x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A pit stop at a little hamlet, also hometown to F1 champion Vettel

Life in Heppenheim, Sebastian Vettel's hometown, is as slow as the Formula One world champion is fast. One other thing — you will have to look hard to see any notice that he is from there.

Vettel took a spin through his hometown last year in his Red Bull Racing RB6 car, but said it was 'bumpy and slippery'.
Vettel took a spin through his hometown last year in his Red Bull Racing RB6 car, but said it was 'bumpy and slippery'.

If you were fortunate enough to be in south-western Germany earlier this week, perhaps on a drab and drizzly day before cars started tearing around the great Nurburgring, you might have hopped on a train marked for Frankfurt and disembarked in a charming little town called Heppenheim, some 70 kilometres from your final destination.

Were you to turn up in this quaint hamlet unaware of its standing in the sporting stratosphere, arriving oblivious to the knowledge it is the birthplace of Formula One's world champion, there would be very few clues proffering enlightenment.

Sure, having walked off the station platform, past the Hotel Starkenburger and through a car park filled with Audis, Mercedes and BMWs, you may have noticed a flower garden proudly flying the flag of Eintracht Frankfurt.

Yet unless you were acquainted with the champion's favoured football team, the flag would in all likelihood have fluttered over your head in more ways than one.

Similarly, to an informed observer, the can of Red Bull sitting on a whitewashed wall a few metres from the local supermarket might have appeared to be clever marketing by Austria's cleverest marketing men.

But to an ill-informed cynic, it would surely have been discarded as mere litter.

Indeed, not until you ambled up the high street, under the banner promoting "Festspiele Heppenheim", past the half-timbered houses and a bronze statue of the town's very own Gottfried Pirsch - who is brilliantly described on his plaque as a "Burgermeister und Apotheker" - might you have understood you are walking the same cobbled streets that Sebastian Vettel grew up on.

For in the window of LA Muller's delightful little shop on Kirchengasse 16 is displayed a giant watercolour immortalising the day last summer when Vettel returned home.

On July 18, 2010, on the same Ludwigstrasse he would later complain to be "a bit bumpy and slippery", the German tore his Red Bull Racing RB6 past a throng of adoring friends, fans and family.

He later stopped to speak with many of the spectators, posing for photographs and signing autographs as the Starkenburg Castle, high up on the nearby mountain, loomed in the background.

Were you to continue staring into Herr Muller's wonderful shop window, you may have acknowledged, below the picture-perfect painting, a pair of yellow stickers rebranding Heppenheim as "Vettelheim".

The son of a carpenter and now a world icon, the 24 year old should be worshipped in his hometown.

Instead, save for Muller's memorabilia and a couple of posters in the window of the tourist information centre, he appears as uncelebrated as when he was karting round a homemade track in his back garden all those years ago.

"For a small paper like us, it is hard to follow him to places like Monza and Abu Dhabi," said Udo Messerschmidt, who has worked in the sports department of the local newspaper, the Starkenburger Echo, for the past seven years. "Believe it or not, I have never seen him in the flesh."

Messerschmidt recalled the Sunday afternoon of November 14 when Vettel, some 4,800km from these cobbled streets, made history by winning his second successive Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to become the youngest world champion in the six decade history of Formula One racing.

"It felt special," Messerschmidt said. "We had a public viewing and I think 200 or 300 people turned out. I was in the office though."

Records show Heppenheim as having a population of 24,000 residents, but walking the streets opens your ears to a town so silent you can hear a friendly game of table tennis being played more than a block away. An ageing population go about their day: a pair of wrinkled women wearing headscarves walk in the opposite direction of the Balkan Cafe, where inside pensioners sit eating beans, sauerkraut and sausages.

"Sebastian Vettel? Yes, I know the name," said Marian Hohn, a sexagenarian. "I don't like Formula One though. It's not my ... cup of tea."

Observing Hohn and her group might make you wonder where the future Vettels are. Without question the world champion's younger brother, Fabian, is not the only teenager in the town.

Perhaps the younger generation make up the estimated 130 Heppenheimers who have chartered a bus heading for Nurburg for today's German Grand Prix. Undoubtedly they will compose the majority of those who turn out to watch the Hungarian Grand Prix at a large public free viewing in the town square next weekend.

"Since Vettel won the title, Formula One is now the most popular sport here," Messerschmidt said. "But, in Heppenheim, there is nothing. We have many kart drivers, but they all leave to go race elsewhere."

And with that, you may decide to leave yourself; heading back to the train station, acknowledging the appropriateness that a trip to the birthplace of the fastest man on four wheels should be completed at such a pace that you only explore its bumpy streets and kitschy shops for the best part of just four hours.

Martina, a twenty-something waiting on the platform, perhaps gauges the mood best. "The people," she said, "are not exactly dancing on the streets for him, are they?"

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