The notion that sport and politics shouldn’t mix was always unrealistic at best.
It’s easy to forget how regularly that idea was once expressed. In the space of a few years it has come to seem positively archaic. We have grown used to seeing Formula 1 drivers speaking out on a range of issues: diversity, racism, climate change and human rights to name a few.
Among this new generation of drivers who understand real political matters, not just those of F1’s paddock bubble, Sebastian Vettel has always been among the most outspoken, thoughtful and well-informed. He demonstrated that in his appearance on BBC political discussion show Question Time on Thursday night.
The long-running political programme airs on the most-watched television programme in Britain. The Aston Martin driver’s appearance on it was a coup not just for Question Time, but Formula 1 as well. Vettel was at his charming and intelligent best, demonstrating his grasp of a range of subjects far beyond his regular business of tyre pressures, ride heights and everything else which makes a racing car go quickly.
What would have been an impressive enough appearance had it been made by of F1’s British quartet was all the more so coming from someone who is neither a native English speaker nor steeped in the political culture of the United Kingdom. Here’s what the four-time world champion had to say.
Rising cost of living
Rocketing energy costs, in particular as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was the first talking point tackled by the panel. Vettel brought his insight of the same discussions in his homeland, which is especially dependent on Russian gas, and made the case that his country should have weaned itself off polluting, Russian-source power much earlier.
“There’s exactly the same debate and the same questions, they are very fair, being asked in Germany,” he said. “Certainly the latest developments with the situation in the Ukraine, with the war in the Ukraine, have sparked a lot of talk because the energy prices have gone up and therefore people have less money in their pockets, which I think is very easy and clear to understand.
“Now, the question is, what do you do with it and how do you fix it? And I think it’s a bit of a bigger picture thing.
“In truth, it’s probably fair to say that actions should have been taken long time ago already, and we shouldn’t depend on prices that basically the UK – or Germany or any country – doesn’t dictate. It’s the prices that we and people and households all over the UK, Germany, other countries depend on.
“There’s a really ongoing and interesting debate and certain terms have to have certain them express a certain things have been mentioned like how do we source our energy? Where do we get our energy from? And I think it’s pretty similar in the UK you have a mixture of gas, coal and oil.
“Obviously Germany is very dependent on Russia and now potentially in trouble. What do we do with it? Is it is there going to be an embargo? How do we go forward? What do we do if Russia turns the tap off?
“A lot of questions, but the truth is that we should have tackled these dangers and threats already a long time ago. We shouldn’t be as dependent and we have to shift into the next gear and get ready for the future, not just for the reason of becoming independent and protecting these households that we’re speaking about but also to look after the bigger picture and making sure that we live on a planet that is as enjoyable to it tomorrow as it is today.”
Vettel, who has often urged action on climate change including at last weekend’s Miami Grand Prix, said cleaner energy sources are part of the solution, but acknowledged Germany’s reaction to the situation could lead to a reaction from Russia.
“It’s a very tricky one because obviously you don’t want to provoke Russia to act in a way that has consequences on all of us,” he said. “Germany’s so dependent [on Russian gas], the truth is we’re far too dependent, and there’s exactly the debate: How far do you go?
“Is it actually possible to turn off the tap tomorrow? Probably yes, for a while, because now the summer is coming, but what do you do next winter? We don’t have gas terminals to store gas, for example.
“So as I said, in truth, I think it’s now it’s a bit late to raise these concerns because I think there’s a lot of people that have raised these concerns a long time ago. And the energy that we use today, we are far too dependent.
“We should think of energy like ‘peace energy’ or ‘freedom energy’, which is renewable energies. So that’s, I think, the future, not just for an independent way of protecting households and protecting people that can’t afford to pay the bills, but also to shift into the future.”
Finland applying to join NATO
The subject of Russia came up again in a discussion over Finland’s desire to join the NATO – North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – countries. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted fears of an attack in another country it shares a border with.
Vettel met Russian president Vladimir Putin on several occasions at the Russian Grand Prix, which F1 cancelled after the outbreak of war in February. The driver expressed sympathy for the people of Ukraine, and regret that the threat Putin posed had not been recognised sooner.
“I know a lot of Finnish people and Finland has a long border with Russia,” said Vettel. “Finland has been in war with Russia, a long time ago. So I can completely see the need for protection.
“The example with the playground [bully] I think is a good one. You want to be protected, as many kids as you can be. I think the trouble really is that you don’t know who you’re dealing with. I mean, in a way you do, and there were so many signs. And therefore we can question now what brought us into this mess and who is at fault and should we have seen the signs earlier and so on.
“But one thing we mustn’t forget is that Ukrainian people are suffering today and tomorrow and for probably a long time, and hearing from first-hand from some of the families that were fleeing from Ukraine and trying to look for shelter, I cannot imagine the suffering. I have to be honest, because it’s something that I cannot relate to.
“I’ve grown up in a time where there was never a war, let’s say so close – obviously you travel the world, you see so many places and you know that it’s a privilege to be living the way we are in Europe.
“So I think the first thing is, rule number one, is we have to take care of Ukraine. There’s been a long and heated debate in Germany: Should we supply weapons or shouldn’t we? In the end, it turned out yes, and Germany is supplying weapons.
“But the threat obviously is that you don’t know, it might escalate now, it might escalate tomorrow. You don’t know what Putin and Russia – or Putin, mostly – is going to do. And that’s the sort of uncertainty. But I think in the bigger picture, we need to do anything we can to stop him and help people who feel threatened or especially the people that suffer, like the Ukrainians.”
He described how his own country had wrestled with the decision of whether to send arms to Ukraine.
“That is exactly the debate in Germany: What are we doing? We need the energy, otherwise what about the economy and what about us and so on. But on the other hand, is that money financing the war and hurting people? So that’s the very difficult point.
“When you think about it, the more it gets sort of complicated and not so easy to answer. But in the meantime, like I said, you mustn’t forget the people. The people are dying, people are suffering. So we must come up with a solution.”
Vettel returned to two of his favourite themes: That his country had erred by allowing itself to become too dependent on Russian energy, and that renewable energies offer a solution.
“The dependency was wrong, to install that dependency in the first place,” he said, addressing a panel which included members of parliament from Britain’s two main political parties.
“I mean governments, you are part of dealing with that every day. You’re not alone. There’s a lot of people who consult you, a lot of experts, no matter what it might be. If it’s on energy, there is energy experts that consult you and help you and guide you. I find it difficult to imagine to be an expert on everything, you cannot be.
“So you depend on the people around you and you pick the people around you and then you should make the best compromise. With Putin and Germany, I think there’s plenty of reason to say, well, the choices we made were wrong. Now it’s obvious to everyone, but it was already obvious to the people consulting back then.”
“I think in the UK you are very dependent on Norway as an energy supplier,” he added. “So of course Norway looks a lot more stable and safe, but you don’t know within a decade Norway might [change] – I don’t think so – but what I mean is you never know which people will be in power, will be in charge and what they might go for.
“You have a good example with Brexit, just saying in terms of the consequences and so on, it’s not that easy. It might get popular like say ‘oh yeah, let’s get out, let’s vote out’. And then people don’t know or don’t understand what they’re voting for.”
On his future in F1
The Question Time host Fiona Bruce put it to Vettel that it was hypocritical for him to express concern about the environment while participating in a “gas guzzling” sport such as F1.
“It’s true,” he admitted, as some members of the audience chuckled. “And you’re right when you laugh.
“There’s questions I ask myself every day. I’m not a saint, I’m very concerned of when it comes to the future, these topics, when it comes to energy, energy dependence and where we’re going in the future – to finish my point earlier – on energy we need to stop being dependent and we can because there is solutions in place.
“In Britain you have this sort of gold mine you’re sitting on, which is wind, and you have the ability to increase your energy supply with wind power [and] solar. Now, not every country has its strengths and weaknesses. If you go to Austria, they have the Alps and they have water. They can pump it up, store it pumping and get it back down.
“But getting back to [the] point, yeah, it is true, so it’s something that I’m asking myself.”
He admitted part of his concern about continuing to racing in F1 is the pollution caused by “travelling the world” in a calendar which visits over 20 countries per year.
“There’s certain things are in my control and certain things are not. It’s my passion to drive a car, I love it, and every time I step in the car, I love it. When I get out of the car of course I’m thinking is this something that we should do, travelling the world, wasting resources?
“On the other hand we are entertaining people. During Covid we were one of the first sports to start again, when everybody’s heads were about to explode, there were Formula 1 races back on. I’m not saying Formula 1 has this huge position in the world to deliver entertainment, there’s plenty of people if you talk about entertainment, sports, culture, comedy, a lot of people couldn’t perform and then a lot of people miss that and I think if we don’t have that in general, we would probably go mad.
“But there’s a lot of these questions that I ask myself. There’s things that I do because I feel I can do them better. Do I need to take a plane every time? No, not when I can take the car. But like I said there’s certain things in my and certain things outside my control.”
British prime minister Boris Johnson’s refusal to resign despite being found to have broken the law by breaking Covid-19 restrictions in June 2020 has been a major point of discussion in Britain for weeks. Vettel approached the subject from his point of view as a father.
“I think that when you are in that position there’s certain things that you just can’t pull off. In the end it is the prime minister who made the law and then breaks the law.
“I mean, if I’m just thinking, I’m a father of three kids and I’m trying to explain them something that I think is really important on how to behave, and I do the exact opposite, what do you think they will make of it? I’m the least credible person in front of them then.
“We all do mistakes, we all are human. But there’s just certain things that I think come with office or with that job that you can’t do.”
Given his concern over issues such as climate change which have implications far beyond individual countries, Vettel admitted he found it hard to understand the 2016 referendum which led to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, which he argued will only make it harder to address global problems.
“I’m generally interested and sometimes I’m sitting and listening to this and I’m thinking, well, you’re missing the bigger picture. You’re speaking about the energy costs earlier and the bigger picture is clear that for the future it is not sustainable to pump oil, gas and coal out of the ground.
“The solution is you have to do the shift moving forward. And in a way, it’s the bigger picture. Obviously, there was a push, three little words, ‘get it done’ or ‘get Brexit done’, and this is sort of the consequences you deal with now.”
He said Britain’s decision to leave the EU looks “not good” to many people in Germany.
“I think the majority of German people don’t understand,” said Vettel. “I think there’s some things might be better, some things might be worse, I’m not the best judge here. But what I can see is that looking at the size of problems that is ahead of us on so many levels, whether it is the environment, social justice, looking after people, we need to do this together. We will not pull this off just [as] one of us. And that’s where I don’t understand the push for Brexit and say that ‘we will take care of ourselves and everything will be great’.”
Other members of the panel had discussed one of the complications arising from Brexit which remains unsolved in the second year after Britain’s departure from the EU. “I’m not familiar with all the exact details but in the bigger picture now you’re in this mess, well, you’ve got to deal with it,” said Vettel.
However he urged all involved to pursue constructive discussions. “I guess doing what we’re doing this evening, just talking to each other, there’s always an option to talk to each other. So if there’s something you’re upset about, talk to each other and talk to the EU. I mean, you did that for a long time, longer than you thought you would need to talk to the EU to sort this out, but maybe it’s good to go back and talk it again, I don’t know.”
As an advert for the value of civilised, informed debate, you could hardly have asked for a better example than Vettel’s contribution to Question Time.
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