There are many modern innovations that Sebastian Vettel is not a fan of. He doesn’t really “do” social media or the internet, preferring to keep his private life private, and was quick to question Formula 1’s switch to hybrid power units.
Given that last point, it has been fascinating to watch the change in his stance on social issues, including, but certainly not limited to environmental advocacy. Rather than embracing hybrid or electric technologies, Vettel has its own curiously analogue approach. He has established himself as a direct activist for practical and immediate ways to improve the world around us.
It has been a remarkable run for a competitor who has driven the most advanced cars in any motorsport setting for the past 15 years. Since making his F1 debut mid-season in 2007, Vettel has started 284 Grands Prix and won four consecutive world titles.
At 34, he no longer finds himself at the forefront of the series. But Vettel is still held in high regard by his rivals and his own team, on and off the track.
When Vettel arrived in the sport as a fresh-faced challenger and during the years at Red Bull where he won his titles, he didn’t come across as someone with a huge number of environmental concerns. When the current V6 hybrid turbo engines were introduced in 2014, Vettel was at the forefront of their detractors, wondering if they were necessary and arguing that they had spoiled the show, even though he respected the innovation they had brought.
“I think the power unit, for us drivers, well, that’s what it is,” he said at the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix. is probably not in the same ranking as the fans in terms of sound etc. Obviously it’s a step backwards but in terms of the technology behind it it’s incredible. The question is still open, whether we need it or not is up to each individual, I guess.
When Formula E was launched, Vettel was skeptical, more due to the lack of sound of all-electric cars than technological or sporting views. Vettel’s position was that F1 “must scream”.
His position has changed little since. As recently as 2019, Vettel, furious over yet another PSU failure, clicked “bring the fuckin’ V12s back” on his radio, a point he said he didn’t necessarily think be false, later and calmer.
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“There’s no series like Formula 1 with V12s,” said Vettel, who entered F1 more than a decade after the last race with 12-cylinder engines. “Otherwise, I would think about it. These power units are very complex, from a technical point of view, very fascinating. But I have my position on that and I don’t think it brings much benefit for us in the race and for people watching.
But a fondness for V12s isn’t necessarily at odds with concerns for the wider environment – a point Vettel made when appearing on British politics show Question Time. Challenged by his participation in an “energy-intensive” sport, Vettel admitted it made him feel hypocritical.
“You’re right when you laugh,” he told the audience as they laughed at the question. “There are questions I ask myself every day and I am not a saint. Some things are in my control and some things are not. It’s my passion to drive a car, I love it and every time I get in the car, I love it.
“When I get out of the car, of course, I also think ‘Is this something we should be doing, traveling the world, wasting resources?'”
It’s hard to imagine the Vettel of just a few years ago reflecting on Formula 1 in this way or praising Extinction Rebellion as he did last year. After learning he would be dropped by Ferrari during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic lockdown, Vettel returned to the paddock more eager to espouse his views. Not just on environmental issues, but also on social justice, as he joined Lewis Hamilton and others on their knees in pre-race anti-racism protests.
Vettel has taken direct and pragmatic steps to get his environmental message across: creating a bee habitat with school children between races in Austria, cycling on race tracks rather than using a rental car, collecting waste in Silverstone, creating a documentary about recycling (including a charming, unglamorous tour of a factory in Slough) and pledging to plant a million bee-friendly flowers in Germany to promote biodiversity. These are all examples of offline, low-tech interventions that bring immediate improvement.
It would be wrong to characterize Vettel’s approach to activism as “better” than Hamilton’s or anyone else’s for not using Instagram. Hamilton also got his hands dirty, raising awareness about marine litter (and getting in the water himself to collect it).
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Other drivers, such as Formula E’s Lucas di Grassi, are championing their environmental concerns via racing technology. It’s justifiable and has broader practical applications, much like the environmental studies that the mission-green Extreme E-Series incorporates into its racing activities. Vettel’s approach, however, is more direct, with very few other parallels in the racing world.
An interesting point of comparison with Vettel is Formula E and GT driver Alexander Sims, whose projects include practical load challenges, founding a company that makes eyeglass frames from reclaimed marine plastic and (at a moment) the transformation of his house into an eco-house. But his projects lean towards technology, while Vettel’s are specifically lo-fi, things anyone can do, but which he chooses to give a platform to.
We can all pick up litter, though few of us make the headlines for doing so. Vettel undoubtedly knows how to use his position as much as any other notable driver. His opportunities to champion environmentalism grew out of his success in a sport he now clearly feels conflicted about. However, his straight-forward approach to meaningful results, from cleaning up trash to creating habitats, shows he has the same results-focused approach off-track as he does on this one.
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