An Open Letter to Sebastian Vettel

Dear Sebastian,

First off, the author apologises for the awkwardness of a German writing to another German in the English language, but that comes with the territory of being an open letter. 

It is over (at least for the time being): 300 Grand Prix entries, 16 seasons, five different constructors, and of course, four world championships won. No matter how you look at it, a long and very successful career. Even if the final act probably did not really go as you imagined it, with both in the larger picture of Aston Martin failing to build on a positive 2021 and in the smaller picture with the team costing you points in Brazil and itself sixth in the championship at Abu Dhabi.

Now we could talk about where your career places in a historical context, why you are the greatest driver of your generation, but firstly GP Rejects’ readers would probably roll their eyes and switch browser tabs if I merely sang your praises for over 1,000 words and secondly, you probably do not really care for historical debates and assessments right now.

Therefore, this letter would like to go a different route. For that route, the author will need to become a bit more personal, so if you would bear with me.

The first Formula 1 race the author has conscious memories of watching was the 1997 European Grand Prix. After a couple of years of being salty at Mika Häkkinen being beaten and then retiring and interests shifting as they so often do for children, he stopped watching Formula 1. But, as you can imagine, few people ever fully escape the excitement of motorsport. The author returned to being a Formula 1 fan and following Formula 1 at the 2007 Turkish Grand Prix, your third career start. I was a 16-year old boy at the time and am now writing these lines as a 31-year old man.

In a way, this open letter is the author reflecting on the flow of time as the first Formula 1 superstar whose career he followed pretty much in its entirety has retired from competition. The author, and with him most Formula 1 fans in his age bracket, have seen everything. From the first great setback when a historic result went awry at the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix, followed by your excellent response at the very next race in Shanghai, to the absolute heights of Red Bull Racing domination in 2011 and 2013, the good and bad times at Ferrari and the eventual finale at Aston Martin.

Just like you are not the same person, so are we no longer the people we once were. Following you came “naturally”, as my favourite Formula 1 drivers kept falling out of the sport. Once Rubens Barrichello’s last competitive season in 2009 was over, rooting for the compatriot was the “logical” go-to option in terms of supporting a driver at the business end of the grid. This, of course, would become a more passionate fandom as the Formula 1 community showed you hostility in the early 2010s. As a remnant of teenage rebellion against mainstream opinion, it was always a great joy to rub your successes in the face of people who wanted nothing more than your failures. In particular in 2013, the author went the whole mile on it to the point that him still being around to write these lines and has not been told to sod off really showcases the patience of this community.

Of course, public opinion began to shift once you followed both your dreams and the career path of your favourite Formula 1 driver and experienced yourself why Ferrari had not won a driver’s title for 21 years until Michael and his associates came around and has gone without any championships for 14 seasons now. As you came to be more appreciated for your inherent sense of humour and your joy and the resentment of your success faded away, many of us settled into their lives and communities, found out where and with whom we belong or do not belong and made do with what we had while continuing to chase whatever white whale we were hunting in our lives.

Just like you, the author and those he is speaking for, had their setbacks, had their low points. However, again, just like you, we learned that very few mistakes are the end of the world and that just as we make mistakes, so do the people around us. Sometimes the latter’s mistakes are much more severe, in fact. We also saw sides of us we look back on and know that those are sides we think are better off suppressed. There was a beautiful poignancy in you recently saying that your biggest regret of those Ferrari years was your incident with Sir Lewis Hamilton at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. While the author thinks it was merely Hamilton getting his just desserts for at the time a decade of erratic driving behind the Safety Car, you gracefully have come to understand that this self-perceived lack of sportsmanship was not something you wanted to showcase (anymore). This understanding speaks to the author in particular, given as he himself had moments in that very same year of 2017, where he has shown behaviour he knows to never let happen again.

This understanding of oneself and, going along with it, finding out what values are important and what is worth speaking out on, lead us to the final years of your career. You started showing more of your beliefs and made use of your fame to speak out on issues you felt were worth speaking up about. While this of course gained you many fans, it also alienated people who feel that sports and politics should be kept apart (such as the current FIA president) and those who did not like the uncomfortable points you brought up. While it may seem to have come naturally to you, this is something many younger people just cannot do yet. It takes an understanding of whose opinions really matter to oneself, which is something most people have to gain through time. That is why the author thinks that there is no reason to be concerned about the young drivers not picking up the slack once you and Hamilton, the “forefathers” of the current politically vocal drivers, are no longer around. They just need time.

“We have to remember these days because there is no guarantee that they will last forever,” were your famous words after winning the 2013 United States Grand Prix. That was true about your place in Formula 1 at the time, your life at the time and it will be true for the next phase of your life. There is a reason “They grow up so fast” is the universal cliché of parenthood, so the author wishes you nothing but joy raising your three children. Regardless of whether we see you on any race track anywhere again, the author and many other Formula 1 fans of his age thank you for all the good memories and for, in a way, allowing us to grow alongside you and see the changes in us reflected in you and your career.

It has been a blast.

Yours sincerely,

Lennart Gottorf