On Cars, 2020 & Racing
Wheels Australia Magazine|December 2020
Modern challenges call for modern athletes, as Mark Hughes discovers in this wide-ranging conversation with four-time F1 champion – and notoriously private – Sebastian Vettel
Mark Hughes
It’s very easy at the moment to feel that the world has become a worse place than it was. A global pandemic that has merely punctuated a climate emergency, an economy on the verge of annihilation, increasing sections of society on the streets either protesting or living, racial tensions as though the civil rights movement of the ’60s hadn’t happened. Sport has long been an escape for fans from bigger world problems, motorsport no exception.

As crunch time approaches, it cannot ignore the environment in which its bubble exists – which is not a popular view among many fans. But it’s one that even F1’s biggest stars are confronting, none more so than Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. The process is particularly illuminating with Vettel.

Here is a guy steeped in cars, racing and competing since childhood, who was absolutely as blinkered and focused as necessary to succeed in this incredibly demanding sport. Vettel has enjoyed enormous success and yet still remained in love with what he does, even now as his career seems to be caught in a downward vortex, swirling him around below the surface over which he used to skim from one success to another. But as that has happened, as he has matured and his horizons have expanded, he has taken on other concerns – bigger ones. Here is a mature, intelligent man struggling to make sense of the world, like many at this momentous time. Except he’s in the spotlight. We are seeing him – and Hamilton – evolve in front of our eyes.

Many may not like it, but it’s happening regardless. Here are two poster boys for a sport that used to almost celebrate its ostentatious wastefulness on the altar of free will and chasing performance for its own sake, for the sheer beauty and thrill of it. But the world’s problems are crowding in and here’s a man caught in the middle of that conflict, a four-time champion still in love with the sport, but with a young family growing up in an increasingly troubled place. He understands the charges of hypocrisy that voicing his concerns will elicit. But feels he must speak out regardless.

“Yes, people will call me a hypocrite because racing in F1 is probably the opposite of the direction the world needs to be taking,” he says. “The climate crisis is overwhelming. The scientists tell us that even if we switched off [industrial activity] for good we would still need more than that, we would need to be doing [carbon] captures. I’m not racing to damage the world. It’s my passion and I ended up by accident to be racing. But I do believe there are ways to make the world better for us all now and for future generations. I believe there are solutions where we don’t have to relinquish certain things. We are clever enough that we can work this out, where we can find a solution and still have the joy and passion and maybe make it even more exciting. But we in F1 should be doing a lot more. We have a great responsibility towards society, the planet, our own consciousness.”

Wheels caught up with Vettel at Monza, where 12 years earlier he’d won his first grand prix, almost as a miracle, for the little Toro Rosso team. Life was a lot simpler for the 21-year-old, who’d beaten the world’s best in the top teams.

“It’s completely normal that bigger things caught up,” he says. “I’ve been on this planet for another 12 years and you get to see a lot of stuff, learn a lot of stuff inside racing, outside, in the car, out the car, but also in life. When you compare yourself between 20 and 30 there’s a lot happening.”

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