When it comes to F1, timing is everything! Whether it is the timing of when you join the sport or the team you are a part of. Michael Schumacher won five consecutive titles with Ferrari, in part because of when he joined the team — just before its period of dominance began.
Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso's time at Ferrari was not as successful as they got their timing wrong. Similarly, Schumacher scored just one podium in his time at Mercedes, while Lewis Hamilton transformed his career with the same team.
In F1, timing is not only an important factor when deciding when to join a team, but also when ending a career in the sport. As is the case in all sports, retirement is a decision that many legendary drivers have failed to time perfectly, sometimes resulting in a little blemish on an otherwise stellar career.
However, there are a few that have nailed their exit to perfection. These legends left the sport at the top with fuel still left in the tank, bowing out of their own volition and not because they were pushed out. They could have continued for a few more years, but opted to leave even as they were still the cream of the crop.
In this feature, we will take a look at 3 world champions that timed their retirement to perfection. So without further ado, let's get straight to it.
Sebastian Vettel (4-time F1 World Champion)
Who else could be first on this list but the latest retiree from the grid? Sebastian Vettel broke the internet last season when he announced his decision to retire from the sport at the end of the year.
The German was part of Aston Martin and while the team had made quite a few promising signings, the results were just not there. Vettel spent the 2022 F1 season reminding everyone of his quality, as his performances were back to their vintage best.
There were multiple races where he outperformed the car and got results that the car did not deserve. His drive in Japan, where he pipped Fernando Alonso in the last corner, as well as Brazil, the US, and Abu Dhabi left no doubt that in the right car, Vettel would still be right up there.
At the same time, Vettel knew that the possibility of getting a car capable of fighting for the title was sparse now. He knew that the possibility of Aston Martin improving to be a frontrunner soon was miniscule, and so were his chances of getting a seat at any of the leading teams. Keeping that in mind, the German decided to call time on his career and exit the stage before he was pushed out.
Mika Hakkinen (2-time F1 World Champion)
What made Mika Hakkinen a legend of the sport was his work ethic and an 'all-in' approach. Hakkinen set up a foundation for future Finnish drivers and he did that by bettering Keke Rosberg's record of one F1 world championship triumph by a Finnish driver. Mika won his first F1 title by beating Michael Schumacher in 1998 and then won his second title in 1999 by beating Eddie Irvine.
After losing the title fight in 2000 to Schumacher, Hakkinen knew that his motivation had started to wane. He knew he wasn't as committed as he needed to be. He still had the skills, but he knew he was lacking the application to win.
As a result, at the end of the 2001 F1 season, Mika decided to call time on his career and retire. Ironically, just to make a point about how quick he still was, Mika managed to win his second last F1 race in Indianapolis to cap a successful career.
Alain Prost (4-time F1 World Champion)
Lewis Hamilton recently spoke about his dream of retiring as a world champion. Well, Alain Prost made it happen in 1993 when he won the championship and retired from the sport.
By then, Prost was already closer to the end of his career. He'd passed the torch to Ayrton Senna, who had won three titles himself. Prost's battle with Senna was legendary, but by that time, the fire had faded to a certain extent.
Prost was driving an absolute rocketship, an active suspension-powered, Adrian Newey-designed Williams that was in a league of its own. Prost dominated the season and after winning the title, he knew there wasn't much gas left in the tank.
Senna was doing brilliant things in an F1 car and Prost's age meant he was finding it hard to keep up with it. At the same time, a young German by the name of 'Michael Schumacher' had even started to become a menace for Ayrton Senna as well. There could not have been a better time to retire than at the top of the sport and Prost took that opportunity with both hands.