Down in a garage at the foot of Eau Rouge — the fabled steepling right-hander at Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps circuit — Sebastian Vettel is talking fast and smiling easily. He is in jeans and hoodie, perched on a sofa, and looking so boyish for his 26 years that he could be a gap-year student doing India on a handful of rupees a day.
But he is Formula One world champion for the third consecutive time and the possessor of around £50 million (R800 million) in earnings. Few modern sportsmen of his stature wear their glory more lightly.
Indeed, he is the same kid I remember from an evening in the BMW motorhome when he was finding his way in grand prix racing. He came over to talk to me, a colleague from the Daily Express and a much-loved Formula One figure, press officer Ann Bradshaw, who clearly doted on the German driver like a mother.
While she called up the food, he (a big fan of British comedy shows and Cockney rhyming slang) stopped to chat and tell us about his new favourite English world: kerfuffle. Many sportsmen are approachable when relatively unknown, only to grow wary or reluctant or rude once they have scaled the peaks of their profession. Not so Vettel, the most decorated driver of his generation — the youngest single, double and triple world champion.
Yet a mythology has built, portraying Vettel as a pantomime villain at best or unlovable auto-maton at worst. Others say he is flattered by being in the dominant, Adrian Newey-designed car. Even in Germany some argue he is not a man of the people the way Michael Schumacher was. The old master, the theory goes, would have been, say, a mechanic if he had not been the world’s most successful racer, whereas Vettel comes from a slightly richer family and is more cerebral.
In Britain, the anti-Vettel feeling has occasionally been stronger. When he retired from this year’s British Grand Prix he was shamefully booed by a number of the crowd. Why? He is German and old enmities die hard. He is so successful he breeds resentment for no better reason.
Does it hurt him? “It’s normal,” he says, smiling, the afternoon after he cruised to victory at the Belgian Grand Prix. “I am very happy. I obviously would not swap with anybody.
“There are situations or stories where you want to tell people the truth as you see it. You learn to deal with the fact some think what they want. If it reaches the point where it takes your attention away from your racing then it has got in the way.”
Has that ever happened? “No.” But was the reaction at Silverstone surprising? “Yes. I didn’t understand it. I had not done anything to make them do it. I went up on to the stage later for the post-race concert and got booed again. I took my camera out and said, ‘If you are going to boo me at least do it properly’. I tried to make a laugh out of it.
“But you don’t like it when people boo. Obviously in the British Grand Prix if I am leading and they want a British driver to win they might not like it, which is fair, but booing, I don’t think that is fair. If one starts booing, others join in. I don’t think they were all wanting to boo per se; it was a chain reaction, so you shouldn’t get too upset by that.”
Part of the ill-feeling was perhaps caused by Vettel’s lowest moment as a sportsman: when he ignored team orders and overtook Mark Webber to win the Malaysian Grand Prix in March. He says: “The one thing I regret is that I put myself above the team. I apologised. Apart from that I am racing — and I am not apologising for that.” But is Vettel given favourable treatment at Red Bull? “I am at the source to judge that it isn’t true. Mark and I have the same car and the same chance to win.” So why does Webber allege otherwise? “Everybody chooses his path.” It is a diplomatic response dripping with feeling.
Thankfully for Red Bull’s management, Vettel’s troubled dynamic with Webber has just eight races to run — the first on Sunday in Italy — before the older man leaves Formula One to be replaced by another Australian, Daniel Ricciardo. Despite the criticism, Vettel, speaking at his unveiling as a Braun ambassador, has won avid admirers.
No less than Sir Stirling Moss has drawn comparisons with his hero Juan Manuel Fangio. While Vettel’s prowess is clear — he has won 31 of his 112 races — his down-to-earth nature is almost equally remarkable. His friends are mostly from school and his girlfriend Hanna, who he protects from media exposure, is his school sweetheart.
He still goes to watch football with his pals, having a beer and a sausage. “Typical German,” he says with a laugh. “I give them s*** and they give me s***. It is normal — a nice break from the track.” He has no manager, though Bernie Ecclestone, with whom he plays backgammon, is a close adviser after Vettel sought him out as a novice. He discusses his own contracts, with a lawyer in the background to tie up loose ends.
LOVES THE FARM LIFE
“Sebastian has never changed,” sagacious Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “He brings chocolates for the receptionist every time he visits the factory.”
Vettel lives on a farm between Zurich and Lake Constance, eschewing the glitz of Monaco for rural Switzerland. It is a contrast to the world of Lewis Hamilton, the Briton supposed to vie with Fernando Alonso for the title of driver of his generation before Vettel and Red Bull overtook them.
“Lately, I have got on very well with Lewis,” said Vettel. “He has a different lifestyle, it is fair to say that. I am not on Facebook. I am not on Twitter. I choose the farm, way outside the city. For him, maybe the city and some parties is what he likes. I don’t judge him.
“I think it is important to be who I am. The moment you try to be someone else it backfires. If someone, Lewis for example, likes to live a certain life, in the celebrity world, it is the best way he will recover, strange as it sounds. It probably allows him to perform at his optimum.”
Vettel, so superstitious he not only carries two silver coins in his socks but once became so obsessed with black cats crossing the road in front of him he kept detouring half an hour on his way home, is not counting the expected fourth world title as already won. His lead of 46 points is commanding but not impregnable. If he wins No 4, he knows his drink of choice: a Jager Bomb, or several. This mixture of Jagermeister and Red Bull has been the team’s tipple after the closing race in Brazil over the last couple of years. “They were very numerous,” he said. “We had a good reason.” Let us hope the boo-boys will learn not to begrudge this modest, grounded and unflashy champion another taste of success.
Sebastian Vettel is Global Ambassador for the Braun male power grooming range, launching the shaver brand’s global “Hold on to Your Dreams” project. For more info visit braun.com/uk