After months of negotiations, Ferrari Team Principal, Mattia Binotto, has confirmed Sebastian Vettel’s split from the Scuderia. Effectively throwing the German’s Formula 1 racing future into doubt.
Although sited as Binotto’s number one choice to race alongside Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc, talks regarding a contract renewal officially broke down on Tuesday. With Vettel explaining that there was "no longer a common desire" to work together.
The decision leaves Vettel, a four-time world champion, without a seat on the grid beyond the 2020 season - that’s to say there will be a 2020 season; COVID-19 permitting.
The details are not clear as to why both parties failed to reach an agreement, but Ferrari are reported to have offered a lesser salary and a shorter contract.
Binotto said the decision was "not easy to reach, given Sebastian's worth as a driver and as a person”.
Later adding, "The time had come to go our separate ways”.
A match made in heaven
Just a year on from sealing a fourth World Driver’s Championship with Red Bull Racing, the lure of the prancing horse proved too strong for Vettel. Eyes-widened and engines revved at the prospect of winning a record-equalling fifth title and emulating his childhood hero, Michael Schumacher.
It truly was the perfect F1 coupling. Or, was it?
Since signing in 2015, Vettel’s four-year spell with the Scuderia has been a mixed bag of near misses, mishaps, elation and ‘what if’ moments. He’s accumulated 14 victories, 12 poles, 54 podiums, and two runner-up spots - which, in a Mercedes-dominated era, is a respectable feat.
His first season in the red jumpsuit was promising; winning three races and sitting on the podium 13 times. He eventually finished third in the final driver standings, 128-points ahead of then-teammate Kimi Räikkönen.
But, as a team, Ferrari struggled in the 2016 campaign; Vettel claimed a below-par fourth-place finish behind his former Red Bull teammate, Daniel Ricciardo.
After failing to record a single victory in 2016, Ferrari needed a drastic improvement. And they found it in the SF70H.
With last year’s reliability issues distinguished, Vettel claimed victory in Australia. And then Bahrain. And then Monaco and Hungary. By the end of the summer break, he was leading the pack.
But, luck soon ran out for Seb and Ferrari.
Feeling the pressure
A revitalised Mercedes returned from the 2017 summer break with some much-needed upgrades. Lewis Hamilton ensured victory at Spa and then lead a Silver Arrows one-two at Monza, subsequently knocking Vettel off top spot.
Vettel’s hopes of a fifth world title were eventually extinguished after two DNFs at Singapore and Japan, and adding just one more race victory at Brazil. After leading the standings for the first 12 rounds of the season, Ferrari’s number one finished 46 points behind Hamilton. A disappointing finish to the campaign, but a welcomed sign of progression in the Scuderia’s attempt for a first world championship in 10 years.
Maybe, 2018 would be ‘the’ year.
Labelled the “Fight for Five”, Hamilton and Vettel traded blows throughout the 2018 campaign in a bid to be the first five-time world champion since Michael Schumacher.
With four victories already in the bag and building on a 25-second lead in his home race, Vettel had the upper hand. But, with just 15 laps remaining, he flinched. As the rain continued to pound the already-soaked Hockenheimring circuit, the German crashed out.
Hamilton went on to secure victory, followed by seven more over the course of the year and eventually securing his place in history alongside Juan Manuel Fangio.
Out with the old and in with the new
It was all change at Ferrari for 2019. Team principal, Maurizio Arrivabene, was replaced by Binotto, and the experienced Kimi Räikkönen was ousted in favour of Monégasque wonder-kid, Leclerc.
In his first Formula 1 racing season at Sauber, Leclerc positioned himself 13th in the final standings - 30 points clear of teammate, Marcus Ericsson, and 11 points shy of two-time world champion, Fernando Alonso. The 21-year-old’s sheer speed and driving ability turned heads up-and-down the paddock. But, as a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, the Scuderia had first picked.
And it wasn’t long before Ferrari confirmed Leclerc and Vettel for their 2019 driver line-up.
Excluding DNFs in Monaco and Germany, Leclerc constantly pushed his teammate throughout his debut season, until eventually claiming his first F1 victory at Spa. Closely followed by a historic win at Monza.
Vettel finished 2019 with just one victory, compared to Leclerc’s two. Leclerc also out-performed his teammate in qualifying; 12-9. As well as accumulating a greater points tally to finish above Seb in the final standings.
For the past three years, Vettel had the rub-of-the green as Ferrari’s star pupil. But things were starting to shift. And, following a collision between the pair in Brazil, questions began to arise as to who would be Ferrari’s number one driver going into 2020.
Who’s next for Scuderia Ferrari in 2021?
Vettel’s decision to leave has no doubt relived some of the pressure on Ferrari to all-but-confirm Leclerc as their number one driver. But a delay to the proposed 2021 rule change could prove problematic for the Scuderia in their search for Leclerc’s new teammate. It means any driver filling the hot seat would be starting their career in the final season of a racing-era.
This leaves Ferrari with two options: To go ahead and install a long-term replacement, regardless of the delayed rule changes, or to opt for a short-term solution. The latter giving hope to Ferrari junior driver, Antonio Giovinazzi, and even opening the door to a sensational return for former driver, Fernando Alonso. Not to mention a possible u-turn for Kimi Räikkönen.
The problem facing Ferrari is contracts. Like Vettel, most of the current grid of drivers are out of contract after the 2020 season - timed just right for the original date of the proposed rule change. In fact, with only four drivers guaranteed a place on the grid beyond 2021 (Max Verstappen, Esteban Ocon, Sergio Perez and Leclerc), this is likely to affect most teams throughout the paddock.
Looking beyond this pandora’s box of contract possibilities, there are, however, a number of drivers that fit the bill for Ferrari. Including Daniel Ricciardo, who is known to be unsettled at French-outfit, Renault. There’s also the possibility of Mercedes junior driver, George Russell. Or even McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, who, according to Gazzetta Dello Sport, is in pole position for the seat.
Or maybe Binotto and his team will take the advice of Eddie Jordan and consider an audacious approach for Lewis Hamilton, who’s future also remains unknown past 2020. Although the Englishman rectified that “there is no dream of another team. I am with my dream team.”
Where next for Sebastian Vettel?
Although it’s hard to tell where Vettel will be at the start of the 2021 racing calendar, the opportunity to add a four-time world champion to any driver line-up is a chance not to be missed. And that thought would have crossed the minds of all team bosses in the paddock. Including that of Mercedes Team Principal, Toto Wolff: "When looking to the future, our first loyalty lies with the current Mercedes drivers…but naturally, we must take this development into consideration.”
Vettel’s illustrious career makes him a highly sought after asset for any team. Just looking at what he has achieved in his F1 career backs that up:
Most podium finishes in a season (17)
Most wins in a season (13)
Most pole positions in a season (15)
Most laps led in a season (739)
Most consecutive wins (9)
Youngest pole position winner (21 years, 72 days)
Youngest F1 World Driver’s Champion (23 years, 134 days)
But, what’s to say that Vettel will even be lining up on the grid in 2021. He could consider early retirement or maybe step away from the Formula 1 circus for a few years. That’s certainly the view of Sky Sports' pundit, Martin Brundle: “I think there’s a good chance Sebastian will step away from Formula 1. Whether it’s for good or not, as we’ve seen with other drivers, remains to be seen”.
In a time of uncertainty for the German, one thing is for sure; the 2020 campaign will be an uncomfortable, emotional, and pressure-free final season for Sebastian Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari.
This article was written exclusively for golear.co.uk by Ryan Condon