Lewis Hamilton rightly claimed the spotlight after claiming his fifth Formula 1 world title in Mexico, an achievement that left him level with Juan Manuel Fangio and behind only Michael Schumacher. But a great champion needs a great rival, and Sebastian Vettel's dignity in defeat was commendable, and spoke volumes of his stature.
To the victor the plaudits. To the defeated the commiserations.
Sport, without its emotions, without its narratives, without its captivating highs and gut-wrenching lows, would be nothing. It has to mean something. And Sebastian Vettel’s reaction to his title defeat proved that – and also proved his sportsmanship.
Vettel knew heading to the Mexican Grand Prix that his title hopes were slim, but as long as there was still a chance, the chance was still there. That’s just how athletes are wired. They have to believe something is possible even when they are being written off. They have to have the self-belief to keep pushing, still believing they are the best, while having the capacity to build on weaknesses and improve. It is a difficult balance that only the elite among the elite can find.
The chequered flag in Mexico brought down the curtain on Vettel’s 2018 title aspirations and the focus naturally switched to Hamilton. Everyone wanted a piece of the World Champion, to revel in his success, to rightly acclaim his achievements. Vettel quietly stood by his car to gather his thoughts, conscious to allow Hamilton his moment, before offering a handshake and a hug that his jubilant opponent accepted. It was a touching moment that highlighted the magnanimous conduct of Vettel – and of Hamilton – who later went to Mercedes’ engineering room to offer further congratulations, a move that earned him a round of applause from the team. As with Felipe Massa in 2008, whose conduct in defeat garnered everlasting respect, it was a classy move after the culmination of a title fight that has, largely, been fought on a platform of respect.
“It’s a horrible moment,” said Vettel of the realisation of his title prospects dissipating. “You put a lot of work in and OK, I get your point [journalists] that you saw it [the defeat] coming. I did pay attention in maths so I could make the numbers, but still, you hang in there as long as you can. I’ve had three times now in my life that sort of disappointment, where you realise that you can’t win the championship anymore and those are not happy days. You reflect not on one moment but the whole year: the work that goes in, the effort that goes in from the end of the last year until now and yeah, I think we had our chances. We used most of them, some we did not. But in the end we were not good enough.”
In reflecting on 2018 Vettel dismissed suggestions that his off at Hockenheim while leading was the decisive moment, and he does have a point. Mistakes can be measured through their input and outcome. The same mistake can have different outcomes – falling down the stairs could result in a lucky escape or a broken leg, for example – and in that instance Vettel’s mistake had the worst outcome. Most of his rivals that day erred, but he ended in the wall.
“I can’t be too hard on myself with what happened in Germany because it’s not like… I’ve done much bigger mistakes this year but obviously it was the most costly one,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s part of racing: when you push you might be sometimes pushing a little bit too hard. I chose the wrong corner as well. But anyway, it’s behind me and I’m not really thinking about that too much. I consider it part of racing and it happens to others as well.
“[Hamilton] drove superbly all year and was the better one of us two. I told him well deserved and to enjoy it – number five is something incredible. I mainly congratulated him and asked him to keep pushing for next year, I need him at his best to fight him again.”
That last line is another telling attributes of great champions. They are always striving for that next success. But that success has to mean something. Vettel was this year defeated through a combination of his and Ferrari’s own mistakes, and an inability to respond when Hamilton and Mercedes uncovered a new level. Defeating an on-form Hamilton in 2019 would mean so much more than merely pocketing a title. Ronaldo needs Messi, and vice versa. Federer needs Nadal, and ditto. Vettel and Hamilton need each other. The rivalry pushes the other to new heights they may not have otherwise discovered. Without one, the other’s achievements would be lesser – though it is a shame this year’s fight did not go to Abu Dhabi. Vettel has been on the receiving end for two successive years and will face new challenges in 2019, not only from outside but also from within. But that he is already thinking about Brazil, Abu Dhabi, and wanting to take on an on-form Hamilton next year reflects the burning desire to compete – and to win.