Open road racer
December 4th, 2013
12:03 PM ET

Sebastian Vettel: Who is the man behind the wheel?

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.

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soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. emperorzorn

    This is a very well-written article Amanda. :)

    It gave me a bit of insight into what is going on behind the scenes of the Formula One.

    I think we always look for flaws in successful people to reassure ourselves that they are just normal people like us and to put a little patch on our ego for not being them.

    December 4, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  2. Chezeni

    Proudly Vettal Fan! I wish I could be him,but being born in third world countries makes it so difficult!

    December 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Reply
    • Ottilie Beatty

      Germany is not a third World Country, and Heppenheim is a small town. Think first and then you can write

      December 4, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Reply
      • Adam

        He's talking about himself being born in a third world country, not Vettel.

        As you said earlier,
        "Think first and then you can write"

        December 5, 2013 at 11:37 am |
      • John

        Great, there's nothing better to read than a smartass trying to be better than anyone and failing as you did here.
        Go back to school, try some reading comprehension and in the meantime learn to be humble and respecting people.

        December 5, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
      • JT

        You need to take your own advise, understand what you are reading. Comprehension is the key.

        January 7, 2014 at 10:10 pm |
      • hyperpsyched

        That, sir, is possibly the most asinine comment I have ever read, anywhere. Congratulations.

        February 28, 2014 at 10:43 am |
      • marat 1

        I think you misinterpreted what the writer was trying to convey. He was not trying to be arrogant at all and in fact was stating a point that has been commented on by thousands of people for many, many years. It IS more difficult for those who grew up in smaller towns that may not have had any of the commercial advantages of higher profile cities. So do try to be more generous please. His comment was NOT meant to be disparaging at all...

        March 13, 2014 at 4:31 pm |
  3. Bao

    Maybe I don't get what you're saying but I read just because you have a nice mentor and come from a nice home town you're allowed to be a massive douche. One thing Vettel cannot be called is humble. That said, his arrogance is earned though

    December 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Reply
    • Neophyte

      I think you didnt get it indead. Vettel is a Genius in driving and what a sportsmen he would be if he wouldnt have the unbroken will to win? People who love racing, must love Vettels art, because he is the best driver, probably of all times!

      Btw Webber for me is a sissy, in 215 starts he won only 9 !! times (Vettel 120 starts 39 wins) and he claims to be treated same as his 3times (now 4times) world champion and teammate Vettel..

      December 4, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Reply
      • Avex

        @Neophyte, Webber was the F1 driver union's president at one time buddy.

        You don't get positions like that if the drivers and other people involved in F1 don't like you (like they don't know Vettel).

        The fact that Hamiliton and Webber are often times defending each other and Alonso stopped to give Webber a ride off the tracks at the risk of penalty points probably says it all about the character of Webber vs the character of Vettel.

        December 11, 2013 at 1:54 am |
    • Re

      Could you show me any example of a person who knows him personally and has spend enough time with him saying he's not a humble guy or he's arrogant, because I have never ever read such things so far. As far as I'm concerned only people who don't know him and fans who haven't met him have an issue with his character. And to me it's clear that whose opinions are more credible.

      December 4, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
    • Gisela balcombe

      Hi Bao,
      The grapes seem to be sour,
      He who is without sin, let him pelt the first stone.
      Make allowances to youth and success, man!

      December 4, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Reply
    • Lily

      I actually agree with you. His home town might be unassuming, and his manager might be down-to-earth; that says nothing about Vettel himself. The author does not present any logical reason for reconsidering the perception of Vettel as being rather arrogant. That said, it doesn't change the fact that he is doing a great job for his team by performing exceptionally well. I don't have to like the guy to recognise his talent.

      December 4, 2013 at 9:36 pm | Reply
    • F1R

      Couldn't agree more.

      Vettel is about a humble as the Pope is an atheist. Red Bull are guilty of this too. They have no humility at all.
      There's no doubting Vettel's achievements but just because he comes from a small town, doesn't mean he can't be an arrogant man. You might as well say everyone from that down can't be arrogant and must be humble.
      The Multi 21 saga was as much about arrogance as it was about selfishness and single-mindedness.
      The finger waving he purposely saves to do it right in the face of the camera. He knows it rubs a lot of people up the wrong way and he sticks it to them.
      As for the boo's. Well F1 crowds are not like football crowds. If he is getting boo'd it's for a reason and it's not because he's winning all the time.
      Schumacher was not the most popular of drivers but (apart from Austria which he deserved), he was never boo'd.

      A lot of people also believe that a lot of Seb's achievements are down to the car and Newey and that of course is true.
      Oh he has still had to work for it but that car is effortless to drive compared to any other.
      Call him a 4 times world champion, but he doesn't rank among the greats in my book. Nowhere near yet.

      December 6, 2013 at 2:45 am | Reply
      • Ramos

        F1R,
        He may have THE car, this year and in 2011, but remember how close the championship was in 2010 and 2012. He also drove a very sub par 2007 car, not unlike what Williams and Sauber had this year and still scored consistently high placements including a 4th place, while his teammate hovered outside top10 all season long.

        I don't see him as a legend either, since he is after all just 26, but I really cannot see him as just another driver, he is far beyond that. Arrogant, yes on the selected team radio clips and definately ruthless in his will to win and cunning enough to portray a different person to the media and in interviews, but so was other champions from the past, Piquet for example, even Senna to some people. Imo Kimi seems more arrogant both on track and especially off track.

        The most unarrogant person in the field atm, seems to be Button, but his success rate also leaves alot to be hoped for.

        Regarding MS, then he might have had alot of heat for his track decisions from 94 and 97, but I still remember a former F1 rookie(Nicholas Kiesa, Minardi) telling me, in person at a non-F1 event, that when he showed up at his first real race and nervously and with bowed head curiously browsed around the paddock, the first driver to come up to him and welcome him onboard, was MS and in a very friendly tone. He (obviously) never forgot that and he was mildly shellshocked at the time(he explained).

        December 9, 2013 at 12:50 am |
  4. Salombo

    I've been to Heppenheim the day after Sebastian won the German GP, and it was all quiet and nice even if the weather was perfect to be out. The little town is beautiful and the people who lives there are lovely and very helpful. The tourist office had its little Vettel Corner but that was all. Lovely Heppenheim <3

    December 4, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Reply
  5. Johnt

    Winners want to win... the man is not arrogant he is a champion. I'm sick and tired of the politically correct, everyone is a winner attitude. The team and Webber should just shut-up and let the guy work! He is comitted 100% and it shows!

    December 4, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Reply
    • Gisela balcombe

      Totally agree with you!

      December 4, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Reply
    • F1R

      Totally disagree with you.

      December 6, 2013 at 2:47 am | Reply
    • Avex

      Schumacher was a champ and he wasn't arrogant

      Alonso was a champ and he wasn't arrogant

      Hamilton was a champ and he wasn't arrogant

      Being a champ has nothing to do with arrogance

      December 11, 2013 at 1:58 am | Reply
      • K

        Kimi is a champ and is not arrogant. Why? Because he knows what he is doing.

        February 6, 2014 at 12:19 am |
  6. SRSwain

    To his credit, Herr Vettel has broken record after record with very little fanfare. How such accomplishments do not swell his ego one can can hardly venture to imagine. But they don't seem to do that. Indeed, on the penultimate lap of the penultimate race of the season, his engineer was recommending that he slow down. Au contraire, Herr Vettel increased the gap between himself and his closest pursuer by a half second! In Formula 1, a half-second per lap is like a large explosion. Good on him! He's an amazingly grounded and focused champion. It's refreshing to see such a thing.

    December 4, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • jdmess

      Because Vettel is only as good as the car he drives, just like Button was a few seasons ago. Put a more skilled driver like Alonso or Kimi (or even Hamilton I would think) in a Red Bull car and they would easily be able to compete with him. Nearly all the drivers who were polled at the end of the season said Alonso was a much more skilled driver than Vettel. But Red Bull by far has the best car (to their credit), and so long as RB produces amazing cars Vettel will continue to cruise.

      December 29, 2013 at 11:23 pm | Reply
  7. MACT

    He seems to be a very different person on and off the track. While racing he has shown a ruthless streak that have turned off a lot of people, who may admire his talent, but not his behavior. Off track, in interviews I have seen, he come over as a very modest and likeable person who still seems amazed at where he is.

    December 4, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • F1R

      He's amazed at where he is because he can't believe how good his cars have been that have made his task oh so much easier.

      December 6, 2013 at 2:49 am | Reply
      • Novalis

        We all dislike some people and we hide our dislikes behind speculations. As long as every F1 Driver is not driving the same car we will never know for sure who is the best driver. I am german and very interested in F1, still i am not able to figure out where the competetive driver Vettel ends (the one who seems to be ruthless and focused) and where the private man Sebastian starts. In interviews in his native language , off the F1 circuit he seems almost shy and slightly provincial. So the arrogance might be a sideeffect of an insecure person, who feels discomfort in the spotlight. Very difficult to tell

        December 31, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  8. paul

    Like any other F1 legends, a sheer passion to win, to be the first, is an important characteristic one must have. Vettel has this. he has the talents as well, when i saw him(on tv) winning a race in torro rosso in wet conditions, it was legend in the making. just like Senna who raced like crazy in monaco, or schumaker who was titled the 'rainmaster'.

    on the incident with Webber, i actually enjoyed Vettel's stunt by ignoring the order(team order spoils formula 1 more i think), and it was one of the best battle in formula 1 seeing Vettel and Webber going at it toe to toe.

    remember Senna said: 'to be second is to be the first of the losers'

    December 4, 2013 at 5:11 pm | Reply
    • QuintoBlanco

      It showed the difference between Webber and Vettel. Webber is always likable, reasonable and willing to think of the team first.

      Vettel stands out as extremely ambitious. Even among people who are almost by definition ambitious and at times he is stubborn. He can be ruthless.

      He is willing to risk it all to get the fastest lap, or pass another car. Even if his team advises him (or orders him) to play it safe. He is willing to antagonize a team mate if he feels he can get an advantage.

      I have a lot of respect for Webber, but Vettel is the kind of driver that makes me watch Formula 1. Once a driver has reached Formula 1 and is lucky enough to get the right car, that driver should focus on winning and driving fast. The fact that Vettel reverses the order of winning first and driving fast second, is willing to risks not getting points by refusing to slow down, puts a smile on my face.

      December 4, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Reply
  9. RobT

    He is only as good as the car he gets to drive. Put him in a Caterham or a Marussia and see how talented he is. I would bet that if you asked most other drivers in F1 if they would want to be team mates with him, they would tell you that the only way they would consent to that is if they get the same car as he is driving. To me he is a disgrace to Fi and a terrible ambassador for the sport. There is no doubt in my mind it was has antics that was the driving force that made Webber leave F1!

    December 4, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Reply
    • dolma2000

      How about the pole and win in a Toro Rosso (a reskinned Minardi, btw). A feat which since hasn't been replicated. How about that 7th place quail and 8th place finish, in his first F1 race, in the Sauber at Indy? Huh?
      What's that? Oh, silence.

      December 7, 2013 at 9:38 am | Reply
      • jdmess

        Vettel is talented no doubt, but he is definitely not the best as it is widely claimed. All of drivers were polled at the end of the season and the vast majority said Alonso was a far better driver than Vettel. As for his wins at Sauber, if he was as good as you're suggesting then he would have done amazing at Sauber and he didn't. If anything his brief appearance at Sauber proves RobT's point.

        December 29, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
  10. RNC

    IMO, seb will not go down as one of the greats. he will go down in the same book as schumi ... good driver, but was the best, because he had the best car.

    December 4, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  11. JP

    Haters gonna hate

    December 5, 2013 at 2:15 am | Reply
  12. zapper

    Vettel is the champion, and probably the best driver of all times. Off the track he can be anything he wants! Let Amanda and the rest of the no no people think whatever. Bravo Vettel !!!!

    December 5, 2013 at 2:22 am | Reply
  13. Arm

    No doubt on his excellent driving skill but the real bigest player behind the scene was Adrian Newey.

    December 5, 2013 at 4:31 am | Reply
  14. Bobby Johnson

    Formular 1 is a joke how can one car dominate the season the way that red bull did, the pole winner is almost gauranteed a win, what they need to do is put forth an efford to make the cars/ teams more competative, Vettle is not a team player, the maylasian GP is a prime example, put in a diffierent car and see how he fairs, as much money as F1 generates the racing should be much better.

    December 5, 2013 at 9:58 am | Reply
    • Ramos

      Sorry, but F1 has almost always had a dominant car for a whole season.

      The first year 1950, noone touched the 159s, only Farina and Fangio could win that year. 1952, Ferrari, Ascari swept the WHOLE season. 1955, noone touched the Mercs, this year Fangio was a given winner, even if his car was harder to drive and more dangerous, then it was still just like Vettel and 2011/2013, if he didn't crash he won, cause he was better than his teammate.

      The same for Jim Clarks various Lotus cars because he was better than Graham Hill. He was exceptional and in the best car so 1963 was a joke of a championship, he mauled it that year. 1968 would have also been his, had he not died before race 2 of the season.

      Everybodys favourite driver, Senna, 1988. Both the car and the two drivers were so much better than the rest, that that season which people today seem to remember as magical was in fact, boring as tumbleweeds. I watched it and it was mostly all Senna poles, then the race, which was a duel between Prost and Senna. The rest were just mobile chicanes.

      The Ferrari era from 2000-2004, again by far the best car, 2002 was as exciting as watching a Ferrari run alone on the track. 2005 was competitive, as was 2009 after Brawns massive advantage seized up.

      There will always be these joke years but F1 is much more about tech than drivers and has always been that. It's a good mix for me, longterm, cause nothing still comes close to a F1 car in performance around a track. There was a test 2 yrs ago where they estimated that the best tuned non-formula non-LMP racing cars today, ie like Corvette C6Rs and the DBR9s etc, are still only about as fast as a 1975 Formula One car.

      December 9, 2013 at 12:33 am | Reply
  15. Mike

    Why don't we forget about F1 because apparently it is all about who is the best engineer, not driver. We should call it F1 Engineering and just forget how great of a driver Vettel really is. If it was all up to the Engineer then why did Webber not come second in the championship? Give Vettel the credit he deserves and the 4 championships HE DERSERVED !!! He is a true champion!

    December 6, 2013 at 11:37 am | Reply
  16. sarita

    everything is fair in love and war so is in this competitive sport world as long as you play safe.Sebastian is achiever and nobody can deny this is fact

    December 9, 2013 at 7:59 am | Reply
  17. Kirsten

    I have Reading the artikel and the comments, I must admit, can't stop wundering – how would you your self behave if you were in the same position as Vettel, have worked your way up, from when you were a boy ?
    I have a great and enormus respekt for all sports men or women there forlod there dreams and reach there gold.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:38 am | Reply
  18. Grant

    In the short time that I've been following F1 (a few months) I have learned to dislike Vettel, and I believe I have begun to cast a negative personality on him. However looking at it I think it's less because I dislike him as a person, and more because now I turn on a race and immediately think "Alright Vettel's going to win, let's see who comes in second". Coming from following a sport that can be a lot more unpredictable (golf, especially after Tiger proved himself to not be flawless) it's fun to root for the underdog who's in the lead and trying to win for the first time in his career. That unpredictability is something I simply cannot get out of F1, when I know that the race is either going to go to Vettel, or on the off chance Alonso or Kimi. It's honestly more fun to watch the competition for 2-6th or so, than it is to watch Vettel grow his 10 second lead.

    January 10, 2014 at 2:32 am | Reply
  19. peter mills

    it seems so many here, are out of touch with reality. A true, thoroughbred racing driver has only one thought, and that is winning.And when he has the best car, obviously it makes his life, a happy one. What is he supposed to do, slacken off to give others a chance, he is a racing driver,, not mother Teresa. And to say he should be as humble as Hamilton,and Schumi, is nauseating.Alonso is probably the least arrogant of all the TOP drivers.Give Seb Vettel his due, he is a class act, and at present, he is untouchable, and my prediction is that, with the new cars and regulations, he will still dominate, SOOOOOOOOOO SUCK IT UP, YOU JEALOUS ZOMBIES.!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 16, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  20. kenneth chapman

    this article does not address the issue in any way shape or form. all it is is a puff piece of schlock. where was the in depth interviews with vettel and the writers interpretation of the comments. to get a decent insight to vettel it takes more that an article like this which really says zippedy doo dah. talk to his contemporaries both on and off the track and as well try to get access to the debrief sessions with the team. that will tell you more about vettel than any german trade merchants in a sleepy valley.

    February 7, 2014 at 11:16 am | Reply
  21. Frank B

    Very well written article on Sebastian, Amanda. By giving us the opinions and views of those he grew up with, one gets a truer view of what the person is really like. Have you done the same for some of the other F1 stars?

    February 26, 2014 at 11:27 pm | Reply
  22. Andrew

    I am a lifelong F-1 fan & have seen them all. I don't like him & never will. The other drivers add class & sportsmanship to a great sport. Vettel does not.

    February 28, 2014 at 7:00 pm | Reply
  23. Francis Digber

    Interesting debate. Whilst the driver's skill in F1 cannot be discounted it's clear that the quality of the car and its performance have everything to do with winning the races and the title. Did the legendary Schumacher not drive in the same races as Vettel? Was he not beaten regularly by Vettel and some of the guys who couldn't get near his Ferrari? He gave himself the pompous image by disobeying team orders and damaging harmony within the Red Bull team. Or is it that he only becomes arrogant when pumped full with red bull?

    April 21, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Reply

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