Eoin Harrington reporting from the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest.
The F1 world was rocked by a surprise announcement ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix, as four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel announced his retirement from the sport come the end of the 2022 season.
Vettel, currently with Aston Martin, had only last week laughed off rumours that he could sign with McLaren from 2023 onwards to replace the struggling Daniel Ricciardo.
Vettel is, admittedly, 35 years old, so the news shouldn’t necessarily come as too much of a surprise. But, given the other great of his generation, Lewis Hamilton, is committed to another two years at Mercedes (by the end of which he will be 39), it is certainly a definitive and brave choice.
This undoubted sporting giant departs the stage unexpectedly early and, naturally, this weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix brought a lot of attention to the German's door. His performance across the weekend reminded us of why he will be remembered so fondly, despite some disappointment across the past few years.
Hungarian F1 GP: Sebastian Vettel leaves behind a brilliant but complicated legacy
Aston Martin entered the Hungarian Grand Prix with a controversial rear wing upgrade. They would have hoped that adjusting to the new car and perfecting its performance would have been the main focus of their weekend.
The team, and the sport as whole, were unexpectedly rocked on Thursday afternoon. Aston Martin man Sebastian Vettel joined Instagram overnight into Thursday, before a midday post announced his shock retirement from the sport.
An outpouring of affection for Vettel came from all spheres of the F1 world, but there was still a race to be had, and it gave us a fascinating insight into how the German might be remembered in the annals of history.
The upgrades certainly brought additional pace to the Aston Martin and – from this author’s vantage point at turn 11 – they looked quick in the early stages of FP3 in the wet on Saturday.
Vettel was pushing his car, running wide several times at turn 11 while attempting to perfect his line, before the slippery conditions caught him out and sent him into the turn 10 barriers.
A red flag in FP3 as Sebastian Vettel slides off at turn 10. pic.twitter.com/Mv1IG7Gsz4
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) July 30, 2022
His disappointment was palpable, and it left the team in a scramble to prepare his car for qualifying. Despite showing such promise throughout practice, he would ultimately qualify in a measly P18.
This has happened to Vettel several times since joining Aston Martin, and he has regularly given himself too much to do late in the weekend. It is partly why he has struggled to comprehensively defeat his inferior teammate Lance Stroll in their year and a half together in green.
And yet, his race on Sunday was his strongest of the year. He fought his way up from P18 to the points, making thrilling passes on superior cars in the early phases, including two brilliant moves on the Alpines of Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso.
This was a performance that the world championship-winning Sebastian Vettel of old would have been proud of – and it could have been even better if a late virtual safety car had not prevented him from repassing Ocon for P9.
For a driver who has never won a race from lower than third on the grid, Vettel is a much better racer than he receives credit for. So many of his most memorable drives have seen him cut his way through the field after misfortune.
Think of his brilliant drive from the pitlane to the podium at Abu Dhabi in 2012. Or his recovery to P6 and the world title after a first lap spin at that year’s season finale in Brazil. Or his Hockenheim podium from P20 in 2019. Or Turkey 2020, Baku 2021, Hungary 2021, this year’s Budapest race. The list goes on.
There’s no denying that Vettel’s powers have diminished significantly in recent years – if ever a driver had an easily fashioned “career turning point”, then Hockenheim 2018 seems it. Crashing out of the lead of his home race all on his own in the Ferrari handed the championship lead to rival Lewis Hamilton – a lead Vettel never recovered.
That crash set off a chain reaction of events that saw Sebastian lose confidence – and Ferrari lose confidence in him. Charles Leclerc was signed as a long-term replacement, Vettel was frozen out, the mistakes began to become more frequent and, truth being told, he hit a complete zenith in 2020, a year in which he was lucky to finish on the podium just once.
And yet, Hungary this weekend also showed that, perhaps, Vettel wasn’t entirely the issue at Ferrari. They have proven themselves thoroughly incapable of managing a title battle with two different drivers in the past five years now. They could have had twice as many as their four race wins in 2022 had it not been for their strategic errors and car issues – issues that cost Vettel dear in the title battles of 2017 and 2018.
It may seem harsh to focus in on the issues Sebastian Vettel has faced in his career. The entire F1 paddock has rightfully spent the weekend celebrating one of the sport’s true great champions in light of his surprise announcement last week.
But this champion comes with a complicated asterisk – his downfall in the final two and a half years at Ferrari is what many fans, particularly new ones, will remember. They will, regrettably, not think of Brazil or Abu Dhabi 2012, or his back-to-back dominations of the Asian rounds from 2011 to 2013, or his miracle work in the Ferrari in 2015. They may not even know of his win in the poor Toro Rosso at Monza in 2008.
They will remember the late-career lapses, and the mistakes at Ferrari which arguably pushed him out of the team and placed him at the weaker Aston Martin in the first place.
And yet, just as in Baku and Hungary last year, 2022’s race in Budapest was a perfect example of Vettel’s sheer grit and determination, an ability to get the very most out of a car that we have, admittedly, only seen in flashes over the fast few years. On his day, there are less than a handful of drivers who can match the four-times Weltmeister.
When all is said and done, Vettel will retire as the third most successful driver in the sport’s history in terms of race wins, as the sport’s youngest ever world champion (which he followed with another three in succession), who won for three different teams and took podiums for four. He is among the greats, and should unquestionably be mentioned and seriously considered in any “Greatest of all time” debates.
All of the above comes before we even mention his persistent and admirable championing of human rights, vocal support of anti-racism movements, humanitarianism and, perhaps most notably, his push for action in the climate crisis. Particularly in the surprisingly early twilight of his F1 career, Vettel has been an example of how a true sporting icon should behave, and the next generation would do well to learn from him.
Sebastian Vettel has not only been a true champion of this sport, but one of the greatest human beings to pass through it. Formula 1 will be lesser without him.
It was a privilege for this long-term admirer to witness Vettel in the flesh in his final year in the sport. I am thankful that, at the very least, we have nine more races with this true sporting great on the grid.
Let’s all enjoy them while we can.
Wrapping up from the Hungarian Grand Prix
|Red Bull Racing-RBPT
|8 (+2 sprint wins)
|Red Bull Racing-RBPT
|Mercedes AMG F1
|Carlos Sainz Jr
- Driver of the day: No one other than Max Verstappen is an option here. Lewis Hamilton put in a mega shift and Vettel himself would have been a contender on any other weekend but Verstappen is just on another level to his competitors this season. P10 to P1, including a spin and on-track passes for several positions, make him the unquestionable top performer from the Hungaroring.
- Day to forget: It’s becoming tiresome to have to pick Ferrari every single week for this but the last race in which something didn’t go wrong for them was Canada – and, even then, Leclerc’s race was compromised by an engine penalty. They completely botched their strategy in Hungary, costing both drivers a shot at the podium, and completely ending Leclerc’s title hopes. The decision to put Leclerc on the hard tyres at the second round of pitstops is impossible to comprehend. Tough one to take for the Tifosi.
- The big question ahead of the summer break: Are Mercedes about to overtake Ferrari? They have now taken double podiums at back-to-back races where Ferrari initially looked stronger, and Lewis Hamilton has taken five successive podiums. Given how the late season kick was seen in 2017, '18 and '21 from Mercedes, we have every reason to believe they can kick on from here and take P2 in the championship.