But after his victory in the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday, a more complex image of the German has emerged—that of a ruthless, cunning driver who will do whatever it takes to win a race and possibly his fourth consecutive drivers' championship.
The 25-year-old German ignored team orders and overtook Red Bull teammate Mark Webber for the victory with 10 laps remaining. The move left Webber fuming and raised questions about who is truly in charge at Red Bull.
"I think it blemished his reputation," three-time F1 champion Jackie Stewart said.
"It was an unfortunate error of judgment by Sebastian and it will linger for some time," Stewart told The Associated Press. "There will be an awareness from now on that he may not be as stable as we originally thought."
Since winning his first grand prix in 2008 with Toro Rosso, Vettel proved he was one of F1's most exciting drivers and considered the heir to countryman and seven-time champion Michael Schumacher.
After coming back to win the championship last year, Vettel became the first driver with three titles in a row since Schumacher's five straight from 2000-04. The only other driver to win at least three consecutive championships was Juan Manuel Fangio from 1954-57.
Along the way, Vettel displayed a persona that was almost boring in racing circles.
On the track, he was aggressive but rarely reckless during his championship runs. While Lewis Hamilton had several run-ins with Felipe Massa in 2011 and Romain Grosjean caused more than one first-lap crash last year, Vettel appeared content with simply winning races or doing enough to keep his championship run intact.
He overcame adversity last year, finishing one place behind Fernando Alonso in Abu Dhabi despite starting in the pits because of a penalty in qualifying for fuel irregularities. It preserved his championship lead.
But Vettel also has shown signs of impatience, most troubling in 2010 when Webber was ahead of him in a race. That time, they crashed when Vettel tried to overtake, spoiling what was a near-certain 1-2 finish.
He was largely forgiven for the Turkey crash, partly because of his youth.
But the latest incident has set off a firestorm of criticism on F1 websites and Twitter in which the German is portrayed for the first time as a villain. The British press has been especially tough, calling him egotistical, selfish and even immoral. Fans have called for him to be punished in some way—possibly suspended for a race.
Vettel hasn't responded beyond the apology he made minutes after the victory, and it seems the team is standing by its top driver.
Red Bull team leader Christian Horner didn't defend Vettel but tried to downplay the controversy.
"Obviously it wasn't right what he did. He accepts that," Horner said. "He clearly said if he could wind the clocks back he wouldn't do it again. That is the way it is. We need to put it behind us. It's not like it hasn't happened before."
On Wednesday, Red Bull adviser Helmut Marko said the issue had been "settled" amid reports that Vettel had visited the team's factory in Milton Keynes and apologized to every staff member for his behavior.
"They don't have to be completely on the same page, but it must be a solid working partnership," Marko said. "There was a debrief afterward with the relevant discussions about the race and then there was a handshake between the two drivers. For us now the issue is settled."
Critics wonder if it will be that easy after Sunday.
Webber's father said he will continue at Red Bull, and Stewart said the Australian wouldn't be able to find a more competitive car elsewhere.
"If Mark would go anywhere else, it would be to Ferrari," Stewart said. "But Mark would face the same problems with Alonso at Ferrari as he would face with Vettel at Red Bull."
If he doesn't leave, it could benefit the other teams.
McLaren's Jenson Button, who had his own troubles with former teammate Hamilton, told the Daily Mail he doubts the issue will go away anytime soon and that it could lead to the two drivers fighting among themselves rather than concentrating on other title contenders.
"Hopefully, it does help us," he said.