Once basking in the glory of consecutive championship-success, then tasked with reviving Ferrari – as his hero and compatriot Michael Schumacher did – the time for Sebastian Vettel to achieve this could be running out.
‘Rage quit’ isn’t a phrase heard thrown around in Formula One.
However, when Sebastian Vettel pulled himself out of his Ferrari at the end of the Canadian Grand Prix apparently intent on abandoning the podium ceremony in disgust, the pinnacle of motorsport seemed destined for a dose of the stuff in world champion proportions.
It was only out of respect for his fellow podium getters, Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc, that he emerged from hiding at the back of the Ferrari hospitality unit to begrudgingly take part in the ceremony, but he remained livid.
The German accused the stewards of stealing his team’s first win with a contentious five-second penalty for running Hamilton out of road, and even after a moment of catharsis, switching the first and second-place signs under the podium, he remained incalcitrant.
If the sport had been robbed of an on-track climax that afternoon, the rawness of the emotional scenes in parc ferme made up for it with real human drama.
But while the post-race temper tantrum — warranted or not — made for excellent television camera fodder, it was what Vettel said in the later press conference, his heartbeat slowed and adrenaline drained, that was far more compelling.
“I was just thinking that I really love my racing,” Vettel said, launching into what became uncharacteristic bearing of his emotions. “I’m a purist — I love going back and looking at the old times, the old cars, the old drivers … they’re heroes in a way.
“I really love that, but I just wish I was maybe as good doing what I do but being in their time rather than today.
“Ultimately it’s not the sport that I fell in love with.”
It wasn’t just a bout of nostalgia motivating his response. Vettel has always been an openly traditional driver interested only in pursuing the uncomplicated form of racing that popularised Formula One in the first place.
The complexity of modern F1, epitomised by the detailed rulebook and convoluted analysis that resulted in him receiving a costly five-second time penalty, is the antithesis of what he understands to be classical, gut-instinct, man-to-man motor racing, and he made his disillusionment clear in that Sunday press conference.
“I think it’s not just about that decision today, there’s other decisions,” he lamented. “Just hear the wording when people come on the radio that we have now — we have an official language.
“You have all this wording — ‘I gained an advantage, I didn’t gain an advantage, I avoided a collision’ — I just think it’s wrong, you know, it’s not really what we’re doing in the car.
“I think we should be able to say what we think, but we’re not, so in this regard I disagree with where the sport is now.”
Clearly his dissatisfaction with modern Formula One had been bubbling away for some time, requiring only a moment of vulnerability to erupt to the surface in this remarkable address.
It was of course a coincidence, albeit an interesting one, that it came after a week of rumour that he was considering hanging up the helmet at the end of the year.
Vettel is in his 13th year at the top of motorsport and his fifth with Ferrari. He’s a four-time world champion with more wins than anyone bar arch rival Lewis Hamilton and idol Michael Schumacher and owns a swag of other entries in the record books. It would be hard to argue that he really has anything more to prove.
Moreover, with Charles Leclerc moving into the sister car and showing signs that he’s ready to be the man to lead Ferrari when given the chance, it’s a matter of when, not if, the team transitions Vettel out of the spotlight in favour of its future star, a situation hardly tenable, much less tolerable, for a man of Sebastian’s achievements and pedigree.
But the German got his right of reply to the speculation before the drama of Montreal unfolded.
“I never said anything like that, so I don’t know where it has come from,” he insisted. “I think I can stop whenever I want and the team can probably kick me out whenever they want, but I am very happy with the team and I hope the team is happy with myself.
“I am very hungry and I have a mission here to win — that is the only thing that really matters to me, to win with Ferrari, and that is what I am working for.”
A denial, then — though with the caveat that he was far less convincing when asked if the events of the race would make him question his future in Formula One.
“Well, I don’t know … I’m not ready for this kind of question,” he said.
F1 is sure to deliver a response to the situation that completely swallowed up the Canadian Grand Prix, perhaps ameliorating some of Vettel’s uneasiness with the current state of the sport.
Further, he’s contracted to Ferrari until the end of 2020, and while a piece of paper means little if he loses his appetite to race, it seems unlikely the boy who idolised Ferrari would grow into a man who’d leave it in a huff.
And it would be a shame to lose Vettel from the grid, for there’s no doubt that he ranks among the sport’s all-time greats. When he’s able to coax a car into its sweet spot, there drivers few as devastatingly quick or capable of controlling a grand prix.
Plus, at 31 years old, he’s theoretically at the peak of his powers.
But his post-race monologue remains difficult to ignore, and I’m reminded of an interview former Red Bull Racing teammate Mark Webber gave to Motor Sport Magazine after retiring from F1 at the end of 2013.
“I think Seb will do everything early in life,” Webber said. “He’s got his championship titles and his results early, he’s going to have a kid early and I think he’ll retire early — he’ll probably take a blast in the red car, then sayonara.”
Maybe the rumours aren’t true, and maybe after Ferrari fights its way back into the winners’ circle the emotion of the Canadian Grand Prix will feel like a distant and barely relevant memory in Vettel’s otherwise illustrious career.
But there’s no denying the genuineness of Vettel’s words in Canada, and it’s hard to fake it when the love’s no longer there.