Sebastian Vettel explains what Ferrari is missing to compete with Mercedes, his relationship to his big rival Lewis Hamilton, why he prefers the racing cars of the nineties and many more.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Vettel, you are a public person, your words are spread all over the world on every Grand Prix weekend, tens of millions of spectators examine your work. Let’s talk about respect.
Vettel: Should I quickly look in the dictionary, what is the real meaning? Or do we agree on what the respect and esteem of a person mean?
SPIEGEL: How do people earn respect, due to their attitude or their life achievements?
Vettel: I could now say a lot, but that would mostly be a look from the outside. Deeds inspire respect, the human behind it, the character. The essence, however, remains hidden. Through my job I have met many famous people, but with some the closer encounter was rather a disappointment.
SPIEGEL: Who was not like that?
Vettel: I’m interested in sports and music, that’s why I call two now: Paul McCartney and Rafael Nadal. My respect for them has grown by getting to know them.
SPIEGEL: How did you get to know the Spanish tennis hero Nadal?
Vettel: At a charity match in Zurich. Nadal played against Roger Federer. I went to the locker room, they both were super nice.
Vettel: Somehow I always had the tendency to Nadal. I like his game, it’s so passionate, so physical, even his quirks and routines. I then visited him at Wimbledon, and we once met in Japan. He’s a normal guy, and that’s something I extremely admire. That may sound a bit banal, but he stays true to himself, does not pretend, and that over a long career with big wins and serious injuries – that’s why I respect Nadal very much.
SPIEGEL: Can you give a measure of mutual respect, also in Formula 1?
Vettel: That’s the case with Lewis Hamilton.
SPIEGEL: To be sure, reigning World Champion Hamilton is a social media star with more than 20 million followers, a jet setter. You, however, refuse to use social media and are at every minute with your partner and your two daughters at Lake Constance.
Vettel: Sure, we are very different in private, but one has nothing to do with the other. We are now at a level where everyone knows: I do my job well and try to make it better and better. But the other one is really good at that too.
SPIEGEL: Since when do you feel this respect?
Vettel: At some point it clicked. It’s not like I do not respect the other Formula One drivers, but with Lewis it already stands out. You can also feel it when it is mutual. I think it’s important to perceive and understand that for yourself. That does not mean that I am happy when I drive behind him to the finish line.
SPIEGEL: Can you give Hamilton the victory acknowledgement?
Vettel: I acknowledge achievements. And if the moment of victory does not belong to me, for whatever reason, then it belongs to somebody else, that too should be respected – we spend too much time complaining and struggling and give little time in complimenting anyway.
SPIEGEL: You fight each other during the race, and at the end of the race you get out and pat, friendly and honestly, Hamilton’s shoulder?
Vettel: Of course, if he deserves it. Too often these days there is a lack of admiration for what has been achieved. This does not only apply to Formula 1 winners. The speed of our lives does not give space for reflection and admiration. Everything is forgotten very quickly, and immediately the next story is written.
SPIEGEL: Is your approach to Hamilton different from the younger drivers, with the new Formula 1 generation?
Vettel: Consciously not, but subconsciously maybe. Everyone has earned their place in Formula 1. No nose drill comes to us.
SPIEGEL: Don’t young drivers like Leclerc have to be blessed with a fair amount of disrespect if they want to survive in Formula One? How did you meet the established drivers when you started at the age of 19?
Vettel: Disrespect is not the right word. I had a lot of respect for someone by just seeing their name from the television: Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, later I even went against Michael Schumacher, which was especially fun because he was my idol as a kid. But I was not in awe. I tried to get things sorted as good as possible. And when I read my name on the list of times ahead of those of the big ones, I was very proud of it.
SPIEGEL: Your new teammate Leclerc is sometimes faster than you. How do you deal with each other when you are both colleagues and competitors?
Vettel: I think we are a good team. We are working hard to develop the car together. The goal is to become world champion with Ferrari. We both want to achieve that.
SPIEGEL: In the end, someone will have to back off.
Vettel: Enzo Ferraris once said: “Not a single person is bigger than Ferrari.”
SPIEGEL: In 2009, your first season in the Red Bull Racing team, you narrowly missed the world championship – and then you were very disappointed, even though your career was still ahead of you. Are you more relaxed today with defeats?
Vettel: I can still remember the decisive race in Brazil. Winning the World Championship was my dream. And being so close to this dream and not having made it was a huge disappointment. I did not know if I would get this chance a second time. Above all, the first championship title in 2010 has brought a lot of relaxation. And the luxury of being able to win a second, third and fourth title has taken the pressure away. But that does not mean that today I’m developing less ambition.
SPIEGEL: Why did you take up the challenge in 2015 of becoming a World Champion with Ferrari? You have failed four times now.
Vettel: If you commit yourself to the Formula 1 project, you also have to accept non-winning. After the introduction of the new regulations with the hybrid engines, the years until 2016 were characterized by Mercedes being totally superior. There seemed to be a chance in 2017 and 2018, but to be honest, in both years we were not strong enough to have a say.
SPIEGEL: And you politely congratulated Hamilton.
Vettel: There were also very good races in the past two years, good results, at least eleven victories. But what remains is the moment when you realize: It’s over. I hate the feeling when you miss the train, and you don’t find yourself in it anymore.
SPIEGEL: The first four races of 2019 nourish the suspicion that the train will leave again without you. Mercedes has a perfect record with Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas: four double victories. What makes them so strong?
Vettel: They have the best car and masterfully put that superiority in use. But I’m sure: when we’re at eye level, we can beat them. We have already been able to prove this in phases.
SPIEGEL: Ferrari was quick in the pre-season tests, even on Fridays, during free practice for the race, you were often ahead. What is missing for the actual Grand Prix?
Vettel: Let’s take the last race in Baku: bringing the tires up to operating temperature has always been an issue in Formula One; they should not be too cold and not too hot. The regulations stipulate that two different tire types must be used in the race. Like all the drivers in the front field, I started with the softer compound, usually after two laps the tires reach the correct temperature window. That did not work for me, I lost seven seconds to Mercedes in eleven laps.
SPIEGEL: In Formula One, that’s a little eternity.
Vettel: Right. After that, like most people, I changed the tires to a slightly harder compound – and from then on I drove around the same times as Mercedes, so we were on par. In short: The Mercedes cars fit better in Baku to the softer tires than ours. Which is crazy: It may be that Mercedes themselves do not know why their tires work.
SPIEGEL: The impatience of the Ferraristi is legendary. Do you read the headlines?
Vettel: Not so much, even for self-protection. I like to read the sports section because I follow other sports, but not Formula 1. Of course, I’m curious about technical novelties. But I know that many of the stories have nothing to do with the truth.
SPIEGEL: In Formula 1, teams and managers like to spread rumors, make up stories…
Vettel: I’m not interested in such games. I do not think I’m too stupid. I just do not think it’s right.
SPIEGEL: Do you ignore that?
Vettel: When it comes to myself, I’m usually over it. If it touches the team, I’ll intervene. We have 1400 people working here, and I do not want the mood to be adversely affected by headlines with no well-founded background made up only of puff pie.
SPIEGEL: On the other hand, you may be criticized for a weak placement – but the public remains unaware that the team has made mistakes: in race strategy, tire choice or in the car. Would not you like to reveal the truth then?
Vettel: I’d better stick the beating – and make sure that we can concentrate on our work in peace. I would never criticize bad decisions of the team, already internally. And I would look for the reasons because I like to have answers.
SPIEGEL: The youngest resigned basketball pro Dirk Nowitzki has complained how Germany treats sports idols. As soon as there was a reason to gloat, people rush to it. Can you share Nowitzki’s observation?
Vettel: I can sign that. I am working with Italians for the fifth year and have been dealing with English for six years before that. So I know the reputation we Germans have: being fussy, never satisfied, always looking for the negative. This sort may also be a strength, but in terms of people’s appreciation, a little more ease and loyalty would be nicer.
SPIEGEL: Thanks to on-board cameras, slow-motions, and simulations about the speed, the TV viewer sits in the cockpit with you. And when a mishap happens, they quickly say, why didn’t he stop that, why did not he see this coming? Can you even strategically weigh your actions in the car, or do you act intuitively?
Vettel: The question is, if you have the time to weigh up. The start is a good example: you prepare by looking at the starts of the previous years and thinking, where will I be before the first corner? Most of the time it happens differently, and the instinct determines whether one pulls to the right or left. The good driver tends to choose the right one, although he himself can hardly substantiate it.
SPIEGEL: Most Formula One drivers believe they can drive faster than anyone else. The limiting factor in this world of thought is just the car. Do self-doubts make you slow?
Vettel: I don’t think so. I think I can beat everyone. But I also know that I’m beatable. There are days when others are better. I do not like that, but that’s how it is.
SPIEGEL: Can you explain what’s important in the cockpit? What makes the difference between the first and the fifth row?
Vettel: It’s the interplay between the driver’s intuition, his sense of the right choices, and the data the race engineers analyze. A vehicle has hundreds of sensors, and we can use telemetry to explain what the car does every split second. And what the driver does – when he brakes, when he turns, how he turns. So the engineer shows me options for action. If I’m not open to it, I can not get on. This data knowledge also levels out the differences between the drivers.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Vettel: If somebody used to be quicker in a corner because he was driving his own line, he had that lead until someone else behind him had the ability to copy the line. If things went well, he kept his lead throughout the race weekend. Today everything is so transparent that the engineers propose the faster line.
SPIEGEL: The creative driver is like the cook whose recipe is betrayed?
Vettel: The intellectual property is stolen, after seconds my teammate knows, after minutes, the entire competition. The data monitoring has taken us part of our craft.
SPIEGEL: Do you regret this development?
Vettel: Telemetry is a fundamental evil in my opinion. When it rains, many of the learned reference points change, so where do I have to slow down, where can I accelerate – and there are already – the bigger differences between the drivers. These are the moments when we are alone in the cockpit, then it gets tingling.
SPIEGEL: Are you in favor of technical disarmament?
Vettel: If I had the power, I would put more emphasis on the driver. For example, return to manual switching; that would bring more admiration to the audience again. Years ago I drove a Ferrari built in 1988, the car of Gerhard Berger. Without power steering, with three pedals, because you still had to switch yourself, very simple, less perfect, a little slower, but a bit more lively.
SPIEGEL: In which era would you have liked to drive in Formula One?
Vettel: Mid-90s. There was permanent monitoring, not yet by telemetry, but the cars already had a high level, the aerodynamics produced a lot of downforce, allowed high cornering speeds. At the same time the cars were deadly, puristic.
SPIEGEL: Then you would go against Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.
Vettel: Yes, that would be exciting.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Vettel, we thank you for this interview.