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Vettel out at Ferrari for 2021 – and the musical chairs begin

Vettel out at Ferrari for 2021 – and the musical chairs begin

This week we heard the news that four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel had failed to secure an extension to his contract with Ferrari beyond the end of the current season. Given Vettel’s lackluster performance last year with Ferrari, this comes as no surprise. However, the empty seat inevitably created the conditions which have seen further moves by current F1 drivers this week. Keep in mind that all these moves are as of the beginning of the 2021 season – that is, a year from now. The driver lineup for the current season – which, in theory, has already begun, is set stone – or is it?

I have to think back to the unfortunate outcome of last year’s Canadian Grand Prix in which Vettel was leading Hamilton but was penalized for a sketchy possibly-blocking maneuver mid-race. If it was blocking, it was something NASCAR and fans would not have even noticed, but this is Formula One. Even though Vettel was able to maintain his lead over Hamilton to the end of the race, the steward’s penalty saw him scored in second place behind Hamilton. After that emotional disappointment, the rest of Vettel’s season did not go well. He did win at Singapore but he consistently finished behind his up-and-coming teammate Charles Leclerc, and he finished the season in 5th place one place behind Leclerc. After this mediocre performance – especially in comparison to the new-boy Leclerc’s rising star – it was obvious that he could not remain at Ferrari as number one, and, if not number one, there really was no place for him as number two to Leclerc.

Daniel Ricciardo, who last year left Red Bull to go to a two-year contract with Renault, looked like the best choice for Ferrari to replace Vettel. Ricciardo has a record of winning races at Red Bull and had he not stepped aside last year to avoid conflict with Verstappen who had become the team’s favourite, he likely would have won more races for Red Bull again last year.

So why was Ricciardo unable to step into the Ferrari seat? Had he gone there, with his greater experience and proven track record as a race winner, there would have been confusion over which of the two was the number one driver – or would they be equal firsts? There have been situations where F1 teams have had two drivers each of whom was arguably capable of being the team leader – but any situation like this is fraught with potential problems arising from such a rivalry.

So, no, Ricciardo did not go to the available Ferrari seat. Instead they plucked Carlos Sainz out of the McLaren team. He has been racing in F1 since the 2015 season – first with Toro Rosso. After three years with that team with only one top five finish – fourth at Singapore in 2017, he moved to Renault for the final four races in 2017 and stayed on there for 2018. In 2019 he moved to McLaren. In all those years he had but a single podium finish, Brazil in 2019. But who expects anyone other than a driver with one of the Big Three teams to ever score a podium finish.

Leclerc, for his part prior to coming to Ferrari in 2019, had had only one proper season in F1 – with Alfa Romeo-Sauber – his best result a sixth-place finish at Baku in 2018. So, by contrast, Sainz’ record to date doesn’t look too shabby. And despite the apparent hopes that Sainz will settle in to be a strong number two back-up to Leclerc, Ferrari’s hopes that they will not become bitter rivals on the track may turn out to be optimistic.

As for Ricciardo, his move to Renault for 2019 was not very productive. He failed to finish five of the season’s races and his best result was one fourth place finish in Italy. If he could not move to Ferrari in hopes of getting into a winning team, what should he do? He opted to leave Renault at the end of his two-year contract and he will move over to McLaren to take up the seat that will be vacated by Sainz at the end of this season.

This leaves one driver – Vettel – and one car – Renault – open going into 2021. For my part, I believe that Vettel has reached the end as a star F1 driver and I wonder if he would be prepared to step down to a second-tier team like Renault. Kimi Räikkönen won the world championship with Ferrari in 2007 but, since then, he has been settled for less than starring roles with Ferrari and, last year, Alfa-Romeo. Indeed he dipped a toe in the water with NASCAR for a while. My guess is that Vettel will leave F1 at the end of this season (or before?) And either retire or continue to race in other series such as IndyCar and/or sports cars. If he chooses to go that route, he might have many more good years in him yet.

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