There are many modern innovations Sebastian Vettel is no 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 move to hybrid power units.
It’s been a remarkable journey for a competitor who has driven the most advanced cars in any motorsport context for the last 15 years. Since making his F1 debut mid-season in 2007, Vettel has started 284 grands prix and won four back-to-back world titles.
At 34, he finds himself no longer at the sharp end of the series. But Vettel is still held in high regard by rivals and his own team, on and off-track.
When Vettel arrived in the sport as a fresh-faced challenger and during the years at Red Bull when he won his titles, he did not come across as someone with a huge number of environmental concerns. When the current V6 hybrid turbo power units were introduced in 2014 Vettel was foremost among their critics, questioning whether they were necessary and arguing they had spoiled the spectacle, even if he respected the innovation which had gone into them.
“I think the power unit, for us drivers, well, it is what it is,” he said at the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix. “I think we’re not probably at the same standings as the fans in terms of sound etc… Obviously it is a step back but in terms of the technology behind it, it is incredible. The question still remains open, whether we need it or not, that’s for everyone, individually, to decide, I guess.”
When Formula E was launched, Vettel was sceptical, more due to the lack of noise from the all-electric cars than technological or sporting views. Vettel’s stance was that F1 “needs to scream.”
His stance has changed little since. As recently as 2019 Vettel, furious with another power unit failure, snapped “bring back the fucking V12s” on his radio, a point he said he didn’t necessarily think was wrong, later and calmer.
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“There’s no series like Formula 1 with V12s,” said Vettel, who entered F1 over a decade after the last 12-cylinder engine raced. “Otherwise, I would consider. These power units are very complex, from an engineering point of view, very fascinating. But I have my stand on it and I don’t think it comes with a great upside for us racing and people watching.”
But a fondness for V12s isn’t necessarily at odds with concerns for the wider environment – a point Vettel made in his appearance on UK politics show Question Time. Challenged over his participation in a “gas-guzzling” sport, Vettel admitted it made him feel hypocritical.
“You’re right when you laugh,” he told the audience as they chuckled at the question. “There’s questions I ask myself every day and I’m not a saint. Certain things are in my control and certain things are not. It’s my passion to drive a car, I love it and every time I step in the car I love it.
“When I get out of the car, of course I’m thinking as well ‘Is this something that we should do, travel the world, wasting resources?'”
It’s hard to imagine the Vettel of just a few years ago reflecting on Formula 1 in quite that way, or praising Extinction Rebellion as he did last year. After learning he would be dropped by Ferrari during 2020’s coronavirus pandemic lockdown, Vettel returned to the paddock more eager to espouse his views. Not only on environmental matters, but on social justice too, as he joined Lewis Hamilton and other kneeling during the pre-race anti-racism demonstrations.
Vettel has taken direct and pragmatic action to push his environmental message: Creating a bee habitat with school children in between races in Austria, cycling to race tracks rather than using a rental car, litter picking at Silverstone, creating a documentary about recycling (including a charmingly unglamorous visit to a plant in Slough) and promising to plant a million bee-friendly flowers in Germany to promote biodiversity. These are all examples of offline, low-technology interventions that make an immediate improvement.
It would be wrong to characterise Vettel’s approach to activism as being ‘better’ than Hamilton’s or anyone else’s for the fact he doesn’t use Instagram. Hamilton has got hands-on too, raising awareness of sea garbage (and getting in the water himself to retrieve it).
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Other drivers, such as Formula E’s Lucas di Grassi, advocate their environmental concerns via the technology of racing. That’s justifiable and has broader practical applications, as do the environmental studies that green-missioned series Extreme E folds into its racing activities. Vettel’s approach, however, is a more direct one, with very few other parallels in the racing world.
An interesting point of comparison to Vettel is Formula E and GT driver Alexander Sims, whose projects include practical charging challenges, building a company that makes glasses frames from reclaimed sea plastic and (at one point) transforming his house into an eco-home. But his projects tend towards the technology-driven, while Vettel’s are specifically lo-fi, things that anyone can do, but which he chooses to give a platform to.
All of us can pick up litter, though few of us will make headlines for doing it. Vettel undoubtedly knows how to use his position as much as any other notable driver. His opportunities to advocate for environmentalism are born from his success in a sport which he clearly now feels conflicted about. However his direct approach to meaningful results, from clearing trash to creating habitats, shows he has the same results-orientated approach off the track as he does on it.
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15 comments on “Vettel’s unexpected route from hybrid critic to low-tech eco activist”
8th June 2022, 8:00
Your state of mind changes when you get older and having kids to think about. I think having kids is huge influence on someone. Seb is just thinking about things (and getting slower because of it….) It’s a milestone in someones life.
8th June 2022, 9:03
Seb concentrates on real environmental concerns, not the fake ones. I applaud his common sense in the same way as I abhor flip-flopping politicians like Boris virtue signalling to the extremes in our society.
I speak of course of the manner in which hybrid technology has been overlooked by the idealogues in favour of impractical electric only cars. Hybrid offers battery power in the high street and ICE on the motorway/long journey. Why is the default always to battle at the extremes?
I also find Seb entertaining, even when he was beating Lewis in a better car, he was an amusing and intelligent listen, this is a brilliant sales tool.
9th June 2022, 3:00
Impractical? Get with the times fella (or are Toyota paying bonuses to rehash 2010 copy?).
9th June 2022, 8:19
Fake environmental concerns? Which ones? Many of those concerns are becoming reality before our eyes. Hybrids are fine now, but as EV ranges grow Hybrid will become much less relevant for the mainstream.
Seb is showing us that it’s ok to be a hypocrite, so long as you are doing something to make the earth a better place now and for our descendants. Once you start on that path and stop becoming a naysayer it opens your mind. I bought an second hand EV to save me money. It saves me about £1800 a year in fuel, tax and maintenance. I didn’t buy it for ecological reasons, purely financial, but it’s turned me into a bit of a greeny too. Its started me on that path.
For me my EV is more practical than an ICE 360 days a year because I change at home and those few days I go a long journey I just accept it may take a few hours longer. Its less practical yes, but its just the right thing to do. And that’s the key message. Sometimes we need to do the right things even if they are harder and less practical.
Seb is massively entertaining, I wholeheartedly agree with you there. This helps make him a great ambassador for the sport. Long may that continue.
9th June 2022, 8:28
@frasier Your middle paragraph sounds like it was written by a different person than the other two. EV’s are indeed only practical when the other options are less practical, which happens to be in quite a large number of average driver situations.
Hybrid’s can indeed be a better solution than EV’s for some. However there is no getting away from the fact that each of the two powertrains is having to haul around the other, and you retain the complexity and running costs of the ICE.
I accept that many do argue for their own corner in an often unreasonable and extreme way, but to be honest, that is no different than categorising electric only cars as ‘impractical’ as without any context it is simply not a factual generalisation.
9th June 2022, 10:01
What’s interesting about this is practicality isn’t the only criteria when buying a car. I’ve always said this and now its seems to be happening. People want EV’s despite any potential concern, for all kinds of reasons.
8th June 2022, 10:01
I said it earlier in some other article but he really has come a long way from that kid back in ’07
Tommy C (@tommy-c)
8th June 2022, 11:20
It frustrates me so much when people scream “hypocrite!” at people like Seb. Caring for the environment doesn’t mean giving up everything we love. It really is just acknowledging the harm our actions cause and trying to minimise their impact. For the everyday person, joining local environmental groups building habitat for wildlife and restoring floral diversity is probably the biggest immediate impact you can make and you can probably go do it this weekend if you like! Environmentalists aren’t always extremists as the media seems to like to frame them. Trust me, I am one! I also happen to be obsessed with F1.
9th June 2022, 11:12
You hit the nail on the head, I love the F1 Racing and I would not miss a second off it, on the other hand, I am concerned about the present state of the environment we live in and if there are days I can contribute to making it cleaner and greener I would do so too. Ya does that make me a hypocrite ?? No don’t think so and neither do i think Seb is a hypocrite, he is not saying to the public driving a car for whatever reason private or in sports should be dropped because it damages the environment. He uses his platform to create awareness that we can contribute as little as it may be to take care of the environment. My take on this is environmentalists, media, and critics who brand him (SEB) as a hypocrite. Please go to work on a bike, take your family on the bike shopping or go on vacation on a bike, and don’t use your EV because it runs on tires too, manufacturing of tires is certainly polluting the environment so you are hypocrites too.
8th June 2022, 15:02
I’m sorry but this just strikes me as someone close to the end of his driving career who’s found a particular brand of activism to throw himself into when he retires.
I’m getting tired of hearing sports stars using “their platform” to lecture the public. Their opinions on matters outside of their sport are no more relevant than anyone else’s yet because they’ve risen to prominence driving a racing car or kicking a football whatever they have to say about climate change or ‘social justice’ is given enormous credibility and they are never challenged and have to debate any of it.
What on earth was Vettel doing appearing on BBC Question Time? During a cost of living crisis in the UK and war in Ukraine there was a scruffily dressed Seb on the panel of the flagship political debating programme talking about himself and his newly found passion for the environment without having to debate anything. Admittedly I haven’t watched Question Time for a few year so maybe it’s like that all the time but my god it was terrible.
9th June 2022, 0:46
@jackisthestig – top quality comment here! It is a rare enough thing an independent view like that and I must applaud you for that, as someone who is fed up about this so common variation kind of the cult of personalities.
8th June 2022, 18:41
I think Vettel does ‘celebrity activism’ the right way.
* Actually takes the time to learn the details and reasoning behind the cause, and doesn’t just pluck at cool-sounding, low-hanging fruit to make vague statements about.
* Obviously adapts some degree of action relating to the support of the cause into his everyday life.
* Does so because he wants to, not because it chimes with the right target audience.
* Doesn’t take photos of himself every time he does anything remotely connected to supporting the cause.
* Doesn’t pretend he isn’t a tiny bit of a hypocrite. But keeps his hypocrisy to his job, rather than his lifestyle.
It’d still be better if people heard the viewpoints of a scientist with some charisma or flair for popularising science, instead of a racing driver, but if it has to be a celebrity activist, he’s as good as any.
9th June 2022, 1:12
I think over the years, Seb has probably been one of the most misunderstood characters in F1. He’s worked hard, and always has, on his driving and his lifestyle and to me sets a more achievable example on ways to act than some of the others.
The fact that he does it in a relatively quiet manner rather than using some flashy social media earns my admiration.
9th June 2022, 1:12
As far as I can gather about Vettel’s greenish phase, what I can appreciate is that what he actually does isn’t foolhardy as jumping train into measures that aren’t really helpful. Not to mention his golden discretion. My reserves only comes when some of his words may fuel rambling agendas that lead to erring measures that effectively handicap people’s lives and even liberties, which are the wet dream of every bureaucrat.
9th June 2022, 17:38
What a hogwash!
All that so called green agenda goes down the drain instantly…
Each driver uses 13 sets per weekend.
This means 52 X 20 = 1040 BIG FAT tyres for the whole grid.
This means almost 23 000 BIG FAT tyres for a season.
Does Seb believe they are made of environment friendly unicorn excrements?
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