Otmar Szafnauer revealed Honda passed up on an opportunity to sign future four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel during his junior days.
The German made his debut in the sport in 2007 a year after he joined BMW Sauber. He did so as a 19-year-old and having scored a point in his first race, he would become the then-youngest driver in Formula 1 history to do so.
But one of the most storied careers in F1 could have been very different had one sporting director been quicker on the draw.
Now Alpine boss, Szafnauer started his career in F1 at BAR before moving to Honda to become vice president of Honda Racing Developments and a member of the F1 team’s management board. In true Arsene Wenger style, the 57-year-old has revealed he came ever so close to securing the talents of the highly rated Vettel.
Vettel rated 7.5/10 for Hungary recovery
An eight-place rise for Sebastian Vettel was overshadowed by confirmation of his retirement.
Szafnauer was asked for his best memory of Vettel after the German announced his impending retirement from the sport and recalled the story.
“Seb came up to me and he said, ‘I’ve got a two-week window,’ and he was a young, he was I don’t know, 19 years old or whatever,” Szafnauer, as reported by Autosport.
“‘I’ve got a two week window where I’m out of contract at both Red Bull and I think BMW. So, are you interested in signing me?’
“He was unknown quantity back then. But I’m like, ‘yeah, this kid’s good!’ Two-week window!
“So I went to [Honda sporting director] Gil [de Ferran], and I said, ‘we have two-week window to sign Seb Vettel.’ He said, ‘don’t worry, I got my eye on him.’ ‘What do you mean, you got your eye on him? We got two weeks!’
“Anyway, we didn’t sign him.”
The two would eventually work together for a season when Vettel moved to Aston Martin for the 2021 campaign. A year later, Szafnauer would move to his current employers Alpine.
Honda’s loss is Red Bull’s gain as Sebastian Vettel goes onto F1 glory
There is no way of fulling knowing how things would have worked out had Vettel opted for Honda rather than BMW but the German will look back with no regrets having enjoyed one of the most successful careers in Formula 1 history.
After one and half years as reserve driver for BMW, Vettel was picked up by Red Bull’s junior team Toro Rosso but his career as a full-time driver got off to a rocky start with a run of P16, P19 and P18 in his first three races. This was followed by back-to-back retirements before one of the shocks of the season with P4 in China.
The world was given its first glimpse at Vettel’s supreme talent in the 2008 season when he won in Monza, making him the then youngest driver to win a Formula One race and giving Toro Rosso its maiden win despite using an engine spec from the previous year.
This was enough to get him the nod for the Red Bull seat and it was a match made in heaven. In his first season, he finished second behind Jenson Button but he followed that with four consecutive Championship wins in one of the most dominant periods in the sport’s history.
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) July 28, 2022
In his final season at Red Bull, he finished fifth in the Drivers’ Championship before opting to emulate his hero Michael Schumacher by moving to Ferrari.
But, unlike he had done with Christian Horner and co., Vettel never seemed truly comfortably at Ferrari. The Mercedes’ dominance was in full flow so while Vettel did secure three wins in his first season, he would finish P3 at the end of the season.
He dropped to P4 in 2016 before P2 in both 2017 and 2018 but then the wheels fell off his relationship with Ferrari. With Charles Leclerc emerging, the atmosphere became toxic and while the drivers got on, Vettel was not happy playing second-fiddle to the emerging star.
Vettel would move to Aston Martin for the 2021 season but the dream he had been sold did not come to fruition. The team failed to capitalise on the momentum it had built in the previous seasons as Racing Point. Vettel finished 12th in 2021 including a disqualification from P2 at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
He started this season missing the first two races with COVID but as his interests off-track have increased, his desire to continue in the sport came into question. The four-time World Champion would announce in July that his 15th career in F1 as a full-time driver would be his last.