After Sebastian Vettel pulled the curtain down on a remarkable 16-year Formula 1 career that yielded four world titles, F1 Correspondent Lawrence Barretto caught up with his father Norbert for a trip down memory lane…
Norbert Vettel is his son Sebastian’s biggest fan. A frequent visitor to the F1 paddock during Sebastian’s career – from his debut with BMW Sauber to his final race at Aston Martin – Norbert was a popular member of the travelling pack.
Talk to him privately and it’s difficult to get a word in, so passionate and proud is he of what his little boy from Heppenheim, Germany has managed to achieve. Publicly, though, he rarely spoke – instead preferring to stay in the shadows. For Norbert, he didn’t want to get in the way, he didn’t want to be centre stage. Sebastian to him was the star.
Instead, he would stay out of the limelight at races. He would spend time getting to know the mechanics, engineers and staff at the teams where his son raced – and asking questions. He’d spend a lot of time in the fanzone, watching trackside, meeting fans, eating from the foodstalls – despite always having access to the paddock.
He loved racing. He loved the event. And it means he leaves F1 with a swathe of friends at Ferrari, Aston Martin, Red Bull and Toro Rosso, as well as others scattered across the paddock.
It also meant it was a challenge to convince Norbert to sit down and chat on the record about Sebastian. But with his son’s career coming to an end, he felt now was the right time to relent.
Though Norbert can take a plaudits for Sebastian’s success, he doesn’t want to. In his mind, he just did what any other father would do. Knock on every door, work every job, scrape together as much money as possible to give his son the very best chance of success in life.
Sebastian’s first interest in motorsport was when he received an electric truck his parents gave him for Christmas. He was fascinated by the little toy, the mechanics of it, the speed at which it went. Sebastian’s interest was peaked watching Norbert compete in hill-climb events, and that inspired Norbert to drive 300km to find a second-hand kart to give Sebastian a chance behind the wheel.
“He was small, so I added some material to the pedals so he could reach the throttle and the brake,” says Norbert, who wears the permanent smile of a proud parent throughout our chat as he remembers each anecdote.
“We had to pad the seat out, too, as the seat was just too big. We marked out a track with a hairpin near where I worked. I stood at the side of the track, before the hairpin, to mark out where Sebastian needed to brake. That was the first thing he learned – braking points.”
That first day, it had been raining and there were puddles dotted across the track. Already, he showed impressive control as the kart stepped out when he hit the wet stuff. “Sebastian loved to drive in the wet,” says Norbert. “I asked him to come inside for lunch and to let his sister drive the kart while he was eating, but he said, ‘No, I’ll stay here.’ He wouldn’t get out. He just wanted to keep trying, keep learning. He was fascinated.”
When Sebastian was eight, he finished on the podium in a karting race in Kerpen, seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher’s home town. Schumacher was a huge star in Germany back then, and this was the first time Sebastian met the F1 legend in what was ultimately the start of a strong friendship that saw Michael become Sebastian’s mentor.
Fast forward 12 years and Sebastian is in Indianapolis ahead of the 2007 United States Grand Prix. He calls his father at 1030 in the evening and asks if he can get on a plane ASAP because BMW Sauber have asked him to step in for the injured Robert Kubica, and thus make his F1 debut.
“I said okay – and I started ringing around for flights,” says Norbert, “I left at 6am and flew to Amsterdam. And then to Detroit. And then to Indianapolis. And I made it there late at night. It was crazy, but I made it.
“Seeing Sebastian get into his overalls, and step into the cockpit for the first time, I felt nervous. I’m always nervous, whether it’s testing, practice, qualifying or the race. I’m nervous.
“If I’m not at the track, I’m following every session, either watching the TV or listening to the radio or if I can’t get either of those, I just follow the live timing, looking at every lap Sebastian does. I’m always nervous for him. Next year, I won’t be nervous!”
A year later, Sebastian was driving full-time for Toro Rosso, the German having impressed so much by scoring on his debut that Red Bull signed him up for their junior team. It was at Monza, home of the Italian Grand Prix, that Sebastian secured a shock maiden victory in wet conditions.
“Seb was every time good in the rain,” says Norbert. “He had such a good feel for the car, for the tyres in those conditions.”
Three years after that, in 2010, came Sebastian’s first title – the German clinching the crown having not led the championship at any point in the season until the final chequered flag. As Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso battled further down the field, Sebastian – an outsider ahead of the race – got his head down and won the race, which was ultimately enough to take the title.
“This was a nice time – I was just so proud of him,” says Norbert. “Every father, every mother, you do everything for the children. So to watch him go from karting to world champion was incredible.”
Vettel went on to race for Ferrari, and while he failed to win the championship in his six-year stint with the team, he twice finished runner up – and was proud to race for the squad of his mentor Schumacher, having sat in the German’s car at Maranello when he was 10 years old.
He hoped for a promising new chapter at Aston Martin – but success eluded him. But it was here that he used his profile to speak out about environmental and social justice issues, making a proud father “even prouder”.
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Sebastian leaves F1 with 53 wins, which puts him third on the all-time list. Only Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher have won more.
His four titles match Alain Prost, with Hamilton, Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio the only drivers with more world title silverware. He’s fourth in the pole position list, too, trailing only Hamilton, Schumacher and Ayrton Senna.
Will Sebastian miss the Formula 1 paddock, the place he’s called home for the last 16 years? “I think yes,” says Norbert. “This is my feeling. Seb’s feeling, I do not know. When you’ve been in this hamster wheel for so many years, racing since he was eight, it’s hard to know how he will feel now he is off the wheel.
“I don’t know what he will do next year. I don’t know what I will do either. I say to Seb: thank you for all this nice time. Have a good time.”