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How Honda F1 missed a two-week window to sign Vettel

Sebastian Vettel may have enjoyed the greatest success of his Formula 1 career with Red Bull, winning four world titles - but he could have ended up with Honda instead.

Sebastian Vettel, BMW Sauber F1.07

Sutton Images

According to Otmar Szafnauer, Alpine’s F1 team principal and the former Honda F1 director of strategy and business planning, there was a two-week window where Vettel was available to sign back in his junior days.

Szafnauer has always enjoyed a good relationship with Vettel, and played a key role in the German driver signing for Aston Martin last year after holding talks through 2020. Vettel announced at the end of last month he would be retiring from F1 at the end of the season.

Asked for his best story about Vettel in Hungary, Szafnauer revealed there was a time when he had hoped to sign the then-Red Bull and BMW-linked youngster for Honda, only for sporting director Gil de Ferran to drag his heels over a move.

“Seb came up to me and he said, ‘I've got a two-week window,’ and he was a young, he was I don't know, 19 years old or whatever,” Szafnauer recalled.

“‘I’ve got a two week window where I'm out of contract at both Red Bull and I think BMW. So, are you interested in signing me?’

“He was unknown quantity back then. But I'm like, ‘yeah, this kid's good!’ Two-week window!

“So I went to Gil, and I said, ‘we have two-week window to sign Seb Vettel.’ He said, ‘don't worry, I got my eye on him.’ ‘What do you mean, you got your eye on him? We got two weeks!’

“Anyway, we didn't sign him.”

Jenson Button, Honda RA107

Jenson Button, Honda RA107

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Vettel would go on to make his F1 race debut for BMW Sauber at the 2007 United States Grand Prix, deputising for the injured Robert Kubica, before getting a full-time race seat with Red Bull’s junior team Toro Rosso later that year.

It paved the way for Vettel to become then F1’s youngest race winner at Monza in 2008 for Toro Rosso before securing his maiden world title in 2010 with Red Bull.

Szafnauer would leave Honda midway through 2008, which proved to be the Japanese manufacturer’s last season with a works squad. It pulled the plug at the end of the year, resulting in Brawn GP picking up the pieces to win both titles in 2009 before eventually evolving into Mercedes’ works outfit from 2010.

Szafnauer and Vettel held talks through 2020 about a switch to what was then known as Racing Point, including a famed lift in a car to a petrol station at the British Grand Prix.

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Szafnauer revealed Vettel had brought homemade bread when he came to stay with him in the UK, speaking to the four-time world champion’s character.

“During COVID, he felt more comfortable not going to a hotel where he thought he could pick up Covid than spending time at our house whenever he came to England, because everybody tested every day, so everyone knew, we're Covid free,” Szafnauer said.

“And whenever he would come over, he would bring with him homemade bread, that he made in Switzerland, in this little satchel that he had he brought it with him. And I remember the first time, the kids were all looking. But they absolutely loved Seb's homemade bread.

“Every time he came, he had to bring his homemade bread. Brilliant! I mean, who else does that?”

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