OPINION: The four-time world champion made an appearance on UK TV last week, proving to be more eloquent than certain other guests, while also outlining his value to Formula 1 as a vocal and honest ambassador

As 20 of the finest athletes in the world, racing in the most international of international series, Formula 1 drivers have grown accustomed to a certain way of travelling. First class flights and private jets are the norm for many in F1, a world that is often (rightly) seen as elitist, detached from much of reality and blinkered by its own dramas.

Yet had you been sat on the 1516 South Western Railway service from Feltham last Thursday, you would have seen a man with tousled hair wearing a blue and green check shirt. You’d probably have walked past him without batting an eyelid, and definitely not said hello or attempted any interaction – an unwritten commuting rule in London.

It’s hardly the mode of transport a four-time F1 world champion would be used to but, for Sebastian Vettel, this was an important day. Having made it back to Europe from Miami, where a clash with close friend and protege Mick Schumacher had ended both their hopes of points, Vettel was now embarking on a very different mission. Arguably, a much bigger one as he prepared to speak up on one of his biggest platforms to date.

This had nothing at all to do with Formula 1. Vettel was appearing on the famous BBC political debate show Question Time, in Hackney, becoming the first active F1 driver to do so.

Question Time is an institution within both British television and British politics. Since the show began in 1979, all serving British prime ministers, with the exception of Margaret Thatcher, have appeared on the panel, which always features a minister from the serving government, a counterpart from the opposition, and three other public figures.

Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly at Hungarian GP 2021

Vettel has become one of F1's most important and relevant voices on matters outside of sport in recent years. Along with Lewis Hamilton, he was one of the most vocal members of the grid amid the activism against racism around in the world in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd. He protested against Hungary's anti-LGBTQ+ law referendum in 2021, calling it "embarrassing" and wearing a rainbow shirt on the grid that landed him a reprimand for breaking FIA protocols. He has been particularly outspoken about climate change, stressing the need for F1 to do more to be conscious of the issues facing the world right now.

Question Time was the perfect platform for Vettel. Few (if any) others on the grid have such an understanding of current affairs around the world and the existential threats facing our planet, preferring to bat away questions in media sessions by claiming they "don't know all the details". Some like it that way and want their heroes to "stick to racing", a dangerous mantra that only breeds ignorance.

The plan for Vettel to appear on Question Time was put together by Aston Martin's communications team, headed up by former F1 Racing editor and Motorsport.com columnist Matt Bishop. Given Vettel has been racing full-time in F1 since 2008, media duties and sponsor commitments are unlikely to offer something new or particularly engaging to him, this was something very different that would offer a chance for him to speak about matters way beyond long-run pace and tyre compounds.

By the time he arrived at the studio in Hackney – Question Time moves around the UK, but was in the east London borough last week – Vettel had already done a lot with his day. He paid a visit to Feltham Young Offenders Institution, helping to open a new car workshop on site that will be used to teach inmates basic skills for servicing cars and engine. The hope is that it will give them a chance to find employment upon release.

"Every time I step in the car, I love it. When I get out of the car, of course I'm thinking as well, is this something we should do? Travel the world, wasting resources?" Sebastian Vettel

"Life can be very fair, but it can also be unfair," Vettel said. "The most important thing is that we all get a second chance in life. We need to find something that sparks our passion or interest. That is the idea with the garage here."

One inmate said the scheme was "opening a door" for inmates ahead of their release, and that Vettel had been "very motivational and inspirational" talking to them.

The next step for Vettel was the Oasis Johanna primary school in London, where he helped open a new therapy room that will assist children struggling with mental health, adding it to their curriculum. Oasis Nature helps those from poverty-stricken backgrounds and areas, giving children a chance to access services that may otherwise not be available.

Vettel hopped in a cab to make his way up to Hackney for Question Time, where he would appear alongside Conservative MP and attorney general Suella Braverman, Labour MP Shabana Mahmood, economist Miatta Fahnbulleh and comedian Geoff Norcott. The format for the show, hosted by Fiona Bruce, sees audience members submit questions that act as starting points for discussions. Members of the audience come from a range of backgrounds with varying political views, and will often interject to make points during debates to help move them along.

Sebastian Vettel in London May 2022

The fragile nature of British politics right now given the continued aftershocks from Brexit, the 'Partygate' scandal and the wider global issues meant it was inevitable Braverman and Mahmood would play the most central roles in the debate. But that did not mean Vettel was sidelined or would not look to engage – quite the opposite.

When the initial discussion about the cost of living crisis amid rising energy prices and the need for government intervention was thrown his way, Vettel didn't miss a beat, drawing similarities to the situation in Germany and the danger of depending on other countries – like Russia since its invasion of Ukraine – for energy or a single source.

"We should have tackled these dangers or threats a long time ago," Vettel said. "We have to shift into the next gear and get ready for the future."

It was an early sign of the class and calmness Vettel held in stark contrast to some of the mud-slinging between Braverman and Mahmood, the former being accused of "making numbers up" over the windfall tax and claiming Labour was "desperate to make headlines" with its promises, forcing Bruce to intervene.

The debate moved on to the Northern Ireland protocol, a sensitive element of the Brexit agreement to deal with the border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. Mahmood flapped, avoiding eye contact with any other panelist, and pointed the finger at the EU for causing issues, at which point it was thrown to Vettel.

"Well, I'm not familiar with all the details!" he quipped, sparking a laugh from the audience, before being encouraged to "wade into the argument". He explained how the majority of German's didn't understand the decision to leave the EU, and again stressed the need for unity to deal with bigger issues like social justice and climate change. It was perhaps the most sensible stance taken on Brexit in the past decade from either side of the debate.

On the 'Partygate' scandal that saw Prime Minister Boris Johnson break his own lockdown laws, Vettel was again articulate: "We all do mistakes, we're all human. But there are just certain things that I think come with office or that job that you can't do."

Sebastian Vettel in London May 2022

But it was impossible to avoid the elephant in the room.

"You've talked a lot on most of the questions that we've dealt with about energy," Bruce said, "and here you are, you're an F1 driver, one of the most gas-guzzling sports in the world! Does that make you a hypocrite?"

Most panelists would have squirmed at the use of the H-word. Not Vettel. He took the issue head on.

"It does, it does, and you're right when you laugh," he said upon hearing the audience's reaction, admitting it was "something I'm asking myself" if he should be racing in F1.

"Every time I step in the car, I love it," he said. "When I get out of the car, of course I'm thinking as well, is this something we should do? Travel the world, wasting resources?"

All drivers needs to think about their post-F1 lives at some stage, and Question Time proved the power Vettel could have as a speaker – or, dare he wish to enter such an arena, even as a politician

The concession inevitably made headlines, even on Motorsport.com. Yet it was a rare show of self-awareness and humility from a Question Time panellist. The whole point of having public non-government figures on the show is that they can say things and be more honest without worrying about the impact on the electorate or – probably more of a concern – their own political aspirations. Even so, few would be willing to poke at such big holes in their own beliefs or flawed ways of life.

This is what sets Vettel apart and makes him such a credit to F1. Had there been more time, he could have fired back against Bruce's "gas-guzzling" retort – the engines amount to 0.7% of F1's carbon footprint, and the series wants to be carbon neutral by 2030 – but his appearance was nothing but a resounding success. His humility and grace is something we should all take note of and try to learn lessons from, and set an example to the MPs alongside him on the panel whose arguments only became increasingly tangled as the discussion went on.

There can be no hiding from the fact we are in the closing stages of Vettel's F1 career now. The summer will see him think about future plans and whether to continue beyond 2022. As the series continues to expand and become more demanding, it is arguably getting further away than ever from his own beliefs and what he wants from life.

Sebastian Vettel in London May 2022

All drivers needs to think about their post-F1 lives at some stage, and Question Time proved the power Vettel could have as a speaker – or, dare he wish to enter such an arena, even as a politician. He may be flawed, but he truly cares about the big-picture stuff, like the survival of our planet and what the world is going to look like for the generations that follow us.

And as much as some may not want to hear this, it's way more important than racing cars going around in circles.

This is our passion, our source of joy, and for many, a livelihood. Vettel himself stressed the importance of F1 as entertainment for people, particularly as one of the first major sporting events to return after the COVID-19 pandemic struck in the spring of 2020. But we need to ensure our focus does not stray from the bigger points in play: social and racial justice, environmental issues, equality for all.

Whenever Vettel does hang up his helmet, it will be critical that not only F1 as a whole does not lose sight of these matters without one of its biggest stars, but that Vettel himself also tries to find a platform from which to remain so active and honest. Question Time was a taste of what post-F1 Vettel may look like – and for the good of us all, may he continue to be the important voice we need.

Sebastian Vettel 2022