For any athlete competing in any sport retirement is an inevitable part of their career.
But there are so many different circumstances in which one can retire. Some are forced into early retirement through circumstances outside their control, such as injury or declining form. There are others who stick around long after their glory years have passed and fade into obscurity without ever officially bidding farewell. But, for a lucky few, there are those who can leave their chosen sport entirely on their own terms and get to experience the love and admiration that fans, and even fellow competitors, have for them.
That is undoubtedly the case for Sebastian Vettel, who called time on his Formula One career - whether that's just for now or forever - at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Even typing that seems surreal. For a lot of fans, and even people within the sport, it probably won't sink in for quite a while that Sebastian won't be lining up on the grid when the 2023 F1 season begins in Bahrain on March 5th. But the four-time World Champion and 53-time race winner got to enjoy an emotional weekend, which included a group dinner with all the drivers present and a guard of honour before the race, where he was surely left in no doubt as to just how much he'll be missed.
Much has been written, and will be written, about the career of Sebastian Vettel: the meteoric rise through the ranks to become the sport's youngest ever race winner and champion. The huge part he played in helping transform Red Bull from underdog to domineering force from 2010-2013. The years when he became the pantomime villain, the driver fans regularly booed. The seasons at Ferrari where he re-invented himself to become a fan favourite once again and narrowly missed out on adding at least a couple more titles to his name.
But rather than go into all the stats and recount all details that others are far better qualified to talk about, I'd rather make this article a more personal tribute to Sebastian. Despite having never met him in person, he has undoubtedly played an important part in my life. Perhaps most significantly, for me and other fans of Formula One of a certain age, he is the first driver whose career I have followed from start to finish.
I've seen other motorsport icons retire; the likes of Michael Schumacher and, more recently, Valentino Rossi. But the difference is that I was not around to experience the start of their careers, or was too young to properly remember. Michael Schumacher, a long-time idol of mine, started his career in Formula One before I was born, whilst with Rossi, I only discovered the sport several years after he began racing in MotoGP.
But with Sebastian, I've been around for all the big moments.
I remember that first win at Monza clearly, the excitement that a relatively unheard of youngster by the name of Sebastian Vettel, driving for Toro Rosso, had claimed pole position. Few expected him to go on and win the next day, but that's exactly what he did, with a superb drive that belied his 21 years of age. It was one of those real "you remember where you were" moments. Aand, as an avid reader of Autosport magazine at the time, I still have a copy of that week's magazine where it proclaimed on its front cover "Drive of the Season - Wonderkid!"
It was the next year, 2009, when significant changes to the regulations saw Red Bull become a race winner for the first time, courtesy of Seb at the Chinese Grand Prix, I also got to attend my first Grand Prix. I was 16, and had just finished sitting my GCSE exams, when I went to Silverstone. It was a memorable weekend for many reasons, not least - the extraordinary story of the FOTA teams announcing their intention to form a breakaway series - but the thing that I remember most clearly from that race was Vettel winning from pole position. It was by no means the most eventful race of that year but sitting in a grandstand in sight of the podium, and seeing Vettel hoist that famous golden trophy aloft after the race is something I'll cherish forever.
When I returned the next year it was arguably an even more memorable occasion. That weekend saw tensions build between Seb and his team mate, Mark Webber. The pair had already famously clashed earlier in the season at the Turkish Grand Prix, but it was the infamous front wing swap at Silverstone that set the scene nicely for the race. Vettel's new specification front wing had broken in practice and Red Bull elected to take the one remaining wing from Webber's car and give it to his teammate for the rest of the weekend. Seb took pole, Mark fumed over what he saw as clear evidence of the team's favouritism and the British crowd seemed to mostly be on his side too.
I still remember the cheer that went up from the grandstand I was in when Vettel suffered an opening lap puncture seconds after the race began. At that time, some had already begun to dislike Seb - there were complaints about him coming across as "spoilt" or being a "brat" - whilst his finger gesture when celebrating poles or wins irritated many. But even those who cheered his misfortune were applauding by the end - he'd recovered to a fine seventh place with some fantastic overtakes - and this was in the era before DRS, when Silverstone was considered a track where overtaking was very difficult.
It was Mark Webber who won the race that day, famously claiming on the team radio afterwards that he was "not bad for a number two driver" - but it was Vettel who would be champion by season's end, albeit in highly improbable circumstances. He went into the final race as the outsider, having not led the championship all year, but as Ferrari made a not uncommon strategic error and blew Fernando Alonso's chance of a third title, Vettel serenely controlled proceedings at the front. He won the race and with it the championship, becoming the youngest in the sport's history at 23 years and 134 days.
For anyone who witnessed it, this was another "you remember where you were moment". Race engineer Guillame Rocquelin informing Seb that it was "looking good" before finally announcing "Du Bist Weltmeister!" as the cars crossed the line has since become an iconic moment in the sport's history. So too has Vettel's tearful response of telling the team that he needed a moment, as the realisation of a childhood dream began to sink in.
The years and championships that followed - 2011, 2012 and 2013 - were all memorable for other reasons. '11 and '13 were displays of crushing dominance that risked becoming boring from the neutral perspective - whilst '12 saw a nail-biting conclusion to a season in which Vettel had to overcome a sizeable points deficit to win. For me, personally, these coincided with a difficult time in my life during university, where I had a mostly unhappy few years. But as is the case for so many people, sport can often be a welcome escape from life's problems, and getting to cheer Vettel on at weekends would be something I'd eagerly look forward to.
It's this type of thing that many friends don't understand whenever I feel emotional about one of my idols retiring. Even if you don't have the pleasure of actually getting to meet them, the attachment you gain, and the memories you make from following their career, are still just as powerful.
Sebastian Vettel has been racing in Formula One whilst I've been in my teens, through my Uni years, and for nearly all of my twenties, he's retiring just as I'm inching closer to the start of my 30s. Life has changed a lot over those years, but throughout everything, Vettel has been there as a constant and reassuring presence on race weekends in both good times and bad.
I've been there to experience all the memorable moments, the first win, the first championship and the subsequent championships. The controversial moments ("Multi-21, Seb") and rivalries, the collisions, the ups-and-downs of the Ferrari years, and the numerous funny off track moments and interviews too.
As I'm sure is the case for many other people reading this, I have so many memories, good memories, associated with having followed Sebastian Vettel's Formula One career over the past 15 years. For that, I will forever be grateful to him.
Thank you, Seb. It's been a hell of a ride, and I wish you well with whatever you go on to do next. But I hope that one day we might get to see you back in a racing car again.