Sebastian Vettel’s six year career with Ferrari will end at the conclusion of 2020, with an uncertain future ahead for the four time Champion.
And, like that, Vettel’s six years with Ferrari comes to a close. With very little surprise, it has to be said. The writing’s been on the wall ever since the team announced Charles Leclerc on a long (very long) term contract to keep the young Monegasque in red until the end of the 2024 season.
With the team clearly setting out their stall with Leclerc, Vettel’s contract negotiations to keep him beyond the end of 2020 were always going to put the German driver at a disadvantage. His on-track form hasn’t helped him. While Vettel seemed as brilliant as ever up until mid-2018 with Ferrari seeming stronger than Mercedes at that point, his consistency fell off a cliff in the tail end of that season. High profile mistakes in the United States and Italy were catastrophic, but nothing compared to the trauma of sliding off while leading his home race at Hockenheim. The infallible Sebastian Vettel threw away the best chance of a Ferrari title in a decade, and there’s still no confirmation that he’s ever truly recovered from that.
2019 was similarly inconsistent. While Vettel still showed flashes of brilliance (such as his storming win in Singapore), there was an early season setback when he spun off while racing wheel to wheel with Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain. That sense of fragility remained throughout the year, with Monza underlining his lack of consistency. While Charles Leclerc led the Ferrari charge on home ground to win a high-pressure battle against both Mercedes, Vettel spun off all by himself while running in P4 early in the race. He dangerously rejoined the circuit and caused another incident, before coming home over a lap down behind his victorious teammate. A clash between Vettel and Leclerc that eliminated both cars in Brazil was a further mark against Sebastian, who was felt to have squeezed Charles as he blasted past.
It’s all a far cry from the heady days of 2015, when Vettel took over from Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari cockpit and immediately blasted away any question marks by winning second time out in Malaysia. At that moment, his dream of emulating Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari titles seemed eminently possible. A harmonious relationship with the willing Kimi Raikkonen and team boss Maurizio Arrivabene meant Vettel’s leadership role went unquestioned.
That all changed following the death of Ferrari’s Chairman Sergio Marchionne, coinciding with Vettel’s catastrophic race at Hockenheim. New Ferrari Chairman John Elkann replaced Arrivabene within months, installing Mattia Binotto in the Team Principal role for 2019. Binotto came leading the Scuderia’s Technical Department, and was rumoured to be looking at leaving Ferrari if not given leadership of the entire team over Arrivabene, with the pair supposedly at loggerheads over the sporting decisions made by the team during 2018.
Binotto’s approach, while still being amicable with Vettel, was different to Arrivabene’s. With Raikkonen out, Leclerc was reined in briefly at the start of the 2019 season as he found his feet. However, a strong performance in Bahrain where Leclerc overtook Vettel before the German’s spin indicated he was able to match Vettel’s performance level and he proceeded to do so – outscoring Vettel over the course of the year.
While Leclerc remains unproven at a World Champion level, Ferrari are obviously convinced they have the man they want to lead their team against the might of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and the other likely rival – Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. With Charles being a product of Ferrari’s own Driver Academy, Vettel was never going to take priority over him once Leclerc was able to match and beat him.
“My relationship with Scuderia Ferrari will finish at the end of 2020.” said Vettel in his statement. “In order to get the best possible results in this sport, it’s vital for all parties to work in perfect harmony. The team and I have realised that there is no longer a common desire to stay together beyond the end of this season.”
Addressing the rumours that Vettel was asked to take a huge pay cut in order to stay on as Leclerc’s teammate for 2021, Vettel said: “Financial matters have played no part in this joint decision. That’s not the way I think when it comes to making certain choices and it never will be.”
Both Mercedes seats are, in theory, up for grabs in 2021, with both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas out of contract. Hamilton may chat with Ferrari about replacing Vettel but Ferrari aren’t likely to bring him in to annoy their team leader – this chat will likely be a bargaining chip in the media as he seeks favourable terms for a new Merc contract. Should Bottas not be kept on in the second seat, Mercedes are likely to go for George Russell – a product of their driver programme who is currently placed with Merc customer Williams. Red Bull’s second seat could be an option, with Dr. Helmut Marko and team boss Christian Horner remaining publicly supportive of Vettel. However, a hefty pay cut would be required, and Vettel would be up against Max Verstappen’s unquestioned team leadership. It’s an unlikely scenario.
If Vettel is willing to copy former teammate and close friend Kimi Raikkonen’s approach, a step back to the midfield for the love of racing is more than possible. McLaren swap back to Mercedes power next year, and could be an attractive proposition, as could the new Aston Martin team when they rebrand Racing Point. With a driver from the midfield (such as McLarens’ Carlos Sainz or Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo) likely to take Vettel’s place, Sebastian could slot into one of those seats if he wished.
Vettel is famed for representing himself without a manager for contract negotiations, and the indications during pre-season testing were that he and Ferrari were going to have a relaxed sit down and chat to formalise their relationship beyond 2020. However, the postponement of the season start due to the coronavirus meant Vettel has been spending time at home with his young family (he became a father for the third time over the winter break), and he hinted this has played a part in his decision: “What’s been happening in these past few months has led many of us to reflect on what are our real priorities in life. 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.”
His statement suggests retirement, or at least a break, is on the cards. Whether this takes the form of a Kimi Raikkonen sabbatical, where Sebastian goes home and spends time with the kids for a year or two before a return, or a Mika Hakkinen style sabbatical where he never returns – only time will tell. Vettel turns 33 later this year, which is pretty young for outright retirement. Nico Rosberg retired at 31, but that was immediately after winning a hard-fought title and leaving at the top of the sport. Vettel, who set record after record in his Red Bull a decade ago, isn’t likely to leave the sport with a whimper and his tail between his legs after a somewhat humiliating ousting. To quote the man himself just two months ago, when he said ‘the fire still burns’: “I love what I do and I love driving. I got really excited getting in the car last week and got back into a rhythm very quickly and that feels great. The satisfaction you get from driving is still the same, but I’m not just here to get a great feeling.”
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