Sebastian Vettel isn’t like any racing driver Formula 1 has ever seen so it was perhaps fitting that the way he announced his retirement shocked everyone. First, he debuted on social media in creating an Instagram account. Then he used that platform to reveal in a video he filmed himself that this would be his 15th and last season.
It ends a career that is statistically one of the best the sport has ever seen. Four world championships – only Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton and Juan Manuel Fangio have secured more – were won, as he clocked up 53 victories to put him third on the all-time list.
So why did he call it quits now?
Aston Martin wanted Vettel, whose two-year deal expired at the end of this year, to stay on for a third season. The German has had a positive impact on billionaire Lawrence Stroll’s team in a reasonably short amount of time. He’s voiced his opinion using his wealth of experience from Red Bull and Ferrari, made changes to help the team operate more efficiently and provided crucial feedback to help engineer and develop the car.
He’s also been a great leader, helped mentor Stroll’s son Lance and his stature as a four-time world champion has elevated the team’s status.
Vettel seriously considered staying. But Aston Martin’s performance has not been good enough. Despite huge investment, the 2022 car did not deliver the step forward in performance that the team – and Vettel – had hoped for. On paper, they are around the eighth or ninth fastest team. Worse still, the significant upgrades they have brought to the track have not delivered the kind of pace they were supposed to.
With very little changing in the regulations from this year to next, and a cost cap preventing relentless spending in a bid to get out of a hole, Vettel knew that next year would not be much better. The reality is that it could be three, four, maybe five years until this team is contending at the front. At 35, with Vettel keen not to miss more of his children growing up and his perspective widening to include pushing for change outside F1 – whether that’s for greater equality or a push for sustainability and kindness to the environment – he decided it was time.
He told me on Thursday that he only decided for certain yesterday, telling the team that evening before an announcement today. But he has been thinking about this day since 2018, when he was pondering his future while struggling at Ferrari. He chose to give it one more go with Aston Martin, the project offering him the potential to end his career on a high – but it hasn’t panned out that way.
What will he do now?
Vettel hasn’t decided that yet – and in some ways, he admits that scares him. It’s the unknown, the polar opposite of what his life has been like for the last 15 years. He’s used to his life being scheduled by someone else. He’s known when he’ll be away, when he’ll be home, what he’ll be doing every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday a race weekend is on, almost to the minute.
But Vettel has proved that he is more than capable of making this next chapter of his life a huge success. He will spend more time with his family, being a husband and dad, and enjoying life. When I’ve interviewed him in the past, he was always at his most animated when not talking about racing. He loved to discuss articles he’d read in the papers the previous weekend or talk about his latest restaurant find or the local producers of his vegetables or British comedy. He’s simply interested in life.
Already, he’s launched a series of initiatives, from building bee houses in Austria with kids to litter picking at Silverstone, visiting the plant where that recycling went to and keeping tabs on the improvements that plant and the track have made in the months afterwards. When Vettel sets his mind to something, he follows through and makes a success of it. He’s also not afraid to voice his opinion and stand up for what he believes in. He has the making of a successful philanthropist.
Who will replace him?
In some ways, Aston Martin are a very attractive proposition. They have an owner who is relentlessly pumping money into all corners of the team. They have a new factory that will be operational next year, a new wind tunnel that won’t be far behind and the resources to have the very best machinery.
But they are also the ninth-best team in F1 currently and some way from achieving Stroll’s ambitions of being World Championship contenders. That means the driver who gets the seat will have to accept that this is a medium to long-term project and success – if it comes – will take several years at the earliest.
The reality is that owner Lawrence Stroll will likely want a big name. It’s why they signed Vettel, a four-time world champion. They want the prestige that they bring, but also the experience that will deliver engineering expertise to support Lance Stroll, who is still reasonably early in his F1 career.
Given their form, it’s unlikely they will be able to tease one of the leading contenders away. But Fernando Alonso would be a great option. The two-time title winner is currently with Alpine and has said that staying for a third season would be his priority. But he could be convinced that tackling the Aston project is worth a shot. They know he will give it everything, as he is doing at Alpine, and has the potential to deliver some huge results.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to see an obvious option. They are unlikely to have Daniel Ricciardo high up on their list, with the Australian totally committed to sticking with McLaren for his third year, while Alpine’s reserve Oscar Piastri is likely to be considered too inexperienced.
Their reserve Nico Hulkenberg is an option and has done a solid job when he’s been parachuted in, but he’s not the big-name signing that Stroll craves. Vettel hinted Schumacher would be his preferred choice, effectively paving the way for his student to get a chance with a big team in the way Michael Schumacher did for Felipe Massa at Ferrari.
It’s Stroll’s decision, of course. And it’s a tough call, but one the billionaire has time to ponder. For now, the focus is on Vettel, one of Formula 1’s greats – both on and off the track.