Editor's note: CNN's The Circuit will screen a half-hour special on Sebastian Vettel at 1400 and 2130 Saturday Dec 7, 1030 Sunday Dec 8 and 0430 Monday Dec 9 (all times GMT).
I admit it, I was wrong.
I was one of those who didn’t like Sebastian Vettel, hadn’t really warmed to him. Yes, I admired his achievements - but the finger-pointing rankled, his standoffish approach to the media frustrated, and then of course there was the “Multi 21” incident when the German ignored team orders to overtake Mark Webber at the Malaysian Grand Prix.
I viewed it as arrogance.
Maybe the success had gone to his head? I was most definitely camped in the Webber side of the Red Bull garage. But after a few weeks on the trail of the four-time Formula One world champion for this weekend's Circuit special, I’ve changed my tune.
I still wouldn’t by any means claim to know Seb, but I think I’ve gained a much better understanding of the man himself and where he’s come from.
While he was finishing the season with a flourish – notching up a record ninth straight win in Brazil – we were discovering where it all began for him, exploring a little town in the south west of Germany, about half an hour from Frankfurt.
And I can tell you, Heppenheim is a million miles from the glitz and the glamor of the F1 paddock.
It’s a place without designer clothes shops, without champagne bars and Michelin-starred restaurants. It has a population of just 27,000 (slightly more if you count the valleys either side).
It’s a place where everything closes at 1 p.m. on a Friday, and primary school children are able to walk to and from school without an adult by their side. Where people live in the houses where their parents and grandparents were born. It’s somewhere without traffic – and where you can see the stars at night. Somewhere with so much going for it, but doesn’t shout about it.
And maybe that’s the essence of Sebastian Vettel.
Heppenheim is where he grew up and went to school, met his girlfriend, and where his family still lives.
“I think he is authentic, a hard-working man,” says the town's mayor Rainer Burelbach.
“He is quiet and not putting himself in the middle. And that’s what Heppenheim is. We are working hard, we are a good region, and we are authentic.”
Just as Vettel shies away from the publicity and his celebrity status, Heppenheim almost reluctantly owns up to its most successful resident.
The locals are undoubtedly proud of his achievements, but they certainly don’t go overboard. Yes the local bakery sells Vettel fruit tarts, and there’s the odd banner hanging in a shop window.
The local museum even has a Sebastian Vettel corner. But you have to go right to the top floor and to the back to reach it.
It’s a town that loves a statue. So will there be a Vettel one installed any time soon, I asked the mayor?
“I think he is not a man who would like that we do that,” he said. “I think we can see about it in 30, 40, 50 years – but now he is an active sportsman who is working very hard and he doesn’t like this show around him.”
And we found the same understated pride at the Kerpen Kart Club, where Vettel started racing. Michael Schumacher as well.
But the club certainly isn’t exploiting the success of its alumni.
Tucked away in an old gravel pit outside Cologne, you’d drive straight past without a second glance if you didn’t have a bit of local knowledge or a top of the range sat-nav.
If Heppenheim is a million miles from F1, this place is in the next galaxy.
And this is where we found the man who gave me the biggest insight into Vettel. A man who has been part of the kart club for 35 years, and although now its president – he still runs and works in the shop at the circuit selling kart parts and kit.
An incongruous setting for someone who is surely alongside the likes of Alex Ferguson as one of sport’s most successful managers.
I’m not exaggerating. Gerhard Noack masterminded the careers of both Schumacher and Vettel – that’s 11 F1 titles and counting.
Not that you’d know it to meet him. Noack is not a man to blow his own trumpet, or get carried away by his incredible achievements.
He gave up his business to support Vettel in his early days. He acted as mechanic, coach, friend, mentor. But still says “I think I am just lucky” when asked his secret.
There isn’t an ounce of inflated ego here.
So the more I think of where Vettel grew up, of the man who guided a young Sebastian off the track, and of Schumacher’s legacy he’s following on it – then perhaps we’ve got it wrong.
Those who booed, those who haven’t warmed to him and those who looked at F1's youngest four-time world champion with a perceived arrogance, maybe think again.
It’s not the fact he’s changed – but the fact he hasn’t. He’s a normal 26-year-old from a small town in Germany, surrounded by a close-knit family and friends, who has worked incredibly hard to make the most of his sensational talent.
But sadly, maybe Formula One and its fans expects more than that.