Sebastian Vettel is worried. Not about his Formula 1 future or his Aston Martin team’s form. Those are short-term problems completely dwarfed by a concern on a far grander scale.
Vettel fears what will happen if sufficient action is not taken to address a global climate crisis. He has become F1’s pre-eminent voice on environmental issues and the urgent need to find solutions to a range of critical problems.
The four-time world champion was even willing to discuss such subjects on BBC Question Time, a serious and (if you’re unprepared) daunting topical debate show. He performed admirably although, as is often the case whenever Vettel – an F1 driver – speaks on environmental matters, he also attracted plenty of critics. One always seems particularly unfair: a variation of ‘this is all well and good, but why wasn’t he saying this 10 years ago’.
That attitude conveniently ignores the fact that people tend to grow, change and learn different things. So, with a rare opportunity at the Austrian Grand Prix to hear from Vettel outside of FIA press conferences and post-qualifying or post-race media scrums, The Race puts the criticism – and what it appears to overlook – to Vettel.
And he says he simply didn’t know any better, before expressing an obvious concern that the luxury he had to be ignorant is not one the next generation can afford.
“Ten years ago it [the problem] was already around,” Vettel concedes.
“I don’t think I was a pig in terms of throwing plastic bottles around, and living that sort of life.
“But there’s a lot of things that maybe I wasn’t aware of. And simply then because I wasn’t aware of it, maybe I didn’t take care as much or didn’t take the choices that I do today.
“You could say that well, that was a luxury that I maybe had, or you guys had when you were growing up, and you would simply were not aware.
“But if you look at the bigger picture, this generation, I feel it’s not fair that they don’t have that liberty anymore to just enjoy their youth.
“They are much more aware of what’s going on in the big picture, and see what is happening and what’s coming, and screaming and asking for help many times.
“Even if you deserve to have your youth all to yourself to explore and play around and be foolish and all this – to some degree, you don’t have that luxury anymore. And I don’t think that’s fair.
“But that’s where we are already. And it’s only going to get worse, if we continue not to act.”
Vettel continues, but his response is so long it’s worth breaking up. He goes on to answer a key part of the question – ‘How long have you been seriously thinking about this issue?’. Before that, though, he stresses: “I’m not a saint and I’m not here to tell people what to do.
“I take action as much as I can control. But it’s not to educate you or tell you that just because I do this, you should do this, too. That’s why I’m very cautious with saying things.
“I drive to this grand prix [in Austria], consciously. I take the car, rather than taking the plane. I did take the plane [in the past] because it’s much more comfortable, it takes an hour, I’m here, land next to the track, I have the luxury to choose – bam, life is easy.
“Now I don’t. But I’m not saying, with that, I tell you how to come here. But that’s what I mean, those are the things that I can control and I have an impact on.
“I have time to think about these things, I have the luxury of putting solar panels up on my roof, changing my energy supplier.
“If you live in a flat, you pay rent, you don’t have that luxury. You can tell your landlord to switch and to look after the future and so on but if he chooses not to, for whatever reason, that’s not your choice. It’s not in your hands.
“It’s not easy. But I think [my interest] is maybe I have this sort of Formula 1 brain of asking questions: Why?
“Why is the car not fast enough? Because it’s got too little grip? Why? Well, because of our aero. Why? Why?
“Maybe I have the same sort of attitude in other fields as well. Why are we doing what we do? How can I save emissions? Come here by car. Why is it better than coming by plane? Ah, I understand.
It’s a lot easier to grasp Vettel’s eco-friendly message when he’s wearing a bee-inspired crash helmet than when he’s driving a screaming V10 Formula 1 car from 1992.
These actions came a few days apart. Ahead of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, Vettel drove the Williams FW14B from Nigel Mansell’s 1992 title-winning season. A few days later, in Austria, Vettel was adding a new beehive to the ‘bee hotel’ he built with local schoolchildren in 2021 and wore a special helmet that weekend to match.
Casual observers may think these events are poles apart. One is a sweet, simple gesture in support of an ecological cause. The other is easy to write off as a loud, gas-guzzling nuisance by a rich racing driver indulging himself in a hobby.
But they share a key, common factor: Vettel’s sincere, committed interest in environmental issues and finding solutions to problems he is worried too many people overlook.
What happened in Austria demonstrates that very clearly. The Williams run at Silverstone might need more explaining, even if you are aware that Vettel was conducting the run with a ‘fully sustainable, carbon neutral’ fuel.
Vettel owns the ’92 Williams and was keen to demonstrate it at the British GP to mark the 30th anniversary of Mansell’s title. But he was only willing to do it if they found a way to make it more responsible.
“I wouldn’t have done it otherwise,” he says. “Because as much as I love the car, and I bought the car at the time with the ambition to drive it, it is so important that you do it in a responsible manner.
“That was the key. If you just do it and burn the fuel, somehow it’s not right. And then I was thinking about how you can do it more responsibly.”
The solution was a fuel sourced from a company called P1 that adds no CO2 to the environment. It was pricey, even by the standards of current inflation – an eye-watering €5.95 per litre.
But Vettel hopes there are big gains to be made in this area and the price will become cheaper through “decentralised production wherever there is an abundance of renewable energy, like offshore winds in Denmark, the Sahara desert, or thermal energy in Iceland”. And he thinks that process can be aided by F1’s adoption of sustainable fuels.
F1 has an increased 10% ethanol fuel this season ahead of a switch to 100% sustainable fuels in 2026, when the next generation of V6 turbo-hybrids will be introduced.
Vettel says that as the automotive world has flocked to alternatives to the combustion engine, like electric vehicles and hybrid technology, “you wonder, what’s going to happen to motorsport?” – and while he doesn’t seem convinced F1’s current fuel plan is the answer itself he does firmly believe it can be part of it.
“There is the plan for synthetic fuels to come in – which form, where do they get their hydrocarbons from, is not entirely clear yet,” says Vettel.
“So, a lot of answers still to be given on the questions that are floating around.
“But I think you need to understand the bigger picture. What happens on the road is different to what happens on track.
“On the road you have 1.5 billion cars, what do you do with them in the future? Other than cars, you have trucks, you have ships, you have planes – which might be even a bigger question, what to do with them.
“To bridge that form of transportation into the new era, I think it [synthetic fuels] is a great technology.
“But it’s not like ‘OK, now we have synthetic fuels, that’s the full answer’. It can be [part of it]. And that’s probably the way to keep the historic part of Formula 1, or motorsport in general, alive. And do what we do in a much more responsible manner.”
Vettel’s Williams demo at Silverstone prompted some suggestions that F1 should at least reconsider its own engine rules for the future, as the sustainable fuel angle could be the championship’s eco-friendly selling point and more traditional elements (especially louder engines) could be revived.
The incredible technology in the hybrid engines has been poorly utilised by F1 as a marketing tool until very recently. It’s still the case that too few recognise the amazing thermal efficiency of these power units – upwards of 50%, which is the highest of any internal combustion engine in operation in the world.
But that’s of limited relevance. And the fact F1 and its manufacturers are willingly forfeiting the complex MGU-H, which is probably the piece de resistance of this era of engine, is a clear indication that compromising on the hybrid engine is perfectly fine if the reward is worthwhile (in this case, tempting in Porsche and Audi with simpler engine rules).
Vettel thinks there’s a greater chance of F1 fuel having relevance to the rest of the world. He outlined that in a long answer presented here in full so you can understand his exact rationale and take the message as he intended.
“Look, our engines are incredible,” Vettel says. “They are powerful, they are incredibly efficient. I don’t know all the engines in the world, but one of the most efficient engines.
“But will you ever drive that engine in the car that you choose to buy one day? Or you have bought in the past? No.
“I paid for the fuel I was using [in the Williams demonstration]. It is more expensive than normal fuel – significantly. But you mustn’t forget that the machinery of normal fuels and what I bought is very different.
“There is plenty of scope to come down on price, and so on. And equally the other side [‘normal’ petrol] will continue to go up, mid-term long-term, it will only go up. Already today, the fuel that we running using in F1 is four or five times at least more expensive than what I used [in the Williams].
“So, money isn’t the issue here. Why are these fuels so expensive is because you develop the engine together with the fuel to squeeze out more performance to outperform the other guys.
“The competition can be great, and it has to be channelled in the right manner. Or it can be uncontrolled, and maybe run in a way that our engines are now – so complex that you will never benefit from those on the road.
“That’s where it needs strong guidance and governance in terms of ‘OK, this is what we set out to do for the right reasons’.
“And the right reasons are very clear and simple.
“We need to find a way to do it. And being a motorsport guy, I love racing, I love the cars, I have the sensation for the V10 and for all the history.
“Going forwards, it’s another discussion to have: what is the better way and what is the cheaper way as well! Because these engines cost a fortune, their development cost a fortune up to this point.
“I don’t know, they haven’t really I think found consensus on where they want to go really on 2026 onwards.
“I think that’s the difficult if you have too many people trying to agree.”
F1 has some big decisions to make and the fuel being used will not be the only part of that.
Vettel highlights the amount of waste produced at grands prix, how the sold-out crowds are getting to and from the venue, and a calendar that “makes no sense” flitting between different regions.
He sees easy wins in that and wants F1 to take that seriously because it is critical to his broader concern – one Vettel characterises neatly with a simple, F1-friendly analogy, comparing it to the recent row over the budget cap.
“The way I understand it in general, is very simple,” he says.
“I try to simplify it: Look, we have a certain budget of emissions left. And we are part of that budget, all of us – you, me, Formula 1, sports in general.
“The way it’s going now, at some point we will run out of the budget, and then what?
“As much as we’re panicking now, inside Formula 1, our bubble, that we are not able to bring a new update to the car because we have no money left in our budget – well, that’s same way we should start, and we have to think about and act about the budget that we have left in terms of emissions.”