Will retiring Vettel inspire a new generation of ‘activist drivers’? · RaceFans

“It’s only a matter of time, [time] that we don’t have.” Those were the words of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel as he announced his retirement at the Hungarian Grand Prix, citing environmental concerns directly linked with Formula One and adding he wanted the chance to watch his family grow up.

The four-times world champion, alongside Lewis Hamilton, has been integral in changing the landscape of motorsport in ways beyond their successes. Both have spoken out passionately about the need for prompt action to address climate change and improve diversity, inclusivity and LGBTQ+ rights.

Vettel was branded a ‘hypocrite’ by those who claimed a Formula 1 driver has no business criticising others on environmental grounds. He pushed back during his retirement announcement, saying: “When it comes to the climate crisis there is no way that Formula 1, or any sport or business can avoid it because it impacts on all of us.” He even drove Nigel Mansell’s 1992 Formula 1 championship-winning car at Silverstone using carbon-neutral fuel, claiming this showed how easy switching to sustainable substances would be.

But Vettel’s impending departure – and the expectation Hamilton, two years his senior, does not have many more years left in him – has prompted questions about who would continue to raise awareness for such causes in F1 after they are gone. In 2019, F1 committed to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2030 as part of a wider sustainability strategy, which is one example of the progress Hamilton and Vettel have pushed for.

Report: “Yes I am a hypocrite” admits Vettel after politician’s broadside over oil sands helmet

Hamilton has put his money and time to help change the landscape of F1 and make it more diverse through his Hamilton Commission. At the first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Vettel took a group of women go-karting, throwing the spotlight on rights which were only belatedly granted to the country’s female population recently. Who will do this kind of thing, and put pressure on those at the top to make change happen, after these two champions are gone?

Both drivers began their careers during the Bernie Ecclestone era. The 91-year-old former F1 CEO’s recent remarks on race and politics (some of which he later retracted) left much to be desired, and given that it’s not hard to imagine that under his watch some could have felt reluctant to speak out.

As things stand, once Vettel leaves the majority of drivers on the grid will have made their debuts after Liberty Media took over the sport. Today’s drivers feel freer to speak out.

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Vettel also said his priorities changed as he got older, and suggested the same may happen to the current batch of younger drivers.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Mugello, 2020
Hamilton has also become increasingly outspoken

“I think there’s just a normal sort of progression,” said Vettel. “We have the immense privilege of travelling the world, seeing so many things, and if you don’t ignore everything, then it does something to you.

“I’m not a standing-out example, I look at my friends around me and their thoughts are very different to what I remember the thoughts they had when they were in their early twenties. So I think part of it is just normal.”

He expects the emerging generation of drivers will feel the effects of climate change more sharply. “What hurts me is that people like George [Russell], Lando [Norris], Charles [Leclerc], Max [Verstappen], they don’t have the same freedoms as maybe Lewis and I had.

“And whoever is coming after them will have even less freedoms because it will be more and more central and dictating more and more the way we are living and have to adapt our lives.

“That I don’t think is fair and I’m prepared and ready to fight for this sort of justice and fairness to have the same, for the kids that are go-karting today, to be able to have the same racing career that I had.”

But naturally, a driver coming up through the ranks does not have the same gravitas as one with a couple of world titles in their locker.

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Norris is one example of a younger driver who has used his time in F1 to raise awareness for mental health, like his team mate Daniel Ricciardo. He doesn’t think it’s realistic to expect a driver in the early stages of their career to be as outspoken as Vettel and Hamilton have been.

Norris says Vettel leaves big shoes to fill

“I don’t think anyone in their first five years of Formula 1 is going to fill boots of a guy in his final year,” said Norris.

“The Seb of now is a very different Seb from five or 10 years ago. The ruthless Seb doesn’t look so ruthless anymore.

“It’s very difficult, and I don’t think you can put pressure on any young driver, to say, ‘why aren’t you doing what Seb is doing?’, because young Seb wasn’t doing what Seb’s doing now.

“Everyone’s different. Some people want to stay out of it completely and some people want to help.”

Nonetheless this, Norris stressed he sympathises with Vettel’s position. “There’s no reason why I wouldn’t want to speak up and say things,” he continued. “It’s just in the world we’re living in now, it’s not easy to just say what I feel and give my opinion because there’s so many people who would criticise that opinion.”

“But I would love to because I believe he’s saying everything and he’s doing everything he can for the best reason.

“He’s creating chit chat and he’s creating headlines, which is his whole thing he’s trying to do.”

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Norris is not wrong: Some drivers on the grid have no interest in speaking out. Some feel their job is to drive racing cars, they’re not politicians, so why should they get involved?

Vettel intends to carry on his work outside F1

But F1 has changed. Drive to Survive has made these individuals superstars like never before, household names and heroes of many new young fans exploring the sport for the first time. If Beatlemania proved anything, it is that those in the public eye have a lot more sway than many politicians anyway.

Hamilton believes Vettel had that power, and hoped some of the older voices in the sport will be replaced by the new message he and the German have been sharing.

“We often stand on the shoulders of greats from the past – whether it’s in this sport or other sports.

“I really hope that he inspires the next generation – whether it’s this one or the younger generation that will be coming through – to be more confident and utilising their platform and realising it’s not just about them and their car, it’s about something far, far bigger than being here.

“I really hope we see more people like him. But I can’t guarantee that.”

Vettel’s legacy goes further than racing. He, and Hamilton, have helped shape the sport, for the better. Their places in the sport will, in time, be taken by new talents seeking championships of their own. Now, will they also learn from one of the greats in the sport that the battle isn’t always on track.

Nor is it over. As Vettel said: “My best race? Still to come.”

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