Ferrari prefers to operate with a team leader and support driver policy, even if they are free to race within certain constraints. The effort and energy of the team is summoned behind the chosen one and its future plans made around him. Vettel served in this role for four years, but last season Leclerc was given the opportunity of taking that role from him – and did so. It’s set in stone now. Like any competitor worth his salt, Vettel refused to accept that, as shown by his great turnaround performances in Singapore, Japan and Russia – and his unfortunate wheel-rubbing with Leclerc in Brazil. Vettel was fighting with pride and intensity, but in the process was compromising Ferrari’s race-by-race prospects.
So, while it won’t be specifically a number two contract he will be offered, we can take it as read that it will be a less generous one than Leclerc’s. Vettel remains Ferrari’s first choice as Leclerc’s partner and the team can be expected to make a respectful offer, but not the sort of blockbusting one he’s been used to. It will then be a matter of whether Vettel can accept that demoted role and of racing under what are sure to be very explicit ‘you will not compromise the team in your racing with Charles’ terms.
If Vettel decides he cannot race under those terms, then what does Ferrari do? From the outside Daniel Ricciardo – out of contract at the end of the year, a proven winner with no real weakness in his game – looks the stand-out option. But it will almost certainly not be him. Ferrari will be looking for a Leclerc support, not an in-team rival. It’s not quite a number two role, because they’re allowed to race, and there will undoubtedly be opportunities to win races… but Leclerc is the number one.
Would Carlos Sainz go there on those terms? Maybe. Not because he’d be surrendering, but because he’s yet to get a potential race-winning car and, unlike Ricciardo, needs to do so to prove his stature. A bit of late career glory for Sergio Perez? We can expect it to be one of those sorts of fits – and not the recruitment of a megastar such as Hamilton or Ricciardo – that will follow if Vettel can’t accept the hand that’s being extended.
Although Vettel remains absolutely Ferrari’s first choice for the seat, there is one other possibility – hopefully not one which comes to pass: that if the current attempts to get racing this year ultimately fail and Vettel can’t agree to the terms, he may already have driven his last race for the Scuderia.