Growing up in Germany with Michael Schuamcher for a hero, Sebastian Vettel has gone on to deliver an era of dominance enjoyed by few other drivers outside of the pair of them. A four-time world champion, and holder of numerous outright F1 records, Vettel is undoubtedly one of the great drivers of the modern era, but his reputation has taken something of a beating in recent years, and he enters 2019 perhaps needing to get the better of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton to breathe new life into his legacy.
After catching the eye with an impressive karting career, Vettel was signed to Red Bull's junior programme in 1998 as an 11-year-old before soon progressing to open-wheel racing, where victory in Formula BMW in 2004 gave him the chance to test for Williams and Sauber – both linked to the German manufacturer at the time.
In 2006, he was signed to Sauber as test driver and was thrown into a shock F1 debut the following year at just 19 when Robert Kubica could not drive at the United States Grand Prix due to injuries. Vettel finished eighth at Indianapolis, becoming F1's youngest point-scorer in the process, although this is a record since eclipsed by Max Verstappen.
Two months later, Red Bull made their move, securing Vettel's release from his BMW deal and putting him in the Toro Rosso team for the remainder of 2007, Vettel securing further points in China.
Vettel began his first full F1 season in inauspicious circumstances, failing to finish the first four races and suffering lap-one exits in three of them. A new Toro Rosso car helped him find his feet, with points scored in Monaco, Canada, Germany, Valencia and Belgium. And then a trip to Monza in the wet would see Vettel lay down a marker to everyone of what was to come.
With a 2007-spec Ferrari engine in the back of his car, Vettel mastered the sodden circuit to become F1's youngest pole-sitter – a record he retains to this day – and keeping a calm head as further rain arrived on race day saw him match the feat by becoming the youngest race-winner in F1, although this is another record since swiped by Verstappen. Vettel's potential was clear though and further points in four of the remaining five races made up Red Bull's mind that a promotion was in order, if it hadn't been already.
Vettel joined Red Bull for a 2009 season which saw Brawn stun the motorsport world, although often forgotten is how close Vettel came to consigning that remarkable campaign to one of F1's great 'what might have beens'. He grabbed Red Bull's first F1 win in China, having got Toro Rosso off the mark the year before and closed the gap towards the end of the season to Jenson Button, who remained out of reach thanks to winning six of the first seven races of the year.
While Vettel is often remembered for having utterly wiped the floor with the competition in the four seasons that followed, his first title did not quite fit the narrative. Battling Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Mark Webber, Vettel seemed an outside shot for much of the campaign, indeed he had not led the championship once ahead of the season finale in Abu Dhabi where all four stood a chance of leaving as champion – Vettel with the third-best odds. Victory from pole, and Vitaly Petrov getting in the way of Alonso and Webber, was enough to see Vettel do it, taking the lead for the first time all year after the final race and becoming F1's youngest champion – something still to his name.
The following year was dominant, Vettel finishing first in six of the first nine races (and second in the other three) to open up a lead that nobody could come close to. Having surpassed Hamilton as F1's youngest champion, he now took Alonso's record for youngest double champion, having taken to the podium in a record 17 races over the year and taking 15 pole positions, another unsurpassed benchmark.
Another tight battle with Alonso played out in 2012, a late surge in form putting him in position to take the title in Brazil, but the Interlagos race was fraught with worry as an opening-lap collision with Bruno Senna, which looked to have caused terminal damage. He dragged the car to the end, though, with rain also playing havoc and secured the points required to just edge out Alonso. In becoming the youngest three-time champion, on of the all-time legends, Ayrton Senna, had been surpassed this time.
The 2013 season will likely always go down as Vettel's best. Of 19 races, Vettel won 13 – and F1 record – including the final nine of the season, a run unmatched within a single season by any other driver.
Vettel and Red Bull were swiftly dethroned in 2014 as Mercedes' mastery of F1's new V6 Hybrid power units put them, and Lewis Hamilton, in the kind of positions previously enjoyed by Vettel. Renault's struggle to make their engines competitive prompted Vettel to leave Red Bull for 2015 and replace former foe Alonso at Ferrari, in the process of rebuilding after many years of being propped up by the Spaniard's performances.
Vettel won just his second race for Mercedes in Malaysia, but could not hold a candle to Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes and 2016 passed without a race win – the first time Vettel had competed in a full campaign without tasting winner's champagne.
Although Ferrari closed the gap to Mercedes in 2017 and especially 2018, Vettel came off second-best to Hamilton, who has now matched and surpassed Vettel's title haul, as well as his tallies for pole positions and race wins.
Losing out in 2018 was particularly rough for Vettel, who seemed to have taken crucial momentum in the 'fight for the fifth' by winning at Silverstone, ending Hamilton's long run of home dominance, but a remarkable slide into the gravel in the very next race – Vettel's home event at Hockenheim, no less – put Hamilton back in command and Vettel was left to rue a run of on-track mistakes which have led to some questions about his ability to recapture his title-winning best.
Vettel lives in Switzerland with his partner Hanna and two daughters Emilie and Matilda. He is a fan of German football team Eintracht Frankfurt and is regularly seen at their matches when not on F1 duty.