Back in 2016, Sebastian Vettel ran into a problem. The former four-time World Champion had made a swap to the Prancing Horse, but his Ferrari was eternally subject to what he considered to be some ill-timed blue flag maneuvers. As he spend the season shouting into the team radio about a competitor not receiving a flag, I made up my mind: I was going to have Sebastian Vettel sign a blue flag.
If you receive a blue flag in racing, that means you’re slower than the car behind you and need to move over. At the 2016 Japanese Grand Prix, Vettel howled “blue flag! blue flag!” over the radio as he was stuck behind Kevin Magnussen’s slower Renault. Earlier in the season, in Hungary, he had faced the same problem.
In my mind, this was the perfect opportunity. I was heading to the 2016 United States Grand Prix, and I was also a fan of a good shitpost. So I ordered a tiny blue flag off the internet and brought it with me to the Ferrari autograph session during the race weekend.
Now, it’s not easy to receive an autograph from a Formula 1 driver, but I was 20 years old and deeply determined. At the US GP, autograph sessions took place in something of a mosh pit: Fans squished against a metal barrier, and F1 drivers were paraded behind it for about five minutes at a time, signing autographs. In order to follow through on my Twitter promise that I’d get Vettel to sign that damn flag, I arrived to the track as soon as gates opened on Friday and rushed right to that mosh pit to camp out for the day. I was determined. And several hours later, my commitment to the bit paid off:
When he signed the flag, Vettel made a face, then laughed and told me he liked my sunglasses. As he moved down the line to sign more autographs, he continued to giggle.
It was one of those situations where, had it been a different driver, the reaction could have been worse. But Vettel found the humor in what was undoubtedly a frustrating situation.
And as the years have passed, I think the ability to laugh at himself and to grow have been some of the things that endeared me to Vettel. See, I was never the biggest fan of the German driver; I first started watching F1 in his final year of domination with Red Bull, and I absorbed a lot of the distaste other fans held for him because of that, informed in large part by his stubbornness and hard-headed determination to win at any cost. Later, he made off-color comments about grid girls, which remains one of my biggest red flags in motor racing.
Vettel, though, has stepped back and observed the situation. In the same way he could laugh at a fan teasing him, he’s been able to look at his career and his place in the world and use what he learned to change his ways. His recent turn to activism has displayed that above anything else, and the very fact that he’s stepping away from F1 in part to reevaluate his contributions to climate change have shown that he’s a man willing to change his mind. His decision to mentor younger drivers on their entrance to the sport shows he’s matured. And while he was never exactly my favorite driver, Vettel has managed to endear himself to me as his career has evolved.
I’m sad to see him go — but I’ll always be grateful to have at least one fond interaction with one of F1's modern legends.