.
“It’s been a privilege, and I’m very happy to take all of this, everything I learned, everything I was able to experience, all the support that I got as well to hopefully boost me in the next chapter.”