This season is all about the transition of power at Ferrari. Sebastian Vettel is a lame duck driver, his successor elected with Charles Leclerc now the main man and Carlos Sainz Jr destined to take his place in 2021. Hardly the perfect set-up for what could prove to be the 32-year-old’s final season in Formula 1.
This has been coming for a long time. When Ferrari signed Leclerc to a new five-year deal over the winter at a time when Vettel was still out of contract, the writing was on the wall. It was confirmed in May when Ferrari announced Vettel wasn’t continuing, in what was presented as a failure to reach agreement. This was merely a show of respect, as Ferrari had deemed him the man of the past and never offered him a deal.
A swansong season for a top driver can be a glorious thing, but this is no ‘Arrivederci Mario’ tour. In 1994, Mario Andretti was a beloved driver having his final IndyCar season for Newman/Haas Racing and long since past his best, but Vettel should be in his prime. This has the potential to make the 2020 Formula 1 season, however many races that proves to be, very uncomfortable for both team and driver.
Vettel already feels like a ghost at Maranello. Following several months during which Leclerc was a star of sim racing – something Vettel briefly dabbled in during a period where he was the lowest-profile F1 driver of them all – when the 2020 Ferrari SF1000 ran on the streets of Maranello last week on a demonstration run, it was Leclerc at the wheel. That doesn’t mean Ferrari is favoring him for seat time, for this wasn’t meaningful running, but it’s significant that Leclerc is front and center of promotional activities. Ferrari is expected to run its 2018 machine at Mugello this week to help prepare the team and drivers, with Leclerc and Vettel splitting the driving.
So that leaves Vettel facing the condensed 2020 season in a curious position. Without the pretense of this being a triumphant ‘last lap’ after fulfilling his Ferrari dream, he’s now the embodiment of the past. While it would be wrong to say he’s outstaying his welcome, because he is still popular within the team, it remains to be seen how he responds.
There are two broad directions this could go in. One is that Vettel, shorn of motivation knowing it’s all over and with the focus on Leclerc, will see out time and settle into the de facto number two role that he fought so hard to avoid. Pick up consistent points, maybe recreate the old magic when there’s a big result on the cards, but otherwise just mark time, cash the paycheck and not take it too seriously.
More likely, it will go the other way for a driver who will still feel he has something to prove – provided the competitive fires of old still burn. There has been plenty of evidence of the frustration bubbling away within him in recent times, and over the past two years the mistakes have come far too frequently for a driver of his ability. The Ferrari environment and Vettel have never quite cohered, not helped by the fact these have hardly been stable times at Maranello politically. That’s down to both sides, Ferrari for its fundamental instability and Vettel for having those emotional rough edges that need becalming – something Red Bull did very well.
Vettel doesn’t have to worry about many of the factors that appear to have complicated things in recent years. He neither needs to reassert himself as team leader because that battle is already lost, nor has to carry the expectations of a nation. All of that pressure switches to the other side of the garage, leaving Vettel as the ghost of Ferrari past. Surely that means the emotions can be better kept in check?
For another 15 or perhaps more races, Vettel is a Ferrari driver. Knowing him, he will be motivated to go out on a high and leave the question hanging of whether Ferrari was right to drop him. It’s a bizarre situation, one stemming from the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without that, Vettel would have started the season and had a shot at performing strongly and hanging onto his drive. After all, Ferrari’s talks with Carlos Sainz Jr started late last year, but were not firmed up when the season started so the door was still ajar for Vettel. If he hadn’t performed then he’d have had his chance and could see out the rest of the season just like any driver being dropped at the end of the year.
He definitely has firm foundations to build from. Leclerc outscored Vettel over the 2019 season but it wasn’t by too much, and in the closing stages of the season, he turned in some strong performances – notably his superb pole position lap at Suzuka. He also demonstrated some great race pace in that first stint at Sochi while pointedly refusing to let his teammate back past, despite being ordered to do so.
But it wasn’t all good. Vettel was to blame for the collision between the pair at Interlagos as he was the one who moved over on Leclerc. Publicly, Ferrari backed its drivers. Privately, Vettel bore the brunt of the criticism and perhaps that was the moment the team realized it was time to clear the decks and commit to the brilliant Leclerc.