Why Sebastian Vettel risks staining F1 legacy with half-hearted return prospect

Thomas Maher
Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, 2021.

Sebastian Vettel appears to be weighing up an F1 comeback, but should he stay away?

Sebastian Vettel appears caught in two minds about what to do with his future, but should he stay away from F1?

The prospect of a Sebastian Vettel comeback does appear to be a realistic one at present, but would the four-time F1 World Champion be better off staying away and carving out a new path for himself?

Sebastian Vettel admits possible interest in a comeback

Aside from his appearances in the winter fun that is the Race of Champions, Sebastian Vettel has kept his head very low since retiring from Formula 1 at the conclusion of the 2022 season.

Just 35 years old at the time of choosing to walk away from the sport, he had cited a desire to stay at home with his young family – eager not to miss out on the delights of fatherhood due to his traipsing all over the world.

Vettel has always been an empathetic and considerate fellow and, having done what so many drivers choose not to do until retirement by having a family with his wife Hanna, opted not to place the day-to-day burden of raising their three children on her shoulders.

Having also become increasingly socially and environmentally aware of the world around him, Vettel could also see the awkward position his opinions were putting him in – particularly as his former Aston Martin team’s main sponsor was the Saudi-owned petroleum and gas company Aramco.

But competition had coursed through Vettel’s blood for the best part of three decades and, having spent the past 18 months bereft of challenging himself at the top level of motorsport, it appears his lust for racing is overcoming all these admirable traits. It’s a forgivable position to be in, given the dedication he put in for so long to make it, and the level at which he applied himself for so long.

From day one since announcing his retirement, Vettel has made it clear that his decision wasn’t cut-and-dried and that, after a while living life at a more sedate pace, he may find the call of racing too hard to ignore, and the allure and thrill of the fight simply too tempting to isolate himself from.

Vettel thus couldn’t ignore the temptation of trying out a Le Mans hypercar recently, when he took part in a pre-Le Mans endurance test with the Porsche Penske team in Spain. Porsche has decided its line-up for two of its three cars, but there are still two spaces available in the third car.

While timing data wasn’t officially released from the test, reports in the German media hint Vettel was straight on the pace of the usual Porsche drivers – certainly a positive step if he is to consider a move into the series.

Certainly, a one-off Le Mans appearance might whet his appetite and answer his own questions over whether or not racing is what he wants to do anymore. Even a full-tilt World Endurance Championship campaign wouldn’t require him to be away from home too often – there are just eight rounds on the 2024 calendar.

But F1 is where Vettel’s heart has been for so long, and there was a time where nothing mattered more to the young German than the statistics he racked up during his four world title years.

While many of the records set by Vettel at that time have now been eclipsed by Lewis Hamilton and matched or beaten by Max Verstappen, his spiritual successor at Red Bull, the sheer hunger Vettel once had for F1 was once unquestionable.

Sebastian Vettel: F1 comeback chance ‘depends on the full package’

While he has downplayed the possibility of a Le Mans tilt this year, given the famous race is just two months away, Vettel did the media rounds last week as he became an investor in the new UK energy drink Perple. Inevitably, given how many free F1 seats are available – including unconfirmed seats at Red Bull and Mercedes – the question of a comeback was raised.

Certainly, Vettel isn’t ruling it out, and said he could be swayed by the right offer, should one come along.

“The better the car, the better the team, the more exciting it is in terms of, you know, having the prospect of being successful,” he told The Chris Moyles Show on Radio X.

“It is obviously… I’m following the sport, I see what’s going on. And it might be appealing and interesting, but it really depends on the full package.

“Because it is a big commitment as well; with all the other stuff going on outside the driving activity.

“So, to seriously consider I think, it would very much of course depend on the package.”

Seemingly cognisant of the fact that some of his contemporaries are still racing in F1, and Fernando Alonso is still around having entered F1 six years before Vettel, he said:

“From an age point of view, I feel bloody young with all the guys that [I was] raised with still hanging around and signing big contracts, being around for longer! It looks like I could have another 10 years in the sport!”

Michael Schumacher wisdom may have been useful for Sebastian Vettel

There’s no doubting that Vettel walked away young – like others who were still in a position to determine their own future. Mika Hakkinen was just 33 years old when he went ‘on sabbatical’, while Nico Rosberg was 31 when he quit F1 cold turkey after winning the title in 2016.

But, in the modern era, there have been plenty who have ‘retired’ or ‘taken time out’ and come back – perhaps even the better for it. Fernando Alonso sat out two years after 2018, tired of the toils of trying to help a foundering McLaren find their way forward, and came back when he was 39 years old.

Vettel’s close friend Kimi Raikkonen took two years out after 2009, after Ferrari paid him off due to signing Alonso for ’10, with the Finn returning with Lotus when he was 33 years old – racing on until he was 42.

The man who adopted Vettel as his Formula 1 son, perhaps the most important influence on the young German’s motorsport career, Michael Schumacher retired from F1 at 37 years of age when Ferrari looked to the future with Raikkonen – only for Schumacher to be tempted back by Mercedes three years later.

These high-profile cases, all of whom had plenty of experience with modern-day F1, had found they couldn’t ignore the sport’s call and, with opportunities remaining open, answered that call.

Of course, the level of success that awaited them varied. Schumacher was still a potent force but lacked some of the finely honed racecraft that had set him apart during his ‘first’ career, while Kimi Raikkonen’s racecraft remained imperious – but had lost some of the single-lap pace that had made him so fearsome.

As for Alonso, his relentless pursuit of success continues unabated, but even the Spaniard has admitted he is asking questions of himself as to whether his commitment to F1 can continue.

But, more pertinently, Schumacher – also married with children at the time of his comeback – was never quite content during his return, with the Schumacher documentary revealing that, by 2012, he was questioning why he was on the far side of the world racing when he wanted to be at home with his family.

F1 had stopped being the main priority in his life, and it showed in his performances – resulting in him retiring for good at the end of 2012.

Vettel has already reached that point in his life, and it’s a shame for all involved that Vettel isn’t able to call upon his mentor’s wisdom to help him as he goes through his period of soul-searching.

Certainly, the opportunities are there for Vettel. Red Bull has ruled him out of contention for Perez’s unconfirmed seat, but he’s been linked with Mercedes and has admitted to having had conversations (however unrelated) with Toto Wolff. With so many seats available in the midfield, there’s any number of teams who would likely snap up an eager Vettel in a heartbeat.

Unless hunger overwhelms Sebastian Vettel, it’s best to stay away

The big question mark is whether Vettel should. Vettel, like Rosberg, has shown conviction in the fact he wants to be more involved in his family life. But others, like Kevin Magnussen, Sergio Perez, and Nico Hulkenberg, have shown it is possible to balance a home family life with an F1 career.

He’s torn between two worlds, at a point in time where he’s still young enough and the opportunities are still there to return to the world in which he flourished for so long.

But doing so would mean inevitable sacrifices – both in terms of his family, who he revealed in media interviews as begging him not to leave when F1 weekends rolled around, and the perceived hypocrisy of racing in a sport that, while improving immeasurably, is still at odds with his environmental concerns.

There’s also the possibility that Vettel is past it. After all, he didn’t consistently blow Lance Stroll away in anywhere near as comprehensive a fashion as Alonso has done since succeeding him, and he appeared to struggle to motivate himself when the big results weren’t on the table.

Added to that is while we don’t know what his real levels of desire are – if he is seeking employment with team bosses, one would hope he’s showing plenty – his comments about a possible F1 return don’t scream that he’d do anything to get back behind the wheel.

If Vettel is lacking that hunger, which appears to be the case, then F1 would more than likely be getting a late-career Raikkonen back, rather than a late-career Alonso. Is that really what Vettel wants, or what F1 wants?

While it would be a nice story to have Vettel back on the grid as one of the good guys of the sport, having someone who is there for fun and amusement on a Sunday afternoon is distinctly at odds with the sell-their-own-granny-for-a-tenth ethos the sport demands.

If Vettel truly wants a comeback, coming out and making it clear that’s what he wants is the way to do it. Show that it matters, show the passion and desire is there. Given everyone knows what he’d be giving up and sacrificing, as well as the personal convictions he’d be overcoming, there would be no doubt that these actions would be genuine.

Unless Vettel is able to recapture the hunger he had 10 years ago and display the love for the sport he once so exuberantly extolled, it’s best to find a new motorsport avenue and leave F1 to those for whom the sport is all-encompassing. It would be sad to see Vettel – once an unstoppable force – struggling to muster what made him so potent.

Don’t get me wrong, I – and millions of others – would love to see Seb return. But that’s exactly why he should stay away.

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