As well as providing spectacular racing for the past 70 years, Formula One has also been at the pinnacle of innovation for global motorsport and the wider automotive industry.
In Formula One’s first news of true substance for some time, Sebastian Vettel has confirmed that the 2020 season – if and when it proceeds – will be his last at Ferrari.
The outcome isn’t surprising, as Vettel’s cards were marked from the moment Charles Leclerc was installed as his teammate for 2019. The Monegasque driver wasted little time asserting himself as Ferrari’s future, and his contract renewal until 2024 only reinforced the notion that Vettel had lost the faith of head office.
With racing to resume no earlier than July, the magnitude of the decision has naturally been increased. In a conventional year, the announcement would likely have occurred later in the campaign, though the lack of action afforded both parties an opportunity to assess their respective ambitions without the distractions of life on the road.
In an official joint statement, the four-time champion remarked “the team and I have realised that there is no longer a common desire to remain together beyond the end of this season”, with the 32-year-old adding that “these past few months has led many of us to reflect on what are our real priorities in life.”
For its part, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto stated that “this is a decision taken jointly by ourselves and Sebastian, one which both parties feel is for the best.”
The Italian didn’t cite a “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.”
Vettel will likely depart as the latest world champion who failed to conquer F1’s Everest. His predecessor Fernando Alonso lasted five years before losing patience, and while the Spaniard’s subsequent tenure at McLaren was disastrous, this result belatedly vindicates his decision.
Leclerc has the luxury of youth on his side and can afford to endure some setbacks in the knowledge that he’s Ferrari’s nucleus – until he isn’t, as is their lore. Yet it isn’t any guarantee that he’ll ultimately prevail. Incoming talents promising to deliver them to the promised land only to exit as cynical shadows of their former selves is a recurring theme at Maranello.
Even Ferrari’s most recent drivers’ title – in 2007 with Kimi Raikkonen – arrived in the immediate afterglow of the Michael Schumacher era and with much of the structure that dominated the first half of the decade still intact.
It’s no surprise that the dismantling of that successful cohort has coincided with repeated heartache and a systemic failure or stubborn unwillingness to learn from their mistakes throughout multiple leadership iterations since Jean Todt stepped away.
Vettel bears plenty of responsibility for failing to realise what he set out to achieve, and he had significant opportunities in 2017 and 2018.
The combination of his growing mistake count, Ferrari’s resulting developmental and strategic missteps – partly in desperation to recoup the ground squandered by the German – and the relentless, unforgiving machine of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton made sure that any momentum Vettel enjoyed at various stages would not be capitalised upon.
Definitive moments of his spell in red are a close race between opening-lap friendly fire with Raikkonen in Singapore in 2017 and his unforced error in Germany the following season. Both incidents represented the end of his title bids, while he’s arguably never truly recovered from the latter, in doing so facilitating Leclerc’s ascension.
As for the future, Vettel alluded to the circumstances in which the world finds itself in his statement: “one needs to use one’s imagination and to adopt a new approach to a situation that has changed.”
Whether this applies to the conclusion of his time at Ferrari or in the sport altogether is difficult to evaluate. One interpretation is that he’s leaving the door open to continue elsewhere.
Yet Vettel could do worse than closely consider Alonso’s post script at McLaren, where he languished in purgatory without adding as much as a podium over four seasons, before committing to anything.
His remark that “I need to reflect on what really matters when it comes to my future” is telling. And between the titles he claimed what seems like a lifetime ago and with his growing family, walking away from the sport would be a logical step with nothing to prove.
Attention now turns to the identity of his replacement, and though Daniel Ricciardo would represent a dream from an Australian perspective, the likelihood of Carlos Sainz jumping from McLaren is rapidly gaining strength. The son of a rallying legend racing for the most famous outfit would be quite a story.
That’s for the future. For now, Vettel’s last dance for Ferrari and perhaps in Formula One should be savoured. Even if those accomplishments at Red Bull that he produced so young feel distant, he won’t be forgotten.