Sebastian Vettel will leave Ferrari at the end of the current Formula One season. Following speculation in the media yesterday, confirmation that talks between the two had broken down came this morning.
“My relationship with Scuderia Ferrari will finish at the end of 2020,” Vettel said. “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.”
Ferrari Team Principal, Mattia Binotto, said: “This is a decision taken jointly by ourselves and Sebastian, one which both parties feel is for the best. It was not an easy decision to reach, given Sebastian’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.”
The announcment adds a twist to the already surreal nature of 2020’s so far non-season. Whether it’s an unexpected turn of events, though, is moot. As recently as last month, Vettel was talking confidently about extending his contract to stay with the Maranello-based team before the season properly commenced. But it seems that Ferrari’s terms – both financial and the duration of the extension – did not match those of its former star driver.
It’s an unhappy end to a partnership that promised so much, but never got fully airborne. Top Gear predicted at the end of 2018 that Vettel’s new team-mate Charles Leclerc would make life enormously difficult for the four-times world champion. The Monegasque driver ended up besting the vastly more experienced German in every key metric: wins, poles, points and qualifying pace. The growing rivalry and intra-team tension between them quickly became one of 2019’s most compelling narratives, culminating in a disastrous collision between them during the Brazilian Grand Prix. Last December Ferrari confirmed a new five-year contract with Leclerc and despite Binotto’s emollient words and reassurance, Ferrari was clearly refocusing its future around its new star.
It won’t have helped Vettel’s mind-set. He had frequently looked out of sorts throughout the 2019 season, during which he made a number of unforced errors. He came closest to winning the title for Ferrari in 2017 and 2018, when he won five races each season, but a combination of strategic and driver error, ranged against the immense strength and depth of the Mercedes squad, saw him denied the ultimate prize.
Given more time to ponder during the coronavirus-enforced lay-off, and faced with a diminution of status within Ferrari, Vettel may simply just have had enough. This is a driver with a firmer grasp on the bigger picture than most, and a father to three children under the age of six. Like Fernando Alonso before him, he tried to emulate Michael Schumacher’s imperious run at F1’s most storied team. Like the Spaniard, he didn’t manage it. Today’s statement has a pragmatic but rather melancholic tone.
“What’s been happening in these past few months has led many of us to reflect on what are our real priorities in life,” Vettel said. “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.”
Does that sound like a man in a hurry to get back into an F1 cockpit?
Talk will now inevitably focus on who will replace him at the Scuderia. Daniel Ricciardo is said to be unhappy at Renault, and has long been on Ferrari’s radar. Carlos Sainz, though much-liked at McLaren, could be seduced away. They both have the right sort of temperament to deal with the highly charged atmosphere at Ferrari, and fit the brief for the tifosi.
Then there's also the likeable Antonio Giovinazzi in the picture who could follow fellow Ferrari Driver Academy graduate Leclerc out of the Alfa Romeo team and into Ferrari. Or if Mercedes leaves F1 at the end of this year, as was much rumoured before the pandemic exerted even more pain on the automotive industry, could Lewis Hamilton finally find his way into a red car? With F1 under pressure like never before, it’s a scenario the sport’s rights-holder Liberty Media would lap up…
And Vettel? He remains a four-times world champion, and the winner of 53 Grands Prix. Hamilton undoubtedly had the edge on him during the hybrid era, and if and when the racing resumes Vettel’s 2020 season is unlikely to be a vintage one. He’s not the first big name to falter at Ferrari, and he won’t be the last. Where next? Fixing vintage motorbikes in his Alpine home and watching his kids grow up might suddenly seem very appealing indeed.
Words: Jason Barlow