SPIEGEL: Mr. Vettel, when was the last time you refueled your car?
Vettel: That was a while ago. I travel electrically at home in Switzerland. My wife’s car and my car are charged by electricity in the garage. We always go full speed.
SPIEGEL: Are these hybrid cars or fully-electric vehicles?
Vettel: Purely electric. We also have a minibus for family trips, which is very practical with three children. Now I remember the last time I filled up with petrol: It was on the way back from the Monaco Grand Prix. At a rest stop at night.
SPIEGEL: You no longer fly to races?
Vettel: Whenever a flight can be avoided, I take the train or the car. For example to Monza, to Imola or this week to Spielberg.
SPIEGEL: How does your environmental awareness affect your private life?
Vettel: We have a photovoltaic system on the roof so that we can generate our own electricity at least during the day. I changed the electricity provider several years ago, to 100 percent renewable energy. And then we avoid plastic wherever possible. Now we only drink filtered water from the tap. And when I go shopping in the store, I always have a backpack or something with me. I once read the sentence: “It’s just a plastic bag,” said eight billion people. And already there were eight billion more plastic bags.
SPIEGEL: The four-time world champion in the full-throttle industry as an ecological role model – don’t you have to laugh at yourself?
Vettel: When I started paying attention to sustainability years ago, of course I had to ask myself whether I am not a hypocrite. On the one hand I pollute the environment through my work, on the other hand I propagate things to protect the environment. So first I changed my habits, like frequent flying, and then I talked about it.
SPIEGEL: What specific habits have you changed?
Vettel: We still eat meat, but we make sure that it does not come from factory farming. We have also given up the need to have everything at all times and do not buy food that is brought in from other continents. Instead, we ask ourselves: Which products are seasonal? What is growing in our area right now? We just don’t want to leave such a large ecological footprint.
SPIEGEL: Has the corona pandemic affected your behavior?
Vettel: Maybe I had a little more time and the opportunity to think. But the driving factor is the children. They make you aware that time is moving on – and that the responsibility is great.
SPIEGEL: The discussion in Germany about short-haul flights or more expensive gasoline shows that there is still a broad front against ecologically induced unreasonable demands.
Vettel: For me, these are people who do not want to understand that there is no alternative to a more environmentally conscious life. This is not a trend that comes and goes again. It is urgent. We shouldn’t point fingers at the others. And we shouldn’t always talk about it without doing something. This is the wrong approach. The right thing to do would be to ask yourself what you can personally do to make the future better.
SPIEGEL: As a racing driver you are in a business that produces a lot of harmful things: noise, CO2. You are an advertising figure for luxury cars, most recently Ferrari, now Aston Martin – a blatant contradiction to your demands.
Vettel: First of all, I am generally of the opinion that opposing saying makes you lively. In fact, Formula 1 produces harmful things, which I also criticize publicly. The globalized sports and especially the motorsport industry should slip much more into a pioneering and role model role. Racing drivers should show that they can live out their passion in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. And not at the expense of others.
SPIEGEL: What is stopping you from doing that?
Vettel: The current hybrid regulations have given us what is probably the most efficient combustion engine of all time. No engine in the world produces so much power with so little fuel consumption. The lesson that car manufacturers recently learned in Formula 1 is only of limited benefit to normal customers – because the technology is rarely used in series production.
SPIEGEL: Why is that so?
Vettel: Because the requirements of a race are completely different than in normal traffic. We drive full throttle the whole time, brake the car brutally before the corner and go full throttle again at the apex of the corner. And because it was said that the technology of the future was the drive package with two electric powered engines, which are fed by the braking energy and the hot exhaust air. Now we have 1000hp available, it’s fascinating. Unfortunately far too complex and too expensive for series production.
SPIEGEL: Formula 1 team bosses like Toto Wolff from Mercedes say the Grand Prix circus has a communication problem. It was not possible to explain the great efficiency of the hybrid engines to the audience.
Vettel: For me, the problem of Formula 1 is not a question of communication. It’s a matter of relevance. We wonder if we can shoot fireworks in the air on New Year’s Eve – because that also produces and emits CO2. At a time like this, it is absolutely justified that Formula 1 must fight for its place and its eligibility. So it should once again become a development laboratory for the benefit of series production and – because we need mobility – for the benefit of the environment.
SPIEGEL: What does series production owe to Formula 1?
Vettel: Innovations like the anti-lock braking system for the brakes or traction control. Driving became safer and accidents were avoided. I call that relevance. If you look into my racing car today, it doesn’t have any of this.
Vettel: Because you put the driver’s performance in the foreground. And with it the sport and with it the entertainment. That was also correct, but it made Formula 1 less relevant.
SPIEGEL: How can Formula 1 become the automotive industry’s development laboratory again?
Vettel: The development of synthetic fuels could be a great opportunity.
SPIEGEL: The German auto industry has moved forward and is relying on electric vehicles. And you want to save the outdated combustion engine?
Vettel: There are around a billion cars in the world that burn diesel or gasoline. You won’t be able to replace them overnight. So it would be desirable to find a way to make these cars run without harming the environment. I know that synthetic fuels are still at the beginning of development, that they still take time, that they are expensive. But if no one pushes this development, they will always remain expensive.
SPIEGEL: Do you think switching to electric vehicles was a mistake?
Vettel: I wouldn’t speak of a mistake. But as with everything in life, you shouldn’t just bet on one horse. We can’t just look at Germany. We have to look at this globally and take into account regions in which the departure from the internal combustion engine cannot be carried out so quickly. Who should build a suitable charging infrastructure in Africa or South America in a short time? And what about trucks, ships, airplanes? It is not possible to predict when they will be able to operate electrically. So we need alternatives. And for that, Formula 1 is almost an obvious choice.
SPIEGEL: The world automobile association FIA has frozen the engine regulations until 2025. Manufacturers have invested hundreds of millions in the existing engines. They should first amortize themselves.
Vettel: I understand the argument. Only when the FIA announces that it will be pushing for more environmentally friendly engines from 2025 I will ask why we are delaying an urgent development. It takes the courage to no longer hold onto old things. No longer taking the interests of certain individuals into consideration, but rather acting in the interests of all of us.
SPIEGEL: After your five years at Ferrari, you didn’t end your career, but looked for a new job in Formula 1. So you’ve decided to stay part of the system.
Vettel: Please assume that I openly express my opinion to the decision-makers who make the rules. And as a driver I will probably be listened to more than as a Formula 1 retiree. Again: if the rules stipulated that perhaps 50 percent synthetic fuel should be added for the transition and then, in a few years’ time, 100 percent non-fossil fuel would be used, that would be exactly the challenge that Formula 1 needs – technical innovations quickly brought on the roads.
SPIEGEL: The Grand Prix circus leaves a huge ecological footprint. There used to be 16 races, mostly in Europe, today there are 23 races, and the entourage with people and equipment flies from continent to continent.
Vettel: Absolutely. The racing calendar makes little sense. At the moment it follows the interests of individual countries and individual sponsors too much, as does the senseless waste of resources at air shows. These are things that can be tackled very quickly and whose changes would have a big impact. I hear about other sports that want to reduce their travel expenses. In the future, the ski circus wants to avoid constantly moving between Austria, Switzerland and other Alpine countries and instead plan a sensible train through the winter.
SPIEGEL: Would Formula 1 be ready for that?
Vettel: At least there is some talk about it. The Formula 1 operators recently invited me to a round table on environmental issues in Monte Carlo, where the racing calendar was also up for discussion. I hope this will be tackled now.
SPIEGEL: Sport enjoys far-reaching autonomy. Should politics provide more impetus for environmental issues?
Vettel: First of all, it would be important if people understood that environmental protection concerns us all. And then I would like to see a change in Germany to show the world that one is setting a good example. That you don’t just talk about it, you finally act. With its decision on climate protection, the Federal Constitutional Court has increased the pressure considerably. I think that this also requires a change at the top.
SPIEGEL: Would you like the Greens to come to power?
Vettel: I know that the Greens are often labeled as a prohibition party. But we have to get away from concepts like prohibition or renunciation and from the fear that everything will turn out to be bad. We should see the opportunities.
SPIEGEL: Will you choose green?
Vettel: At the moment, almost every party is including climate protection on its flag and in its program. The question is, with whom is something really happening? We should vote for a government that we believe will most authentically stand up for these principles and values. Yes I will choose green.
SPIEGEL: Aren’t you shocked that the Greens will insist on speed restrictions on German autobahns if they join the government?
Vettel: The times when you could really accelerate on the autobahn are over. It feels like half of the road network is a construction site, and the other half has so much traffic that you can’t drive fast. I even believe that we would be better off if the speed limit was 120 or 130 – because the traffic would then flow much better.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Vettel, thank you for this interview.