Sebastian Vettel has already achieved a lot in his long Formula 1 career. The 32-year-old has won the World Cup four times with Red Bull and has won with Ferrari and Toro Rosso. But what many forget: The German has completed the first of his 240 Formula 1 races for BMW-Sauber so far. Eighth in Indianapolis in 2007, he took a point to replace the injured Robert Kubica.
A year earlier, Vettel made his training debut for the racing team in Turkey. Vettel was not only a Red Bull junior at the time, but also a BMW junior. The then motorsport director Mario Theissen remembers in the Formula 1 podcast ‘Starting Grid’ his first encounter with the boy from Heppenheim.
Theissen was in a paddock race in 2002. “Then someone pulls my shirt and says: ‘I’m Sebastian, next year I’ll be with you,'” he recalls. At the time, Vettel was 14 years old and said that he would be racing in Formula BMW next year.
Joint funding from BMW and Red Bull
“And indeed: the next year he appeared as a 15-year-old in Formula BMW, drove the whole season and immediately became a rookie of the year,” says Theissen in the podcast, which is a co-production of meinsportpodcast.de and Motorsport- Total.com/Formel1.de is.
But that’s not all: Another year later, the youngster dominated the series at will and won 18 of the 20 rounds of the season. “It was awesome what he showed at the time,” says the former BMW motorsport boss, who of course continued to pursue the German career.
At that time, Vettel was already part of the Red Bull development squad, who had looked after him since karting. But the manufacturer was so interested in him that they sat down at a table with Red Bull and agreed to promote the career of the Heppenheimer together from now on. “He was a Red Bull and BMW sponsor from the moment of Formula BMW,” said Theissen, clearing up the confusion.
First job opportunity in the BMW Sauber team
Vettel also got the first Formula 1 chance at BMW-Sauber in 2006. When Jacques Villeneuve was replaced by test driver Robert Kubica due to insufficient performance, his place in the team became free. A short time later, Vettel was in the car in Turkey for the first time on a Grand Prix weekend.
Theissen looks back: “Back then there were long phone calls with Bernie Ecclestone (Formula 1 boss) and Max Mosley (FIA President; editor’s note) because he was just extremely young and came from Formula 3 “But he got approval as a test driver. From that point on, he was of course 100 percent at BMW.”
However, the Bavarians could not offer him a regular place for 2007 because Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica were obliged. Vettel was only allowed to step in once in Indianapolis when Kubica was injured in his serious accident in Canada. But the Pole was fit again after just one race and Vettel was again on the substitute bench when the next chance presented itself.
No regrets because of Red Bull change
Red Bull broke up with Scott Speed during the season, so suddenly a cockpit was free at Toro Rosso. “It was then clear that he would take this opportunity. That corresponded to the collaboration with Red Bull until then and was never an issue for us,” said Theissen.
Because a regular cockpit for Vettel was not on the agenda for BMW anyway: “We were in a situation with Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica that we brought the team to the top. We didn’t want to employ an extremely young driver in this situation. That we couldn’t take risks in this situation, “says Theissen.
BMW-Sauber relied on its tried-and-tested driver pairing until the manufacturer’s exit at the end of the 2009 season, while Red Bull was able to pull the Germans up into the mother team in 2009. The rest is history.
Theissen does not regret that they let Vettel go at the time: “The point is that you cannot assess a risk afterwards. The risk arises when you have to make the decision,” he says, naming the German driver as the best with whom he has ever worked. “You just don’t know in the situation.”
Professionalism ahead of everyone
In general, Vettel was extremely mature for his age even in his early days. “He was clearly ahead of the others in professionalism and focus,” says Theissen. Already at every test in Formula BMW, Vettel meticulously made notes about everything to make it better next time.
“He always got up four hours before the race, even if the race was early at 8,” said the ex-motorsport director. “He prepared, did sports so that he was fit to the point. And his fitness program was also superior to everyone else. He wasn’t interested in anything else, he put all his energy into it – and that was absolutely impressive.”
And even though Vettel seems to have lost some of his shine in the eyes of some people, Theissen does not believe that he works differently today: “The character of a person does not change. I am sure the professionalism with which he approaches hasn’t changed, either, “he says.
In this regard, he had a lot from his idol Michael Schumacher, with whom you could also see that. “These are excellent properties that don’t get lost.”