The motorsporting world woke up on Tuesday morning to a development that had been brewing in the pits for a while now. Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel will leave Scuderia Ferrari at the end of the 2020 Formula One season once his contract with the team expires.
In a joint statement on Scuderia Ferrari’s official website, Vettel said that both parties “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 same statement, Ferrari’s team principal Mattia Binotto said the decision was not an easy one to reach, given Vettel’s “worth as a driver and as a person". “There was no specific reason that led to this decision, apart from the common and amicable belief that the time had come to go our separate ways in order to reach our respective objectives," his statement added.
Speculation over the status of a new contract between Ferrari and the 32-year-old German driver had been mounting over recent months. Vettel, who won all three of the Indian Grand Prix in 2011, 2012 and 2013 while competing for Red Bull Racing, had joined Ferrari in 2015 and, according to multiple reports, had been seeking at least a new three-year extension to his current deal. But it seems like Ferrari have made up their mind about a driver who turns 33 in July. Their recent move to award Vettel’s fellow driver Charles Leclerc a five-year contract, till 2024, added to the speculation surrounding Vettel’s situation. Investing in the future, Leclerc is just 22 and had an impressive 2019 season, clearly seemed like the objective.
Vettel himself emerged as one of the hottest, young properties in Formula One back in 2010. Aged just 23, he bagged four consecutive world titles with Red Bull Racing between 2010-2013. His move to Ferrari in 2015 led to comparisons with fellow German compatriot and seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, who had won five of his seven titles in Ferrari colours. But Vettel’s time with Formula One’s oldest and most successful team hasn’t yielded the expected results. The 2019 campaign in particular was a rough patch for Vettel, who managed just one win—in the Singapore Grand Prix—the whole of last season. He was not only outscored by Leclerc in the drivers’ championship standings, but finished almost 200 points behind Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.
Vettel and Ferrari’s next moves have made an already intriguing year for the sport all the more captivating. The start of the 2020 Formula One season stands delayed due to the covid-19 pandemic and it remains to be seen where Vettel might ply his trade once the season ends. A host of top-line drivers, including Hamilton, are up for contract renewals once the 2020 F1 season concludes.
Expert commentator and TV presenter Suhail Chandhok, who has covered the sport in recent years, including the FIA Formula E Championship 2014, says Vettel had joined Ferrari with just one thought: ‘to win the title.’ The German came close twice—in 2017 and 2018—but a series of errors from both the driver and Ferrari cost them dearly. “That's obviously still going to be a target for him this season, it's still a possibility if the season actually gets underway, but if he doesn't achieve that, it is definitely going to be a black spot that he does carry with him," adds Chandhok.
As things stand, there aren’t too many options for the German once his contract ends. A move to McLaren remains on the cards, while a return to his former team Red Bull Racing seems unlikely, where Max Verstappen, the 22-year-old Dutch driver, leads the line. “I don't think he has got the contractual negotiating power anymore at Ferrari, because they have a top driver in Leclerc...it's pretty apparent that there is a serious threat to the number one position for Sebastian. Maybe that's part of the reason he could go to a team like McLaren, which helps them develop the car… But if he turns out to retire at the end of the season, he could surprise us all as well. We have seen that before with someone like Nico (Rosberg)," says Chandhok.
Chandhok believes this development could also lead to other significant moves at the end of next season. “It opens the door for Lewis Hamilton to have more power of negotiation with either Mercedes or potentially Ferrari (over a move) although he seems pretty comfortable in his winning environment at Mercedes. The most probable scenario is either Carlos Sainz Jr (of McLaren) or Daniel Ricciardo (of Renault) going to Ferrari," says Chandhok. While Sainz Jr is a huge rising star the possible combination of Ricciardo and Leclerc at Ferrari, Chandhok says, would make for an exciting pairing too. "It also gives Ricciardo that one last shot at the title that he's coveted for so long."