Having covered the vast majority of Sebastian Vettel’s Formula 1 career, I’ve always found one thing puzzling – just why are there so many who are committed to hating the four-time F1 champion?
Hate is a strong word and clearly he has a huge number of fans. But judging entirely anecdotally by the bile he seems to draw in some quarters, and has done for many years, Vettel has always attracted a disproportionately large cohort of detractors determined to condemn his every move, which is completely at odds with both his achievements and his career.
This isn’t about questioning those who criticise his mistakes. After all, he has made far too many in recent times at Ferrari and has been a frustrating performer – it’s been impossible not to be critical given we know how good he can be. But throughout that, Vettel has never really been the bad guy – at least, no more than any of his rivals. And he’s certainly not gone to the extremes that some top grand prix drivers have done at times in the past.
Inevitably, it’s a reality of professional sport that real human beings are cast as heroes and villains. This pantomime is understandable and inevitably difficult to be entirely in tune with when you are covering a sport and used to regular interactions with the real people involved. But there is a more profound disconnect between the real Vettel and the caricature seen by his biggest detractors than any other driver of the 21st century – and that includes the often-misunderstood Lewis Hamilton.
Vettel should be the kind of driver people like. The Ferrari man is affable, friendly, down to earth and prodigiously talented – demolishing the major ‘youngest-ever’ records when he broke into F1 in much the same way as Max Verstappen has.
He has a love and respect for the history of grand prix racing, regularly criticises the state of modern racing in a way that seems perfectly-tuned to play to the gallery and upholds a lot of the values that are so important to grand prix racing.
Scott Mitchell covers this aspect of Vettel in more detail here, but there is clearly something about Vettel that doesn’t quite work for some. Yes, he has had his bad moments – the mistakes, Multi 21, Turkey 2010 etc – but so have most drivers.
Perhaps one part of it is that he was the anointed successor to Michael Schumacher as Germany’s F1 superstar – perhaps he has inherited some of the bile often aimed at Schumacher, especially among British fans.
While the reaction to Schumacher was, at times, out of proportion, it was easier to understand the distaste some had for the architect of Adelaide ’94, Jerez ’97, Monaco ’06 and Hungary ’10. These aren’t Vettel’s style.
Radio communications do sometimes reveal Vettel complaining but it’s unfair to judge drivers too harshly by these moments. They are often venting – doubly important to a character like Vettel, even if he did occasionally go too far such as when he attacked Charlie Whiting over the radio in Mexico ’16. Who knows what you might have heard from Ayrton Senna or Juan Manuel Fangio in a moment of frustration in similar circumstances?
But there’s another factor at play here, something unique to Vettel. When young drivers come in and achieve instant success, there are always those who take against them. Whether it’s because they are upsetting the old heroes or the perception they haven’t ‘paid their dues’ and success has come too easy, these feelings usually fade with time. The trouble is that Vettel hasn’t been able to facilitate that process with sustained success.
While he has continued to win, he had his spell of four consecutive world championships – a phenomenal achievement during which he often drove wonderfully – but everything since then has been something of an anti-climax. Usually, the early successes sustain that level and that initial distrust is eradicated, but Vettel’s career trajectory doesn’t allow that.
Yet you can counter that by pointing to Fernando Alonso – a stellar early career, wins with Ferrari and title challenges but no crowns and then difficult years with fading McLaren didn’t stop him entering the consciousness as a true hero and superstar.
While he has plenty of vocal detractors, he’s held up by many as a hero. A big part of that is probably his bigger public persona, never afraid to talk himself up and point to the latest ‘miracle’ lap. But Alonso also benefitted from his time as the heroic underdog, something Vettel did start out as at Ferrari before the mistakes began and drew the criticism once again. This perhaps hindered the otherwise natural process of some of those who didn’t believe his Red Bull performances were anything special reappraising Vettel and seeing how strong he was.
Vettel is quieter, more modest outside of the car and, as he does most of his talking behind the wheel, he isn’t able to correct those who perceive him as the bad guy. It’s a shame, because most would probably find him to be a very agreeable human being. He’s certainly no ‘big time Charlie’. And while there’s no obligation to cheer him on or even like him, perhaps there’s good reason there to dial back the dislike and appreciate what he brought to F1.
Vettel is not perfect as a driver or a human being, but to demand that would be to hold him to an impossible standard. If is to be his F1 swansong, let’s hope he has the chance to go out on a high and perhaps convince a few of his more committed ‘haters’ of his worth.