There’s nothing like waking up in the morning to find the driver market has exploded. On Monday night Ferrari finalized an announcement that Sebastian Vettel will be leaving the team at the end of the season, and once it hit ‘publish’ on Tuesday morning, Formula 1 suddenly hit 100mph without any racing being possible.
Vettel’s future at Ferrari had looked fragile at best for some time. Outperformed by Charles Leclerc last season – albeit only just – there were signs of a changing of the guard even before the Scuderia put its faith in the 22-year-old by way of a contract until 2024.
But after all of the flirting with Lewis Hamilton towards the end of 2019, there was a change of message coming out of Maranello at the start of this year. Vettel was the preferred option, and he said he wanted to stay. So that was a good starting point to try and agree a new deal.
Yet that changing of the guard ultimately proved too significant. Ferrari no longer needs Vettel for long-term security because it has a settled future with Leclerc. And it also doesn’t need to break the bank when the younger driver is pulling in the more impressive results.
Add in the impact of the current situation – one where hundreds of thousands of people are dying amid a pandemic and Vettel is spending time at home with his young family rather than racing – and you have a cocktail for a parting of the ways.
It’s massive news – the third-most successful driver of all time leaving the most successful team of all time – but the roulette wheel that is the F1 driver market turns quickly, and there are now a number of questions that need answering. Most importantly, who will take Vettel’s seat? And what will the German do next?
Let’s start with the first question. Ferrari needs another driver, and now is the time to change because so many contracts expire – like Vettel’s – at the end of this year.
Ferrari never has trouble attracting interest. For many drivers, racing in red in F1 is a dream. But it’s not often that so many potential options fit the bill as well as they do right now.
What Ferrari needs is a driver who will challenge Leclerc but also get on well with him. Someone who will ensure the Monegasque continues to develop – he only has two years of F1 experience behind him, after all – but is also just as capable of winning races.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first: Lewis Hamilton is target number one. There’s just no doubt about that. Hamilton is the sport’s biggest star, the most successful driver currently active and potentially will be the most successful ever by the end of this year (COVID-19 permitting). He undoubtedly delivers on track, and he transcends the sport off it. If he wants to move to Maranello, it will happen. But that’s a big if.
Hamilton has yet to commence contract talks with Mercedes but has more recently spoken of his desire to stay with the team that has given him the platform for his enormous on-track success since he joined in 2013. Vettel’s departure is perfectly-timed for the six-time world champion, because he now holds all the cards in negotiations with both teams. Whatever he wants out of Mercedes, he’s now even more likely to get.
So if Hamilton doesn’t opt for a new challenge, who are the other options? There are plenty, and one of them is Hamilton’s current team-mate. Valtteri Bottas has proven himself capable of winning races, delivering at least a good enough performance to guarantee constructors’ titles but also hitting Hamilton’s level every now and then. He’s a team player with the most recent knowledge of Mercedes, and if you can’t destabilize that team by poaching Hamilton, you can by taking the driver who has been helping get the best out of the Briton…
Hamilton might hold all of his own cards, but when it comes to other drivers, Ferrari has a strong hand. There are exciting talents like Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz who are in the final year of contracts, and both would surely jump at the chance to move. With the knowledge that there are multiple options, and with Leclerc already secure, Ferrari doesn’t need to chase too hard – it’s more down to those drivers to show they are the right hire.
For me, Ricciardo just edges it as a proven race-winner who also handles team-mate relationships well. His rivalry with Verstappen rarely boiled over, and he’d compliment Leclerc neatly. Sainz has enjoyed a great spell so far alongside Lando Norris in the ‘older brother’ role at McLaren that breathed new life into his career, but it’s still a bigger jump from one podium to winning races, and at 25 – compared to the 30-year-old Ricciardo–- he remains somewhat less proven.
Elsewhere, Sergio Perez has previously been linked with Maranello and would be a consistent performer, but is in a long-term Racing Point contract, and Kevin Magnussen’s run-ins with Romain Grosjean might make the Dane appear too much of a risk.
If Ferrari looks internally, then it will turn to Antonio Giovinazzi, who started to find his feet last year for Alfa Romeo and would be a popular choice as an Italian. But it’s fair to say his results don’t make as compelling an argument for the seat that Leclerc’s did 12 months previously.
For Vettel, there clearly could be plenty of movement on the grid over the coming month that could open doors that are currently closed. But the wording of his announcement suggests there’s no guarantee he will remain in the sport.
“What’s been happening in these past few months has led many of us to reflect on what are our real priorities in life,” Vettel said. “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.”
What has become more overlooked in recent years is Vettel’s age. He’s only 32 – two years older than Ricciardo, and nearly three years younger than Hamilton – and has plenty of time on his side if he wants to continue. Whether he has enough attractive options though, remains to be seen.
If Hamilton were to join Ferrari, then Vettel might be viewed as a strong fit as a German driver for Mercedes, but the dominant team has exciting young talents in the form of George Russell and Esteban Ocon waiting for a chance. Those two might be considered more likely replacements for Bottas, and it’s completely improbable that Mercedes would rock the boat by pairing Hamilton with Vettel, but just let yourself dream of that prospect for a while anyway…
Red Bull was where Vettel enjoyed his greatest successes but its future is firmly in the hands of Max Verstappen, and that doesn’t look like an attractive dynamic given the fact Vettel couldn’t agree a new deal amid a similar scenario at Ferrari.
Realistically, it will come down to whether Vettel wants a project with an historic name. McLaren and Renault both have potential vacancies as things stand, and Zak Brown admitted this morning that he has “just a few” plates spinning right now. If you’re Brown or Cyril Abiteboul, you’re balancing keeping exciting drivers – Sainz and Ricciardo respectively – with eyeing up their potential replacements, one of which could be a four-time world champion.
For example, should Sainz become Ferrari’s preferred option, does McLaren chase Ricciardo – whom it so nearly signed in 2018 – or Vettel? Especially if the latter wants to take some time to decide what to do?
Given recent performance levels and Vettel’s appreciation for the history of the sport, it’s a fair assumption to think Vettel would lean towards McLaren over Renault, though his four titles came with Renault power. But there’s another historic name returning next year: Aston Martin. And that could create the awkward scenario of Lawrence Stroll considering replacing his son, if Perez wasn’t bought out of his contract by Ferrari.
Alfa Romeo is a romantic notion given Kimi Raikkonen’s return there, as it was also the team that gave Vettel his F1 debut in 2007. But Vettel has spent nearly his whole career fighting for wins and titles, and even if it would deliver a better work-life balance, he’s still young enough to covet a team with greater immediate potential.
Regardless of his next move, if Vettel stays in F1 then there will be some career rebuilding on the cards. But the Ferrari adventure is on the verge of being a failure for both sides, as Vettel currently extends a run of 15 years – encompassing the final two seasons for Schumacher, then Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Vettel – that has yielded just a solitary title for Raikkonen in 2007.
When viewed like that, it’s time to gamble on another change. Both parties have shown their hand, now it’s up to see if Vettel will stay at the table, and which other players want to put some chips in the pot, too.