It goes without saying that Sebastian Vettel is a star on paved circuit racing, being a four-time Formula One World Champion with fifty-three Grand Prix wins. But could he potentially add some off-road to his diet?
The past weekend’s Race of Champions saw a new surface for Vettel as he competed on an ice and snow race course in Pite Havsbad, Sweden. The event pitted drivers against each other in vehicles that are built for such climates such as the Polaris RZR PRO XP and Olsberg MSE’s rallycross-specific cars like the RX2e and Nitro Rallycross’ FC1-X; in fact, the only car that seemed more fitting for pavement was the Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport, and even that was set up for the Arctic Circle. Vettel, who grew up in karts and formula cars, was seemingly out of his element, but instead proved his meddle in Sunday’s individual tournament when he reached the final before losing 3–1 to legendary World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb.
While Loeb was the obvious favourite to win on such a surface, Vettel’s run has him considering more. Speaking to Dirtfish, Vettel confessed his fascination with off-road racing, remarking that “I need a lot of catching up, but I think I enjoy it a lot. I always enjoyed watching what they are doing. It’s a different discipline so you’re still having fun with a car but it’s just there are a lot of differences.”
Saturday’s Nations Cup was a learning experience for Vettel, who suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of esports driver Lucas Blakeley. Despite the upset, he and Team Germany partner Mick Schumacher reached as far as the quarter-final where they fell to Team USA, with Vettel losing to Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion who grew up in off-road trucks.
The individual ROC saw Vettel get by Finland’s Emma Kimiläinen and USA’s Colton Herta, the latter victory coming on a tiebreaker, before beating Tom Kristensen of Team Nordic. Considering the environment, the odds were stacked against Vettel regarding potential opponents in the opposite bracket, with all eight drivers there having WRC or FIA World Rallycross experience. Had Travis Pastrana not been injured (which prompted Herta to take his spot), he would have been another formidable adversary for Vettel as a multi-time rally title winner and defending Nitro Rallycross champion, the latter of which he founded.
Of course, it is unrealistic to expect any driver regardless of background to hop from one discipline to another and enjoy immediate success. Any type of off-road racing—whether it be rallying, rallycross, or even rally raid and short course—demands a different type of driving style from open-wheel. Habits picked up in one must be unlearned or adapted to fit in a new environment, which is a transition that not every cross-code driver can make. Still, Vettel seems excited about the prospect, telling Dirtfish he believes it is “very satisfying to play with the car and to have more margin.”
Does any of this mean one can expect Vettel to race in the Dakar Rally or WRC anytime soon? Maybe not in the immediate future as he has his F1 commitments, but that hasn’t stopped the off-road world from at least trying to stake their claim on him. WRC team M-Sport tweeted a contact email at Vettel’s Aston Martin F1 Team while World RX and NRX‘s Twitter accounts also voiced their interest.