Vettel’s Ferrari departure opens door to 2021 driver market

(Image: @ScuderiaFerrari)

F1 2020 isn’t even in action and the driver market is already hitting its pinnacle as it was announced on Tuesday — after reports surfaced late on Monday night — that Ferrari and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel would end their partnership at the end of the 2020 season…whenever that may be.

Vettel and Ferrari had been talking about a new contract for a while now but those talks yielded no fruit, with Ferrari effectively made the decision to build with Charles Leclerc, signing him to a multi-year contract in December leaving Vettel’s future as the team’s number one option in doubt as he entered the final year of his contract.

Leclerc appeared to challenge, if not, usurp Vettel’s number one status in the team as the Monegasque driver basically outperformed Vettel in nearly all facets last season, Leclerc’s first with the Scuderia. Many drew parallels from when Daniel Ricciardo joined Red Bull in 2014 and outperformed Vettel — the reigning four-time world champion — in his first season. Vettel then left Red Bull at the end of 2014 to join the Scuderia as Ricciardo rose, and many believed the same situation would arise again with Leclerc.

But all of that aside, it leaves a very, very coveted seat open for grabs. Unlike the previous instance where a seat was up for grabs, that seat very clearly belonged to Charles Leclerc, the reigning F2 champion and the rookie was turning everyone’s heads in his first season in Formula 1 with Sauber.

This time, however, there’s no starlet in the waiting for Ferrari.

Antonio Giovinazzi was better than his placement in last year’s standings showed, but he’s not ready — or possibly talented enough — to take on that Scuderia drive. Other Ferrari academy drivers include Giuliano Alesi but more notably, Mick Schumacher and current F3 champion Robert Shwartzman.

Shwartzman I think will be a contender for the F2 title this season but you don’t go from F2 straight to a drive with the Scuderia, and while Schumacher has experience in an F1 car, it’s only from a testing point of view and it would appear unlikely that Ferrari would promote an F2 driver straight to Maranello.

So, this leaves Ferrari looking almost certainly at an external hire and basically everyone not under a Mercedes driver affiliation (George Russell, basically) or a current Red Bull should be queuing up and phoning until Mattia Binotto is sick.

The name coming to the fore at these very early stages — according to the reporting out there — is McLaren’s Carlos Sainz. The other name out there is Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, but Sainz appears to be ahead at this early stage.

I think Daniel Ricciardo would rip your arm off and jump at the chance of a Ferrari seat and get out of his Renault mistake. Carlos Sainz is in a bit of a trickier situation.

McLaren is a feel-good story right now. They had a great 2019 where they were best of the rest and did it with a refreshing, fun and gutty duo of Sainz and rookie Lando Norris. They’re a team clearly on the up, and that’s before the new regulations — now set to be introduced in 2022 — and, perhaps more importantly for the near future, a Mercedes power unit from 2021.

Ferrari is ultimately Ferrari and an offer from the Italian outfit is usually too much to turn down no matter what your situation, but it spoke volumes when Fernando Alonso got out of his contract two years early to leave, believing that he could not win a title at Ferrari — can you blame him, after the atrocity that was the 2014 car, the worse Ferrari since the early 90’s at least?

If Sainz truly believes in the McLaren project (and there’s a lot of reasons to do so right now), would he leave what is a great situation to be in, and do so easily? There’s a fun dynamic at McLaren now, that does not exist at Ferrari. Being a Ferrari driver comes with so much more than just driving the famous red car. I think it’s fair to say Sebastian Vettel didn’t cope with that as well as drivers like Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher. I’m not saying Sainz wouldn’t, but it’s something to consider when joining Ferrari. Added to that, Sainz is only 25 years old. I’m sure there’s time in his career for a shot at a top seat, if that doesn’t transpire with McLaren.

I just don’t think it’s a straightforward yes from Sainz to leave for Ferrari, there’s a lot to consider.

There’s a lot less to consider from Daniel Ricciardo’s side.

Firstly, Ricciardo is 30 years old which means and has been part of F1’s grid since 2011 which, sadly, means he more than likely has less time remaining in F1 than he has already been a part of. He has less time to aim for a world title than Sainz does. Danny Ric a proven race-winner with a killer instinct who has tasted success and is incredibly keen for more. His ambitious switch to Renault simply hasn’t worked so far, and I don’t think 2020 is going to be the year Renault make that jump, which means another year of watching Ricciardo toil in the midfield — where he doesn’t belong. Most importantly, I think Ricciardo knows that fact too: that he shouldn’t be in the midfield. He’d take your arm for a chance to swap that situation for one with Ferrari — I have absolutely no doubt about that.

There’s no doubting his ability to drive and there’s no doubt that he would be deserving of a drive with Ferrari. Added to that, he has a fantastic personality that I think would be different to anything Ferrari have had, and I don’t think the pressure would get to him as easily as it would others. He has hunted and has been hunted for race wins, Ricciardo knows how to deal with the pressure.

Added to that, according to RaceFans.net, Ferrari have an option on Ricciardo, signed last winter. That doesn’t mean he’s a lock but that’s very interesting.

It comes down to who do Ferrari seek first, and if it’s Sainz, does Sainz turn them down? Because I absolutely believe Ricciardo does not.

What about other drivers? Well, the the majority of drivers on the grid are out of contract at the end of this year (what a bad time for Sergio Perez to lock himself into a contract, unless it has an out), so they’re in the correct position for that Ferrari seat in that their contract expires at the end of the season, and there’s still no telling what happens at Mercedes with their drivers, who are both out of contract at the end of the year.

This Hamilton to Ferrari talk, I don’t think it’s going to happen — and the reporting out there seems to say the same thing right now.

Valterri Bottas is extremely interesting.

He would be, without doubt, the most disappointing choice to the sport if he ended up in that Ferrari seat. I think it’d be a shame for the sport if Bottas ends up in a Ferrari. That’s harsh, I get it, but I think it’s true. But you can see why Ferrari would think about it…

Bottas has already proven himself capable as a number 2 driver, he can pick up some victories, easy to get along with and is a good team player. Now, Bottas may say he has higher aspirations than a number 2 driver and that may be true, but you’re not turning down an offer from Ferrari if it comes, especially if Mercedes don’t offer an extension, and with someone like George Russell waiting in the wings for a Mercedes drive. That’s going to happen at some point. If Mercedes decide that time is 2021, Bottas is left in a tough spot. And if an offer from Ferrari comes, you’re going there with the knowledge that you are behind Charles Leclerc in the pecking order, until you give them a reason not to. Again, I don’t care who you are and what your aspirations are: you’re taking a drive from Ferrari if it’s offered to you, and if you don’t…I hope I’m you’re not close to me in the event of a shipwreck, because your balls are going to force you to sink to the bottom of the ocean and I don’t want to drown.

There’s a few options outside of F1, but I don’t see Fernando Alonso nor Nico Hulkenburg being seriously considered for Ferrari. Unless Ferrari decide they want something short-term next to Leclerc while they get a look at either Shwartzman or Schumacher in F1 (maybe in a Haas or Alfa Romeo possibly?) but I don’t see that happening.

It’s something to think about though, because if you sign Carlos Sainz, that’s a longer-term thing. Ricciardo, not so much and obviously Alonso/Hulkenberg/Bottas not as much of a long-term thing as Sainz. And if Sainz performs and help bring success, they may end up blocking a route for one of their drivers to break into the senior team if Shwartzman or Schumacher show that potential — it could leave them trapped in a similar way that George Russell could end up if Bottas continues to perform.

Kimi Raikkonen would be an absolutely hilarious choice, if they went back to him for a third spell. They obviously know what they have in Raikkonen but I don’t see it happening. Would be absolutely amazing though.

I think that effectively covers Ferraris options, now let’s turn to what Sebastian Vettel does and it largely revolves around one question: does he want to continue in Formula 1?

If the answer is no, then that settles that. If the answer is yes, then things are a little more complicated.

According to the reporting out there at this time, Mercedes aren’t interested in Vettel and Red Bull won’t pair Max Verstappen and Vettel together — that’s an obvious given for both monetary reasons and, well, everything else. Those two wouldn’t be good teammates, as fun as it would be for everyone else. So, I think it’s fair to rule out Mercedes and Red Bull.

It may come down to which driver ends up taking that Ferrari seat, whether it’s Sainz or Ricciardo.

It’s fair to say Vettel has less years in front of him in his F1 career than he has behind him, but he can stick around for a number of years if he so chooses. Renault…I wouldn’t like to see for Vettel — I’m not sure Vettel would be interested in that. McLaren would be a fascinating opportunity. If Sainz left, I’m sure McLaren would love to have a four-time champion in their ranks and if their fortunes continue to rise, they could find themselves back at the sharp-end in a few years and that would be Vettel’s ticket back to the front-end of the grid, which is the only thing that would interest him at this stage.

I would imagine that Vettel feels that he has nothing left to prove in F1 as a four-time world champion and as someone who has won over 50 Grand Prix. He’s also a family man and a pretty private person, and I can see him leaving this circus behind and leaving F1 at the end of this season — I think that’s what’s going to happen. It’d be sad to lose Vettel from the paddock, he’s got a good personality and on his day, he’s up there. I would love to see him at McLaren though. He could change the entire narrative of his post-Red Bull career if he could lead McLaren back to the front of the grid.

Should Sainz accept an offer and Vettel retire, I imagine Ricciardo will whizz his way to McLaren fairly quickly and that leaves a spot at Renault, whether that’s Fernando Alonso or perhaps Nico Hulkenberg, or maybe Guanyu Zhou — it’s about time Renault showed some faith in their young driver academy.

Whatever direction Ferrari end up taking, the sharp-end of the F1 grid is losing one of its star players of the last decade in Vettel. Is it finally someone else’s turn?

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