crankandpiston.com sits down with recently crowned Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel to discuss his relationship with Red Bull Racing and technical partners Infiniti, upcoming changes for the 2014 season, why his career as a footballer never really took off, and why winning a fourth world title hasn’t changed the young German’s attitude.[Not a valid template]
There’s a flurry of camera flashes as the man we’ve all been waiting for – recently crowned Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel – steps into the media room, broad smile front and centre and apologises for being slightly late. That doesn’t seem to bother the assembled masses, with TV cameras and voice recorders being clicked on almost in unison.
Yep, well spotted. Unlike crankandpiston’s interview last year with the then two-time world champion, this year commitments and mob scenes have eroded Sebastian’s time, and we are unable to grab a one-on-one interview. It’s a shame, since questions we have been dying to ask – including his thoughts on new teammate Daniel Ricciardo, the new Ferrari pairing of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, the Multi-21 incident in Malaysia, and THAT one-fingered celebratory salute of his – are unlikely to get past Infiniti and Red Bull Racing scrutiny.
Still, aren’t you even a little curious to hear what a four-time world champion – only two men have won more in the sport’s 63-year history – has to say? We know we are.
Sebastian, first of all many congratulations on becoming the youngest four-time world champion in Formula 1 history. We understand in India you celebrated your title by helping the Red Bull team take the garage down…
Yeah, helping them to get ready in time for the party. I think we all deserved a little drink in India after the race. Actually the last two or three days have been a bit more quiet, but we have a job to do again this weekend and I think this Sunday night we will have a little more time to focus on our celebrations.
As you say, compared with the attention you normally get with the F1 circus, you’ve had a quiet week since India. Was this time you deliberately set aside?
Well I have a lot of time for myself now, which is nice. It’s been a busy year, with the races and lots of people dragging me from one place to another! But yeah, it’s nice also to be normal, calm down and just do normal things. It was nice to spend some time at home and just enjoy some quiet time. I didn’t think every minute about India and what happened, but that’s always at the back of your mind.
You’re 26 years old. You’re now one of the most successful Grand Prix drivers in history, with four world championships, 36 victories (fourth in the all-time list), 43 pole positions and 21 fastest laps. But was there a time when you thought about being something other than a Grand Prix driver?
Yeah, I tried lots of things when I was small. I started racing when I was younger and obviously then the dream of becoming a racing driver grew, but at that stage it is out of reach. It is a dream, like for example if you want to become a fireman. I mean, I started playing football and imagined myself becoming a footballer at some stage but I quickly came to realise that I didn’t have the skills: others were better and I was never very good at passing the ball! But yeah, I did a lot of different things, and even played tennis for a while.
But these interests never amounted to anything serious…
At the time I wasn’t really interested in anything that serious early on. Later when I was finished with high school I was just like everyone else y’know, trying to find a potential job and looking at which universities to go to, what I wanted to study, etc. Luckily though I got a phone call and was called up to motor racing.
Many would say you made the right choice! Of your four championships, is there one in particular that means more to you? Your first crown in 2010 for instance, where you only led the standings once, at the season finale in Abu Dhabi?
Well it’s difficult because I don’t think it’s fair to compare one championship to another. I think every one is very, very special. Maybe in ten years when I’m still around and trying to get back to the level that we have achieved, I might be in a better position to appreciate. You could argue that we saw this title coming because we had a big lead in the points, but when you cross the line and realise that the points you have is enough, it’s a great relief and a great feeling but you feel oddly empty at that time. There are so many things you would love to say to the team and would love to do, but you can’t. It’s difficult to grasp the moment. But it’s a nice feeling and I would obviously like to make it last forever. It’s lasted a fair while(!), so hopefully we can make that last into the next couple of races and take that momentum into next year.
Is the success down to work or chance?
I think you create your own luck. Obviously we work very hard and fortunately I have the right people around me, but in a way you pick the right people too. So it’s a combination of you giving everything that you have, finding the right people and them giving you everything that they have. It all needs to come together in the end for you to be successful.
You’ve had a phenomenal second half of the year, winning six races on the bounce (Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Korea, Japan and India). Would you attribute this to a step up in your own performance or further development of the Red Bull RB9?
It’s actually a lot of things coming together. I’m sure I didn’t find a second during the summer break, since that would have meant during the first half of the season I was still asleep! Obviously you give it everything you have but it’s also the whole team, understanding the car. We’ve had some updates, yes, but apart from the steps that we made on the technical side, it was us being able to better judge the car after Friday practices to get a feel and fine-tune the setup in the right direction rather than the wrong direction. I think usually that’s what makes you more competitive or more in control in the second half of a season. Fortunately we’ve done more right than wrong.
Absolutely. And although the title is already settled, there are still three F1 races to go this year. Is Red Bull’s focus still on 2013 or will you now be concentrating on 2014 and the new technical regulations?
Well, like I say, I spent some quiet days at home to get ready for Abu Dhabi. You don’t have to set a target. We love racing and we love the challenge, and that’s why I think we’re looking forward to give the best we have this weekend.
You’re well-established as a figurehead in the sport, but does it still feel odd to be a role model for young aspiring racers?
Yeah, I think you can never really get used to that position. It’s still funny, whenever I go back to the go-kart track to have some fun, the way the kids look at you is very nice but also very unexpected. I can understand obviously, but when I wake up in the morning I’m not looking back and thinking ‘oh you’ve achieved this and this and you’re this and this kind of guy’. I’m a normal guy, that’s how I approach everyday.
As well as your day job on-track, you’re also Infiniti’s director of performance. How have you enjoyed your 12 months in the role?
It’s been interesting. It’s clear that I don’t get to spend hundreds of days in the factory trying to develop a car. But I try to give feedback whenever I can. I drive quite a few of the cars home, on the track and also in some different countries, and so on. There’s always something that attracts my attention. Plus the days that we spend together with the engineers, I always try to give as good a feedback as I can. We’ve started a few projects together, the launch of the Q50 out here which we started more or less one year ago. There were a couple of things I didn’t like which we’ve improved. They don’t do everything I tell them(!) but obviously it’s not a racing car, and for me it’s a new process. It takes time to get changes done, and obviously Infiniti needs to meet the interest of not just me but also potential customers.
One of the main projects you’ve corroborated on is the Infiniti FX Vettel Edition. As a Formula 1 driver, why was the decision made to put your name on an SUV rather than say a saloon or a coupe?
Well to be honest, it was my favourite car. Obviously it’s not a completely new version but it’s a bit of a pimp up! There’s been some fine-tuning, so there’s more performance in the car and it looks a little bit different, and you’d be surprised how much work went into it. The outside shell didn’t change too much, but with road cars it’s a long process: even though I said ‘I would like this changed and this different’, sometimes the engineers came back and said, ‘look we would have to change this, it’s a lot more expensive and it would take time’. So it’s a longer process when it comes to road cars but I’m very happy with the result. It’s a cool car. In the future obviously it would be nice to have a project going on that is targeted towards raw performance.
More like the newly launched Q50, for instance…?
To be honest Formula 1 is all about performance but when it comes to road cars, you would like to have the ability to have a car performing the way you like, which we have in the current Q50 – the ability to switch while you are in the driving seat between Comfort and Sport – and it does make a difference. So it depends what you’re looking for in a car. Of course it’s difficult. You want to sell a car to as many people as possible: yes you can find the right taste for one or two guys but there might be one hundred who don’t like it. So there’s always a compromise to find.
What message do you have for those drivers and fans who say you only win because you have the fastest car on the grid?
Well firstly they have to beat us. We’ve worked very hard as a team to get the car that we currently have. But equally I believe other people are working very hard and do have strong cars as well. The same rules apply. They have the same abilities to do the same job we do if not better, but we’re pushing very hard to make sure they don’t. We’ve had different situations during the last four years – very different situations – and managed to come out on top, so I don’t think we would have to prove anything to anybody.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is now just around the corner. Can we expect a seventh win in a row, or are you expecting a slightly more tricky end to the year?
Well if I get in the car on Friday and it feels horrible, we have to turn it around and make it work! But like I said you get better throughout the season by fine-tuning the setup, so your chances of getting it right from the start increases, but the biggest challenge usually around here… well, you’ll see that we have the same tyres here as we did in India, which offered a great challenge to make the soft [compound tyres] last. We didn’t really succeed and pitted on lap two! But we will try to do it again and try to do it better, but it’s a tricky circuit. You’ve got lots of low speed corners where you need both traction and good turning. It’s not that straightforward and there’s a lot to get right. Yes, we’ve had a great run, but that doesn’t really help us approaching this weekend.
– Our thanks to Infiniti Middle East