How Vettel’s Ferrari dream fell apart and what comes next

F1

Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel will part ways after the 2020 F1 season, but what comes next?

Sebastian Vettel during F1 2020 testing

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Sebastian Vettel’s aspiration of emulating his compatriot and hero, Michael Schumacher by winning a world championship with Ferrari looks to be over.

Indeed, if the Covid-19 pandemic continues on and Formula 1 is unable to start the 2020 season, he may well have driven his final race in the Scuderia red.

Things began with great promise in 2015. A win in Sepang in what was his second start for the team was impressive. As he waved the Ferrari flag in parc ferme and pointed to the Prancing Horse on his steering wheel in celebration, it seemed as though the Italian outfit had its new man.

The team beat Mercedes for the first time in the hybrid era fair and square, purely on pace in a straight fight. It had improved on the ill-handling F14 T, and Red Bull slumped to fourth in the pecking order as Ferrari rose to second by season’s end.

2016 was a disappointing follow up as Ferrari failed to build on its momentum. With an uncompetitive car versus the Mercedes W07, the team failed to win a race all season. Vettel recorded Ferrari’s only two podiums in the final 12 rounds, both third-place finishes.

It wasn’t until 2017, though, when the first sniff of a title came about. Strong pre-season testing pace was carried into the first half of the year.

Vettel led the championship for the majority of 2017, until the Italian Grand Prix, where a Lewis Hamilton win signalled the turning point of the season.

What followed was a late-season collapse: a crash with team-mate Kimi Räikkönen and Max Verstappen in Singapore and immediate reliability issues in Malaysia and Japan afterwards ended hopes that year as the Mercedes driver pulled clear in the standings.

The following year was the best chance by far of winning a championship, yet it was ultimately the beginning of the end for Vettel at Ferrari.

The high profile mistakes in Germany, crashing out of the lead with title rival Lewis Hamilton down the order, and the wheel-to-wheel error at Monza, that dropped him down to last and opened the door for a Hamilton victory in Ferrari territory, were the low points in a promising but squandered season.

No doubt the team had the car to win a title, the pace of the SF71H more than strong enough to challenge Mercedes for race victories, but individual mistakes, combined with the never-too-far-away operational errors Ferrari cannot shake, killed his best shot of a title since the hybrid era began.

Enter Leclerc

And so along came Leclerc, the new hope at Maranello. With just one season under his belt at Sauber, the 22-year-old not only unsettled Vettel, but stole away the number one status within the team.

His refusal to conform as Vettel’s number two helped to bring two race wins in 2019 to Vettel’s one, including the first Ferrari win at Monza since 2010. The performances quickly strengthened Leclerc’s place in the team.

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Thus, Ferrari looks to have placed their full support behind the Monégasque driver for the long-term, signing him up to a contract that expires at the end of the 2024 season and securing his future, and leaving Vettel out in the cold.

Where does Vettel go next? Depending on who replaces him, there may be seats available at McLaren or Renault.

Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo have both been linked with the Ferrari seat, and Vettel could have a spot at either team should the opportunity present itself.

Would McLaren be comfortable letting go of its popular driver pairing, though? One that it feels is responsible in helping repair the damages done during the second Honda era, to be replaced by an expensive and likely short-term driver? Probably not.

Should Ricciardo find himself leaving Renault and on the way to replace Vettel, the German might find a new home at the struggling works team, as it tries to claw its way to the top of the F1 food chain after several fruitless seasons.

His feedback would be valued at a team looking to improve quickly, and Esteban Ocon’s deal is not likely taking up too much of the budget at Enstone and Viry.

With Ricciardo gone, it frees up the funds to make a run at Vettel, but any agreement would likely be in the form of a multi-year deal, the rumoured sticking point in his negotiations with Ferrari, who preferred a one-year contract.

It could be that Renault sees Vettel as a highly coveted but restrictive and expensive option, when the team has made clear it hopes to promote from within and use talent from within its young driver programme moving forward.

If no competitive seat opens up then, is Vettel content to walk off into the sunset as a four-time Formula 1 world champion?

He has entered his name into the record books on multiple fronts, is statistically tied for fourth as the most successful F1 driver off all-time, and has a family life to enjoy away from the racing world.

Does he need to stick around? From the wording of his statement on leaving Ferrari, it’s not out of the question that he could be about to walk away.

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