Standing on the top step for the first time in 392 days with the German national anthem warbling across throngs of fans on the track below, Vettel’s façade cracked. A wave of relief swept across his face, and for a moment - only a moment - he looked as though he would be completely overcome.
But then there was a deep breath, a clenched jaw, and the welling emotion was forced back beneath the surface. The 32-year-old’s face was inscrutable once more.
There was no doubting how much the moment meant to Vettel. His last win had come at the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix at the height of his championship fight with Lewis Hamilton. He wasn’t to know it then, but the following year would be disastrous.
The four-time world champion crashed his way out of title contention in 2018, and when the sport resumed this year he was given an uncompetitive car and partnered with young gun Charles Leclerc, who claimed Ferrari’s first two wins of the season to establish himself as team leader.
Vettel was forced to answer questions about his motivation, his ability in wheel-to-wheel combat and, most painfully, his talent as a driver.
Some drivers respond well to pressure, using it as motivation to access higher levels of performance. Others wilt under the weight of expectation, and as pressure tends to beget pressure, they struggle to rebuild.
But after perhaps his lowest point — his crash at the Italian Grand Prix in front of Ferrari’s home fans — Vettel found a way to break the cycle.
“I really want to thank the fans,” he said. “Obviously the last couple of weeks for me have been not the best, but it’s been incredible to get so much support — so many letters, so many nice messages, people telling their own stories of when things might not go well and so on.
“If people make the effort to write something, when you find a bit of time in the evenings to go through, it’s really encouraging.
“It gave me a lot of strength, belief, and I tried to put it all into the track today, into the car, and it’s nice when it pays off.”
Vettel is renowned for eschewing social media and his disdain for the trappings of fame, but in a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a man not usually forthcoming with personal details, he expressed a genuine, heartfelt appreciation for those who have stuck by him during his darkest hours.
“When you start, it’s very difficult to imagine that people follow you and these kinds of things,” he said. “For us everything is centred around racing, but really it’s not the most important thing, and when you read through some of the notes and people’s struggles in life, some very intimate and private, it gets to you. It gave me a lot of belief and confidence to just keep trying.”
It's tempting to believe this is Vettel’s turning point, the win that will reset him onto the path to another title showdown, but it’s difficult to know for certain. The German has had false dawns before — the Canadian Grand Prix earlier this year, for example — after which his lacklustre form returned.
But Ferrari’s unexpected competitiveness offers hope. The SF90’s lack of front-end downforce has been at the core of both its lack of pace and Vettel’s difficulties with the car. If the upgrades introduced in Singapore to affect this turnaround translate to other circuits, Vettel would be well placed to carry this momentum into the final phase of the season.
The championship might be long gone, but there may be life left in the four-time champion yet.