Thomas Riedel, the owner of SailGP’s newest team Germany, has lifted the lid on the origins of the team and revealed why he pursued the involvement of F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.
Speaking after the team’s racing debut in Chicago, Riedel recalled the moment SailGP boss Russell Coutts first suggested the introduction of a German team.
Riedel is no stranger to the league - his eponymous communications company has partnered with SailGP since Season 2. While Riedel admits he’s ‘not a sailor’, he says ‘does understand the German market and media’. “I said ‘let me investigate’, and I did,” he says.
As Riedel began his early investigation into spearheading the creation of a new team, he set a key ambition - to make the relatively new sport of SailGP even more accessible and, ultimately, to introduce the league to a greater legion of high-speed racing fans.
“That was when I had to idea to bring someone into the owner side who was very well known to the racing community and that’s exactly how Sebastian Vettel came up.”
With four world champion titles under his belt, Sebastian Vettel retired from F1 in 2022, but it was before his retirement that Riedel originally suggested his involvement with the Germany SailGP Team.
“I knew that [his driving career] wouldn’t go on forever and a person like Sebastian would need a new stage,” Riedel says. While Vettel chimed with SailGP across many metrics including racing, diversity and sustainability, he initially had the ‘same question mark’ as Riedel.
“He is also not a sailor, so he said I don’t understand the sport so what will be my function?” Riedel recalls.
With this yet to be defined, Vettel watched some SailGP races before meeting ith Riedel and then-potential driver Erik Heil in Kiel, Germany.
The dinner, which lasted by Riedel’s estimation ‘around three hours’, saw Vettel grill Heil and Riedel on ‘the sport, business and strategy’.
“There were a lot of questions that clearly showed he has a lot of knowledge from F1 about how to win and become a World Champion,” Riedel says. “He was already asking what other elements can we change to make a difference in a one-class competition - he was really switched on.”
Once Vettel had confirmed his involvement, Riedel was confident ‘this whole thing would fly” and confirmed that Germany would join the league in Season 4.
As Heil, Riedel and Vettel gathered to officially launch the team at SPOBIS 2023 in Düsseldorf, Vettel’s widespread influence in the racing and motorsport communities began to pay off.
“The reach over the first 24 hours post-launch was enormous,” Riedel says. "Not only did the whole sailing community know about it, but the wider racing community and all the typical Formula 1 platforms were talking about it.”
As the fledgling team began preparations for its racing debut in Chicago, Vettel began to translate vital experience from his F1 career to the SailGP format. He coached Heil on how to handle ‘the challenge of jet lag’, developing a special program from his own that spelled out ‘exactly what Erik should do when traveling to Chicago for the first race.”
Vettel has also been integral in the development of team strategies and plans which Riedel prefers to keep close to his chest. Despite this, it’s clear, he says, that Vettel ‘has the racing DNA’.
“I think he was a bit surprised by how of his knowledge and his DNA of being a winner he can share and help us.”
Vettel is reluctant to travel to events in an effort to reduce his carbon footprint, but as Chicago got underway and Germany hit the water for the first time, Vettel logged on to watch from his home in Switzerland.
“It was almost midnight but he was completely on it,” Riedel says, “we gave him some special camera angles and a radio so he could listen to the audio and speak to the boat live - he was there completely.”
First season expectations
As Germany settles into its first SailGP season, Riedel is cautious to set concrete targets or ambitions for the young team, adding that in ‘such a complex sport’ it’s important to be ‘careful with your expectations’.
Instead, he says, ‘it’s more important that we’re safe’. “We don’t want to see the boat capsize or anyone being hurt.”
Riedel conveyed his safety concerns to Heil ahead of Chicago, telling him ‘we want to see the start line and the finish line, and no more.”
But Riedel saw a lot more than that. Despite finishing in last overall, Germany impressed with its debut performance by being consistently competitive in the mid-fleet.
“When I saw in the first race that the team was up to third position for a period of time, I just said ‘oh my god’,” Riedel recalls. “It shows that we really have the right group of people together - the first event just exceeded our expectations.”
Germany will resume its Season 4 campaign at the inaugural Oracle Los Angeles Sail Grand Prix on July 22-23.