On the Furkajoch Alpine pass in the western Austrian state of Vorarlberg, a young man dressed in a stylish leather jacket, jeans, and silver helmet is doing circuits on a motorcycle. There are several bike lovers present, but only a few can identify the ride, even after looking at its marque.
It’s a Scott Flying Squirrel, made in 1938. The rider is much more easily identified: Sebastian Vettel, three-time Formula One world champion, closing in on a fourth, and longstanding fan of historic vehicles. “Once I learned to ride a bicycle my father bought Mini Vespas for my sister and I. When I took my first ride in the backyard it was freezing cold, and I shivered so much while holding the handlebars that I fell.”
That minor accident couldn’t still his passion for motorbikes. Vettel’s childhood heroes were Formula One drivers—he was 7 years old when Michael Schumacher celebrated winning his first world championship title, so the search for a role model was fairly straightforward—but he also watched Mick Doohan on TV in the mid 1990s, winning five consecutive world championships in the 500cc bike class now known as MotoGP. “Although with Doohan, even as a child I knew he was a bit nuts. Since then I’ve got to know him, and he’s really one of a kind, and a legend on a bike.” Vettel had a healthy, normal childhood, and the most obvious means to freedom came on two wheels: “You could ride into town, to the outdoor pool, meet up with friends. The bicycle was the first means of transportation that gave me independence.”
As a teenager, Vettel raced go-karts, and a moped license was the logical next step. A racing driver traveling to school on a bicycle? No way. Naturally, the moped underwent certain mechanical modifications to increase its speed—“fairly aimless tinkering,” laughs Vettel. In any case, he was born too late (1987) or the true golden age of moped tune-ups. It was his father’s generation that pushed the parameters of that particular mode of transport.
“At 16, I invested all of my confirmation money into my first motorcycle, a Cagiva Mito,” says Vettel. “It was quite something. From the front it looked like a Ducati. It was a bit embarrassing taking it to school. Compared to my schoolmates’ scooters, the Mito was by some distance the hottest ride in the school parking lot.”
The Cagiva was a rudimentary machine with a two-stroke motor, just like his go-kart, which could nonetheless manage high speeds and gave off a trademark odor. “My love for the two-stroke motor definitely dates from the go-kart days. The sounds and smells of it are real childhood memories for me. And the revs! I was always a two-stroke fan, even though I only drive four-stroke in cars. It’s a shame that the two-stroke is just about extinct now.”
The Mito was rarely parked out front of the school, though, because Vettel was otherwise engaged, storming his way through different junior racing series. Not long after he (miraculously) passed his final exams, he made his debut in Formula One at 19.
At home, however, the talk of motorbikes never let up. His grandfather had rhapsodized about his NSU Max and his BMW R 51/3, and Vettel now has the same BMW that grandpa once rode. It’s not ready for riding yet. “To be honest,” says its new owner, “it has to be completely rebuilt.” He wants to do it with his own hands but doesn’t have the time right now.
Also in his fleet is another restoration job in the form of an old Vespa, as well as a modern scooter for everyday riding (“unbeatable in town”), a KTM 690 Duke for fun on the bends, and a BMW S 1000 RR for serious sports riding. When you have the motor skills of a Formula One world champion, you can jump on any old thing and dash off. “I think I quickly get accustomed to speed and motion sequences. I get the upper hand, but because I don’t have the experience it gets dangerous from that point on.” He respects his limitations. “I’m not one for running tires right down to the edge.” It’s the quieter moments of harmony that Vettel treasures when he’s riding a motorcycle. They can put him in the right, philosophical frame of mind.
“Motorcycle riding gives you a sense of freedom which you don’t get in a car. Your senses take on a different significance. You have no radio, but you don’t need it either. You smell the surroundings and take more notice of them than in a convertible. You can stop wherever you want, get off, even in town. That’s where the motorcycle is really unbeatable. You’re not strapped into the vehicle like you are in a car. I think it’s a shame that the motorcycle doesn’t have the same status for young people that it once had.” What has changed? “Perhaps the fathers of today are happy that they survived their wild years on the motorbike, and they forbid their kids from riding. I hope things change, because riding a motorcycle
is so wonderful and enriching.”
Vettel’s way of life only revs up his longing for those precious two-wheeled getaways. If your everyday mobility is plane-taxi-racetrack-taxi-plane, you want to feel the wind in your hair every now and then, to tackle an Alpine pass and feel the centrifugal forces at work.
Today is one of those days. Fritz Ehn, known to motorcycle cognoscenti as Professor Friedrich Ehn, has brought five 1930s treasures from his motorbike museum in Sigmundsherberg, near the Austrian town of Horn. There’s a Brough Superior, equivalent to a Rolls-Royce in its day, currently worth a six-figure euro sum. A Norton International, which conquered racetracks around the world. A Scott Flying Squirrel, with its water-cooled two-stroke, two-cylinder engine; its out-of-the-ordinary mechanics and aesthetics make it Vettel’s favorite. Then there’s an Ariel and a Rudge, two masterpieces of English engineering.
In no time at all, Ehn and Vettel are deep in shoptalk, “from an old timer to a young whippersnapper,” as Ehn says with a grin. Vettel, who has a soft spot for scrap metal at the best of times, marvels that the old girls in chrome and black are in riding condition, even with more than 80 years on the clock.
“Whether it’s four wheels or two, you have to consider when and under what conditions something was built. There was a lot more handiwork then. Naturally, there is far more precision in our F1 cars. Even the most gifted mechanic back then couldn’t work in the realm of thousandths of millimeters. I think it’s great that despite all that, they came up with something so beautiful and technically outstanding.”
Fulfillment in life requires contrasts. If you eat at the finest restaurants every day, it will do you a world of good to pull a baked potato out of the campfire every now and then. Kickstarts and fresh oil lubrication with a bike, instead of F1’s telemetry and KERS. On this fine autumn day, it’s the Norton and the Scott in particular that grab Vettel’s attention. “The Norton is a racing machine—you feel it as soon as you get on. Everything screams step on it, step on it, step on it! It wants you to go faster. I felt a bit more comfortable on the Scott. It was just more relaxed for riding around and enjoying the countryside.”
Discussion turns to more philosophical matters, as so often happens among bikers. “For looks, I find the racing motorcycles very appealing,” says Vettel. “You can simply put it in front of you and admire it, like you would a picture on a wall. Then there are the really beautiful naked bikes, where you see more of the mechanics. That’s what I find so interesting about old bikes: You really get a feel for how it works and how it was built. You can visualize the process much better. With cars, that’s become much more abstract, but with motorcycles you have the illusion that you could repair it yourself at any time—or at least you’d know where to start. I find it interesting to see how it functions, how propulsion comes about.”
To see Vettel handling the old machines is to witness a true technical sensitivity that goes beyond mere ability. Here is someone who lives for the technology, understands it and communicates with it. The old bikes in Fritz Ehn’s museum need to be handled with sensitivity. A bit of pre-ignition here, milk the gas a bit there, don’t let this one idle. Then there’s the reversed circuitry, the tricky cork clutch, or brakes that are merely for show. But Ehn, who can be quite stern when he wants to be, never gets the impression that the young whippersnapper from the four-wheeled world would mishandle his wares. Quite the contrary. “Vettel, he’s one of us,” he says, as the German disappears on the other side of the Furkajoch. It might just be the greatest compliment you’ll get from someone leaning into his seventh decade in the saddle.
If you happen to see a young man with a broad grin on a motorcycle—old or new, large or small—around Austin on Nov. 17 for the U.S. Grand Prix, give him a wave. It could well be Sebastian Vettel.
Check out the December 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands November 12) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.