Sebastian Vettel’s greatest success is a distant memory, but the four times world champion will leave Formula One at the end of this year with more fans than he had in his heyday.
Vettel won his last title with Red Bull almost a decade ago, while it has been nearly three years since the 35-year-old German, then at Ferrari, last won a race.
News on Thursday of his departure at the end of the season nonetheless triggered an outpouring of appreciation, with the Aston Martin driver hailed as a ‘legend’, ‘inspiration’, ‘ambassador’, ‘one of the all-time greats and ‘class act’.
“Everyone in the paddock loves him,” Spaniard Carlos Sainz, a simulator driver at Red Bull when Vettel was chalking up back-to-back championship success with that team, told reporters at the Hungarian Grand Prix on Thursday. “You will not hear someone speaking bad about Seb.”
Old rival and seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton said Vettel was “leaving this sport better than you found it which is always the goal.”
The tone of the tributes reflected the transformation Vettel has undergone since making his Formula One debut in 2007.
“I feel we live in very decisive times and how we all shape these next years will determine our lives,” said Vettel in his retirement announcement.
“My (F1) passion comes with certain aspects that I’ve learned to dislike.”
He will leave as still the youngest world champion, his 53 wins placing him third in the all-time list led by Hamilton and Michael Schumacher, his boyhood hero.
Only Schumacher, Hamilton and 1950s great Juan Manuel Fangio won more titles.
“He has achieved so much in the sport that it’s really understandable for him to retire,” said Red Bull’s reigning champion Max Verstappen.
“He’s had an amazing career, he’s won a lot of races, he’s won a lot of championships as well … he’s a great ambassador for the sport.”