Things did not look good for Sebastian Vettel during the early races of 2021. After moving to Aston Martin following Ferrari's decision to replace him with Carlos Sainz, the German failed to score a point in the first four Grand Prix.
Yet at the fifth event of the year in Monaco, there was a dramatic turnaround. An impressive performance saw Vettel finish in fifth after starting eighth on the grid. Not only did he get those much-needed points, but crucially the result seemed to highlight a new-found confidence.
This was even more evident at the following race in Azerbaijan. Vettel put in one of the standout drives of the day and eventually claimed second place, his best result since the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix.
Whilst he benefited from events ahead of him - including Max Verstappen's tyre failure and Lewis Hamilton's mistake at the restart - Vettel's performance was no less impressive. The four-times World Champion was like his former self; battling through the field, displaying determination and class, as well as outperforming his teammate Lance Stroll.
Whilst it would be far too early to suggest that this form is here to stay given the long season ahead, Vettel is known to thrive when his confidence his high and this will certainly be the case following his stellar performances during the past two races. Former F1 World Champion Mika Hakkinen is amongst those backing the German to continue to perform well.
"As a four times World Champion he knows how to get the most from a car, and also from a race like the one on Sunday," Hakkinen wrote in his column for Unibet. "He ran a long first stint, giving him fresh tyres and the grip he needed to attack the cars in front. He raced very strongly, put together some great moves, and gave himself and the team a really important boost.
"Aston Martin have had a difficult start to the season, but Sebastian is now a lot happier with the car and if he can continue to build confidence in its performance I am sure this will not be the last time we see him on the podium this year."
Clearly nobody will be happier about Vettel's resurgence than the man himself, particularly following the difficult end to his relationship with Ferrari last year. Yet the 33-year-old's turnaround and continued presence in the sport is actually a good thing for many in F1, both in terms of on and off track action.
For starters, these recent performances will have surely come as a relief to Aston Martin. With such a big name returning to the sport, expectations - and investments - were high, particularly from the likes of executive chairman Lawrence Stroll. Signing a driver with the experience that Vettel brings was a sign of their desire to build a stronger team; that now seems to be paying off.
Additionally, the way that Vettel has managed to reverse his fortunes so quickly is a positive sign for other drivers still struggling to adapt to their new teams. Vettel was one of several to make switches for the 2021 season, with the others being Daniel Ricciardo to McLaren, Fernando Alonso to Alpine and the aforementioned Sainz as Vettel's Ferrari replacement.
All four drivers were outperformed by their teammates at the beginning of the year. Sainz seemed to be the first to adapt, whilst Vettel has since followed. Ricciardo and Alonso are both continuing to struggle, but can surely take heart from Vettel's ability to turn things around.
And as became evident from the reaction to his podium in Baku, Vettel's return to form is a positive factor for many fans. The German was voted Driver Of The Day for both the Monaco and Azerbaijan Grand Prix, reflecting the popularity of his good results. There was a definite 'feel-good' air to his podium in particular, where he joined Sergio Perez and Pierre Gasly in a surprise top three line-up.
Whilst Vettel's on-track resurgence is clearly being welcomed, it also draws attention to how the German's off-track actions are equally powerful. Like Lewis Hamilton, Vettel is a leading figure in the sport not just based on experience but also in terms of using his voice. The four-times World Champion has increasingly been speaking out on wider social issues, and in a recent interview with Aston Martin spoke about how important he feels it is for sportspeople to do this.
"I just think there are some topics that you can't afford to duck anymore," Vettel explained. "Especially in sports. I think sports have always taken in the bigger picture, in a position where you just wouldn't comment, or you just wouldn't take a stand.
"But I think some topics, you can't do that anymore. I think we live in a different time. It's not like it was maybe 20/25 years ago. It's not that you have to have an opinion, but I think you have to be aware of some things going on. You cannot afford to duck and hide about these things."
Vettel discussed the importance of speaking out on topics such as combatting racism and raising awareness of environmental concerns. This is not unheard of in F1 recently; several drivers have joined discussions such as these, and this was seen in Baku where some voiced their opinions on mental health in sports following tennis player Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open.
But Vettel's articulate discussion of his own concerns about such issues feels particularly powerful. It is clear that this is no PR game, as was evident from the revelation earlier this year that the German had interned at an organic farm during the first lockdown in 2020 to learn more about agriculture and nutrition. He is also an ambassador of Bio Bienen Apfel, a project in Austria that looks to raise awareness regarding the living environment of bees.
Additionally Vettel has lent his voice to Aston Martin's recently formed partnership with Racing Pride, an iniative that aims to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion within motorsport.
"I want to help highlight the positivity around the message of inclusion and acceptance," the driver said in a statement. "I congratulate the people who have pushed the discussion that has led to wider inclusion; but, equally, I'm aware that more needs to be done to change attitudes and remove much of the remaining negativity.
"It is great to see Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One team giving this issue support - there is a long road ahead, but I'm really pleased we can play a positive role."
Vettel's support for such causes feels genuine, and as such he remains one of the sport's most credible figures when it comes to addressing wider social issues. This is arguably more important than ever for F1, given the continued We Race As One initiative.
There are similarities here between Vettel and Hamilton, who is known for his own activism. Yet it could be argued that where the two differ is in the relationship and influence that Vettel appears to have with the other drivers. Ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix, Vettel was seen to approach former Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc on the grid to comiserate over the fact that the Scuderia man was unable to start his home race due to mechanical issues. He has also developed a friendship with Mick Schumacher, the son of his idol Michael Schumacher, and has spoken of being on hand to support Mick if needed.
Vettel clearly has the respect of his rivals, and the class of his behaviour towards them reflects well on the sport. This perhaps explains why many were seen to congratulate him on his podium result in Baku. Additionally the German remains a director of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, which represents all F1 drivers on safety and other matters.
It is hard to imagine who could replace Vettel in having this level of influence and empathy should he leave the sport. Seeing the former World Champion back at the front of the grid is as such incredibly important in highlighting how vital he is as a driver - and person - to Formula 1.