There’s always an air of anticipation once we get into late January and can start looking ahead to car launches and seeing drivers in new colors after team switches.
Admittedly, this year is a little different in terms of the way it might get presented to us, but there are some big moves that really didn’t seem on the cards a year ago. If, on this day in 2020, you predicted Sergio Perez would be a Red Bull driver, Sebastian Vettel would have joined Aston Martin, Carlos Sainz would be in at Ferrari and Daniel Ricciardo would have taken his place at McLaren – opening the door for a Fernando Alonso return to Renault/Alpine – I really hope you had a lot of money on it.
Even with Alonso’s absence, I’d wager the biggest shock at this point a year ago would have been Vettel. But as 2020 progressed and the German went through a drawn-out process that eventually led to his being announced as Perez’s replacement in September, we just got a bit more used to the idea that his days in red were numbered.
That said, the simple reality of his split with Ferrari needs to be revisited before we look ahead to his future. Vettel is a four-time world champion, the third most successful driver in the sport’s history, and was meant to follow in Michael Schumacher’s footsteps by bringing titles to Maranello. Instead, before the delayed 2020 season had even started, he’d been informed via a phone call from Mattia Binotto that he was surplus to requirements.
Vettel admits to RACER that he was left “confused” by the decision at the time, because previous dialogue had suggested he was still wanted. The eight months that have passed since haven’t brought the answers he was looking for, so be has instead focused on other questions that were necessary to figure out.
“I don’t need to (understand Ferrari’s decision), to be honest, and it doesn’t change anything,” Vettel says. “I don’t look at it that way. I don’t work that way. It’s fine for me and I completely accept it, and when Mattia told me on the phone, it was clear. It wasn’t like I was trying to fight back or convince him otherwise – not at all.
“I think very much that if one door shuts another one will open, and obviously it took a bit of time and it raised a lot of questions about which door I want to open. It’s not that I had all of the teams of choice, but just in terms of what I want to do – more for the future, if I want to stay in Formula 1 or not. But obviously I’ve made my decision and opened the door.”
That door reads ‘Aston Martin’, but it wasn’t a certainty that was the one he was destined for. Vettel admits there were other opportunities – most notably the one marked as the exit from Formula 1 – that were in his peripheral vision during 2020.
“Well, that thought process probably is true for all of us, with what happened (with COVID-19) as a number one puts a lot of things in perspective, not just whether you’re changing team, or whether you’re doing something else,” he says. “I think that’s a big contributor.
“I’m quite rational in these things, I look at it, and I don’t see myself in Formula 1 when I’m 40. So I will have a couple of years, but we’re not looking at 10 more years. So I think you need to be aware of that. And after what I’ve achieved in the sport, there was the time and the room – which I think is fair – to think of what you want to do next. Obviously we know the outcome, and we will see how I get on.”
Seeing how he gets on will be fascinating, because it became clear that Vettel (and Ferrari) needed a fresh start. Whether that was with another team or away from F1, something really dramatic had to change, because the Scuderia was not seeing anywhere near the best of Sebastian Vettel.
And a fresh start is exactly what he has got. Despite only being 33, Vettel has spend six consecutive years at two different teams – making 118 starts for Ferrari and 113 for Red Bull – while his earlier races for Toro Rosso and BMW Sauber leave him eighth on the all-time entry list. Yet Vettel insists that longevity doesn’t make the move to Aston Martin as much of a clean break as it may appear.
“I don’t think it will be that much (of a shift),” he insists. “I think one privilege – and I see it as a privilege – is that I always managed things on my own. I mean, I have people that are close and are helping me, don’t get me wrong, but I think I have never been pampered. I see that as a privilege, I can lead my life, I know what to look out for and so on, and I don’t need to have people holding my hand.
“So I think I won’t have a problem (moving). That was true for the Red Bull days, but also for the Ferrari days. Obviously with Red Bull it’s under the umbrella of the junior team that I grew up in, but within that umbrella I think I was always free to make my own decisions. As I look back, I see that as a privilege.”
Looking back is hard to avoid doing when it comes to Vettel’s career. The utter dominance he displayed up to the end of 2013 had him well on course to be the driver setting new records in terms of wins and titles. Joining Ferrari certainly wasn’t viewed as a step down at the time, but it was the promise of emulating Schumacher – rather than beating him – that then became so captivating.
Ultimately, he’s ended up far away from achieving either, and it’s a disappointment that Vettel acknowledges. But far from walking into a new team looking to close the book and put that failure behind him, he says it’s an experience that will only strengthen him as he opens the Aston Martin chapter.
“The title was the big thing, so for sure there’s something missing, but I’m quite sure I won’t be frustrated by it for the rest of my life,” he says. “I think everything happens for a reason – the good things happen for a reason and the bad things happen for a reason – and the last six years, speaking of track performances and so on, I’ve learned a lot.
“I think it will help me for the rest of my path in Formula 1 and outside Formula 1, about myself, about people… I’m definitely of the conviction that I leave richer than I was before, and I don’t mean this financially or with more wins, but I think richer in experiences and things that will help me along the way.”