Sebastian Vettel’s two most significant career decisions have a fascinating symmetry.
His most recent, Tuesday’s announcement that his once dream-team pairing with Ferrari would fade into dissolution at the end of the season, came after his usurping at the hands of junior teammate Charles Leclerc in 2019.
In sport you’re only as good as your last performance, and Ferrari’s 2021 contract offering reflected this renewed dynamic. Vettel, a man justly proud of his standing as a four-time champion, balked at renewing terms of equal stature to his junior teammate and walked.
It bore striking resemblance to his first major move, his shock decision to join Ferrari for 2015.
Then, as now, he was facing a beating at the hands of new junior teammate Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull Racing. Then, as now, he thought it better to rebuild his fortunes elsewhere and on his own terms, even if that’s likely to mean early retirement.
And, crucially, on both occasions his decision has had substantial implications on the driver market.
Once news of Vettel’s Ferrari split had sunk in, any Australian reader will surely have thought that these were high times to be an F1 fan. Ricciardo, F1 darling, seven-time race winner and out-of-contract Renault driver, is perfectly positioned to become the first Down Under driver to race for Ferrari.
Ricciardo’s credentials are undoubted. Having established himself by beating reigning champion Vettel in his own team in 2014, he solidified his reputation with his characteristic late-braking style, wringing performance from the car and leaving no prisoners on the track.
Off the circuit, Ricciardo presents a similarly attractive package as an apolitical, easygoing operator and hard worker, exactly the kind of personality the rebuilding Ferrari requires.
The timing for Ricciardo is critical. His Renault gamble, already looking unfavourable after a disappointing 2019 showing, has had its odds lengthened substantially by the extensions of the current regulations until at least 2021. The French manufacturer has no chance of winning races on merit without a rules revolution, meaning an extension to terms would do nothing more than waste another precious season of the Australian’s prime.
But for all the positives to picking Ricciardo, signing him alongside Leclerc comes with risks. The Australian would join only if he were given equal status, which would risk destabilising a team already so prone to internal ructions.
While this might be ameliorated by the fact the pair are clearly in different stages of their careers, with eight years of age and six and a half seasons of experience separating them, Ferrari’s long-term bet on Leclerc may mean keeping him happy is the principal priority.
Fortunately there’s another ready-made option, ironically a man who earnt his F1 debut owing to the knock-on effects of Vettel’s switch from Red Bull Racing to Ferrari in 2015: Carlos Sainz.
Sainz has been Formula One’s quiet achiever since that debut five seasons ago, but his 2019 move to McLaren delivered something of a breakout. A maiden podium in Brazil was just reward for what was one of the year’s most consistent season-long performances, which culminated in a hugely impressive sixth in the title standings.
With only the independently funded McLaren bidding for his services, he would come substantially cheaper than Ricciardo, who’s reportedly earning somewhere in the vicinity of $45 million from his French automotive behemoth. What’s more, at 25 years old and without a race win, he’d be more easily massaged into a supporting role for Leclerc.
But Sainz is no pushover, and a honeymoon period with Leclerc would likely last only so long. Ferrari might be buying itself long-term pain for short-term gain. Sainz’s lack of frontrunning experience would also leave the team with a very junior line-up.
There are other potential options, but all are unlikely.
Lewis Hamilton has strongly suggested he’ll stay at Mercedes and would anyway be a major destabilising risk to Leclerc. Valtteri Bottas is valued by Mercedes for his apolitical nature and anyway had his strongest ever season in 2019. Ferrari junior Antonio Giovinazzi has failed to impress in his single F1 season to date. Stop mentioning Fernando Alonso.
It’s a 50-50 split. Five years the senior of the pair, Ricciardo needs it more. If not Ferrari in 2021, then what? The Australian may be tempted to take Sainz’s place at McLaren if the Spaniard were successful, but Woking is no more likely than Enstone to coincide delivery with the Australian’s peak years. Better to risk it all in a showdown with Leclerc than wallow as a journeyman.
But needing is one thing and getting’s another, and Sainz is rumoured in the Italian media to be top of the list, if not simply because of his stronger 2019. How Ferrari navigates its choice, laden with meaning for the sport’s medium term, will be fascinating.
A final word for Sebastian Vettel, the man who’s kicked off this unexpected madness. The German has one season — whatever that might amount to in these pandemic times — to end his Ferrari tenure and almost certainly his F1 career on a high after three seasons of disappointment.
But while the moral of his story might be to reinforce that you’re only as good as your last performance, his four championships shouldn’t be diminished in the assessment of his legacy sure to follow. Fitting that he would seemingly choose retirement to defend their value.