Charles Leclerc is managed by Nicholas Todt, FIA President Jean Todt’s son. Could Todt have a role to play in Sebastian Vettel’s exit from Ferrari? It would be the easiest way to get Ferrari to back Leclerc wholeheartedly. Ferrari’s choice of Vettel’s replacement will offer further clues, too.
Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari’s nightmarish partnership in Formula 1 has come to an abrupt end. The team and driver have mutually decided to part ways after the 2020 season. There’s a reason we’ve labelled their partnership as a ‘nightmare’. In their five seasons and over a century of races together, seldom did the partnership exude the lethal confidence that one would’ve hoped for. Especially after ‘Baby Schumi’ was out to emulate ‘Schumi’, his childhood hero, at Ferrari and rebuild the Scuderia to their dominant ways.
Instead the Vettel-Ferrari partnership was riddled with errors that can be attributed to both – the team and the driver. It was a partnership that got the tifosi wondering time and again if they could make better strategy calls than the Ferrari pit wall. And of course, the tifosi cringed each time Vettel committed his amateur mistakes – ones that became his trademark since 2017. It was absolutely normal for the tifosi to hope that the race-to-come would be when the four-time World Champion would finally find his mojo.
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 12, 2020
However, it wasn’t as glum for Vettel-Ferrari when they joined forces. The partnership got off to a dream start with Vettel winning their second race together in 2015. Along the way, Vettel single handedly pulled the team forward as they struggled for competitiveness against the mighty Mercedes and the rising Red Bull Racing.
Just when the team got competitive, it struggled for stability on the management side of things. Ferrari have had four Team Principals since 2014 and had to endure the sudden demise of their maverick CEO, Sergio Marchionne. As for Vettel, he was unable to sustain a season-long championship battle without mistakes.
However, much has been said on how the Vettel-Ferrari partnership tried, and failed, in their goal to win a World Championship despite being in a position to do so at least a couple of times. Vettel now joins an illustrious list of former World Champions (Fernando Alonso and Alain Prost) who arrived at Ferrari with the expectation to win but couldn’t do so.
As passionate as the Vettel-Ferrari union was, with dreams of repeating the success from ‘The Michael Schumacher era’, the separation seemed cold – perhaps the world living in isolation added to it. While Ferrari chose to highlight Vettel’s achievements over the five years, Vettel’s choice of words offered hints on what may have transpired. Add to that the timing of the announcement – in the middle of a season that’s yet to commence; indicating that Vettel-Ferrari’s issues date back to events in 2019 or earlier.
Excerpts from Vettel’s full 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. 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.”
In the build-up to their announcement, rumours indicated that Ferrari had either offered Vettel a lower pay for his services (believed to be equal or in the region of Charles Leclerc’s pay) or a one-year extension or both. Did Vettel feel that Ferrari weren’t respecting his contribution over the years and his status of being a former World Champion during the negotiations? Or, is Vettel overreacting to Ferrari’s choice of Leclerc as their future? Late last year, Ferrari extended the prodigal Leclerc’s contract till 2024 – one of their longest driver contracts in recent times.
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 12, 2020
Are Ferrari correct in letting Vettel go?
This is the trickiest question to answer correctly in the Vettel-Ferrari situation. While Vettel has built Ferrari to where they are today, he’s done himself any favours by not being able to eliminate the silly errors that have marred his chances since 2017. If he wasn’t a former World Champion, not many teams would have withstood as many unforced errors while in a title battle. What makes it worse for Vettel is that even though he’s quick and has a sound ‘racing brain’, the driving errors don’t seem to have disappeared from his race craft.
The situation between a struggling Vettel and shining Leclerc must’ve also been a factor in the equation for Ferrari. The 2019 Formula 1 season may have made Ferrari understand that a team setup with two alpha drivers may not yield dividends after all. In which case, Ferrari might see a benefit in supporting Leclerc with a wingman (or number 2 driver) – an approach that’s traditionally worked for them and one that might also be pursued by Leclerc’s well-connected manager, Nicolas Todt.
Team Principal Mattia Binotto has repeatedly claimed that this is a ‘new’ Ferrari and the team has definitely proven to be so in the last 15-18 months at least when it comes to driver decisions. First, it was Leclerc’s super promotion to Ferrari halfway through his debut season. Now, it is an early letting go of Vettel by a team that’s usually known to keep it’s star drivers way beyond their best-by date!
What next for Sebastian Vettel?
Despite several driver contracts coming up for renewal at the end of 2020, it was long believed that Vettel held the key to the driver market for 2021. Top team drivers don’t shuffle as frequently but since 2016, this is now the fourth such opportunity at a top team after (Nico) Rosberg, (Daniel) Ricciardo and (Kimi) Raikkonen decided to either retire or switch teams.
Given the lack of competitive seats in Formula 1 and fact that top teams have invested in their ‘first driver’ already, it would be difficult for Vettel to find a team where he could join and start scoring race wins instantly. Would Vettel be eager to join a mid-field team and settle battling for points rather than the podium? Also, Vettel’s last two defeats to a team-mate were when he partnered relatively inexperienced and young drivers – Ricciardo (Red Bull, 2014) and Leclerc (Ferrari, 2019). Wherever Vettel may choose to race next, it’s almost certain that he’ll have a youngster there, too.
This was the most recent of Seb’s 14 @ScuderiaFerrari wins, and the 53rd of his career
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 12, 2020
At 32, Vettel has a few years of racing left in him should he choose to do so. But it also would be very Vettelesque of him to retire and choose to spend time with his wife and three kids. Should Vettel choose to race, there could be openings at Renault or McLaren. However, Renault’s continued struggles through the hybrid turbo era might make them a choice to reject. As for McLaren, the team’s fortunes seem to be on the rise and the former champions will switch to Mercedes’ power units from 2021. McLaren’s Team Principal Andreas Seidl and Vettel worked together for several years at BMW’s team in Formula 1. Could the prospect of rebuilding McLaren excite Vettel? It would be ironic to see Vettel make the same choices as his predecessor at Ferrari (Alonso) – albeit under different circumstances.
And of course, while discussing these alternatives, one must also ask if these teams would be interested in and could afford Vettel’s services. The general trend in Formula 1 in the recent years has been to hire younger drivers. Lastly, the economic impact of the COVID-19 virus will impact what Renault / Mclaren would be able to pay Vettel.
Who will replace Vettel at Ferrari?
It would be easy to assume that despite Ferrari’s shortcomings and tough-to-grasp political atmosphere, almost every driver on the grid would be interested in Vettel’s seat. Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Antonio Giovinazzi are the three names doing the rounds but it wouldn’t be surprising if the discarded Nico Hulkenberg would’ve reached out to Ferrari, too.
A seat at Ferrari would be just the career lifeline Ricciardo would need after his suicidal move to Renault in 2019. As for Sainz, his stock has been on a steady rise after leaving the Red Bull Racing family and Renault a few seasons ago. His performances at McLaren in 2019 were impressive and a Ferrari seat would seem like a good step forward in his career. But would Ricciardo or Sainz agree to play wingman to Leclerc over their personal title aspirations?
— Kunal Shah (@kunalashah) May 12, 2020
Despite a on-off season in 2019, Giovinazzi may be a logical choice given that he’s next-in-line member of the Ferrari Driver Academy eligible for promotion to the A-team. However, his inability to match the aging Raikkonen at Alfa Romeo last season might indicate that he needs another season before Ferrari shows more interest in him. The other outside name being discussed is Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas whose contracts ends this year.
Depending on who replaces Vettel and if Leclerc doesn’t win the World Championship, Ferrari’s line-up in 2021 may not include a World Champion driver. The last time this happened was back in 2007 when Felipe Massa partnered Kimi Raikkonen. Ironically, this was also the season when Ferrari last won their Drivers’ Championship. Also for Formula 1, if Vettel and Raikkonen both choose to retire at the end of the season and if Hamilton wins his seventh title, the Briton would be the only World Champion driver lining up on the grid in 2021.
After their Ferrari stints, Prost went on to win a World Championship with Williams while Alonso has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice whilst in pursuit of the triple crown of motorsport. Vettel choosing to retire to a family life while enjoying his solitary bike rides that wouldn’t be a bad choice whatsoever.
This post was first published on Firstpost.