As bombshells go, the news that Sebastian Vettel will part ways with Ferrari at the end of the year is perhaps rather unsurprising. Whilst it certainly caught a Formula 1 community mired in the challenges of a global pandemic off-guard, all the ingredients for a parting of ways have been plain to see for a while. Having already lost out on potential titles in 2017 and 2018 through on-track errors, Vettel would compound an increasingly alarming downturn in his career with a thoroughly unconvincing display in 2019.
In terms of his relationship with the prestigious Scuderia, 2019 was a perfect storm: mixing baffling on-track errors with an unflattering comparison with his hotshot young team-mate, all whilst casting an increasingly sombre and browbeaten figure in the paddock. 2019 quickly became a test of Vettel’s self-esteem as he struggled to maintain his former superiority within the team – suffering a pair of humiliating spins in Bahrain and Monza which would ironically coincide with a pair of truly heroic performances from Charles Leclerc.
The negotiating table
2019 set the scene for Vettel’s exit from Ferrari: vastly diminishing his ability to renegotiate on favourable terms and bolstering the standing of his fresh-faced team-mate; now signed to Ferrari until 2024. Having arrived at the team in 2015 as the presumptive #1 to quickly become the team’s figurehead alongside a more docile team-mate in Kimi Raikkonen, Vettel faced an uphill struggle to restate his worth to the Scuderia. It is clear that Ferrari offered Vettel an extended deal but on a reduced salary, having previously been on one of the most lucrative deals in the paddock; second only to Lewis Hamilton’s reported £40 million Mercedes deal.
Whether this pay-cut proved the final straw is unclear. Vettel has adamantly claimed that money was not decisive, stating “financial matters have played no part in this joint decision. That’s not the way I think when it comes to making certain choices and it never will be.” It’s certainly apparent that Vettel has been slowly falling out of love with F1 for a while now, so rather than money, perhaps a proposed reduced standing in the team proved pivotal. As unbelievable as it seems for a four-time champion, with Vettel unlikely to dispute an equal #1 standing with Leclerc, it’s possible that Ferrari suggested he play a supporting role to the Monegasque.
McLaren or motorbike?
Going forward, the future of both Vettel and Ferrari already looks to be falling into place. For Vettel, retirement looks highly likely. The reflective tone he strikes in his statement is certainly rather conspicuous: “What’s been happening in these past few months has led many of us to reflect on what are our real priorities in life. One needs to use one’s imagination and to adopt a new approach to a situation that has changed. I myself will take the time I need to reflect on what really matters when it comes to my future.”
The only real alternative that would potentially motivate Vettel would be a move to a newly Mercedes-powered McLaren for 2021. That said, a deal with McLaren would likely see Vettel line-up alongside another of the sport’s inconveniently fast young hopefuls in Lando Norris. However, for someone who appeared so outwardly race weary in 2019, the prospect of an all-new team (one famed for a notoriously intricate procedural culture) may appear a fairly tiresome chore. Vettel has always maintained a fastidious distance between his personal and private life, having never brought either of his daughters to the circuit. The chance to spend more time with his young family, plus the prospect of actually completing his truncated repairs on one of his infamously troublesome motorbikes, certainly appears his most persuasive option for 2021.
For Ferrari going forward, the options are certainly more wide-ranging. For a team that is set to lose a highly-decorated and well-respected champion, Ferrari is fortunate in that most drivers are up for contract renewal giving Maranello the pick of the bunch. With talk of a mega-money Hamilton move from Mercedes to Ferrari probably safely regarded as fantastical thinking, the Scuderia nonetheless finds itself with an eclectic mix of options. These include a midfield dynamo in Carlos Sainz Jr, an amiable yet formidable race-winner in Daniel Ricciardo and a capable if reluctant “wingman” in Valtteri Bottas.
Promoting serial Ferrari tester Antonio Giovinazzi would only make sense if Ferrari were adamant about created a one-sided outfit built solely around Leclerc. You could possibly add double-champion and apathetic F1 refugee, Fernando Alonso, to the list – although, as is his style, the Spaniard didn’t leave on the best of terms with Maranello at the end of 2014. As much as Alonso would be a brilliant mentor for Leclerc and an invaluable reserve of knowledge and experience, an established pattern of internal politicking will certainly count him out.
At the time of writing, Ferrari is reported to have already nominated Vettel’s successor with Carlos Sainz seemingly set to be announced in the coming days. The McLaren driver was the favourite for the seat from the moment Vettel’s exit was announced and was immediately tipped by Martin Brundle and Will Buxton to succeed the German. Sainz would be a fine choice: he produced a truly outstanding season in 2019 culminating in a quite remarkable drive to claim his maiden podium in Brazil from the back of the grid.
However, perhaps Carlos’ most impressive moment came during the Japanese Grand Prix where his pace was so completely transcendent of the midfield that a recovering Leclerc was forced to abandon his chase on the loftily-placed McLaren. Perhaps those final laps at Suzuka stuck in Mattia Binotto’s mind. There would also be some measure of justice if Sainz were to get the seat; having been leapfrogged by Max Verstappen for a drive with Red Bull’s top team and unceremoniously left to pasture at Toro Rosso before an unsuccessful move to Renault. Few drivers are quite so overdue a run in a winning car.
An experience vacuum?
However, there is a very fine argument in Daniel Ricciardo’s favour. The Aussie is a proven race-winner and one of the most impressive and audacious performers on the grid – poached by Renault for a reported £26 million price tag. Ricciardo is not the cheapest option nor would he make for the most congenial line-up, given that he would go to Ferrari in with a chance of posing a real threat to Leclerc. Maranello has been notoriously phobic of genuine internecine competition in the past.
However, Ferrari could also benefit from that dynamic. Leclerc is by no means the finished article, having made costly errors in Baku and Hockenheim and been generally lacking in race pace relative to his scintillating single-lap speed. Of course, this was only to be expected from a driver in just his second season of F1, but Leclerc could nonetheless theoretically benefit from Ricciardo taking Vettel’s baton as the team’s experienced reference point. Ricciardo is also widely famed for the quality of his feedback, something that in turn would also be a very useful reference for Leclerc. Maintaining the incredible trajectory of the driver Ferrari have put their faith in for the next four years must be Mattia Binotto’s top priority.
As much as Ricciardo’s candidacy makes sense, if Sainz can step up to the challenge of partnering Leclerc like he stepped up to the task of leading McLaren’s 2019 campaign, there is no reason not to expect a tight fight between the Ferrari duo in 2021. In any case, Ferrari’s future looks safe in the hands of its incumbent young megastar.
Vettel’s immediate future is much less certain, tasked either with negotiating a deal with an all-new team or reflecting on a role in the wider world outside the F1 bubble. A Nico Rosberg-style YouTube account seems unlikely. If Sebastian does opt for retirement, journalists are going to be given the unenviable task of colouring the legacy of a driver who reached almost unassailable heights of excellence before suffering a rather steady career downturn when he should have been in his prime. Let’s hope they remember to emphasise his fantastic sense of humour and gentlemanly grace.