All the drivers that could replace Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, ranked
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So overnight, one of the biggest stories in motorsport was confirmed; Sebastian Vettel is leaving Ferrari at the end of the 2020 Formula 1 season.
“My relationship with Scuderia Ferrari will finish at the end of 2020,” Vettel said in his official statement. “The team and I have realised that there is no longer a common desire to stay together beyond the end of this season. Financial matters have played no part in this joint decision. That’s not the way I think when it comes to making certain choices and it never will be.
“What’s been happening in these past few months has led many of us to reflect on what are our real priorities in life. [...] One needs to use one’s imagination and to adopt a new approach to a situation that has changed. I myself will take the time I need to reflect on what really matters when it comes to my future.”
It's a statement that adds fuel to the theory that Vettel may retire at the end of the season. But the question that's even more prevalant in the wake of the four-time champ's announcement is; who will replace him?
Over the last six months, just about everyone that's ever set foot in a race car has been linked to Vettel's seat at Ferrari, with every F1 driver that's out of contract sitting atop the pile. Most of the speculation over the last 24 hours places two drivers as the leading contenders; Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz Jr.
Ricciardo arguably ticks the most boxes as a racer, with his seven Grand Prix wins (claimed often by beating drivers in superior machinery) and global popularity. He's also confirmed to be a free agent for 2021, after a flat debut season with Renault last year.
But despite his track record, it looks like Sainz is the more likely candidate for the drive after all. Reports out of Italy suggest that a deal between Sainz and Ferrari is effectively already done, potentially leaving a vacancy open at McLaren alongside Lando Norris for either Ricciardo or Vettel to dive into.
Ricciardo and Sainz's careers in F1 follow a fascinating path. Both made their full-time debut with Red Bull's Toro Rosso before eventually winding up at Renault. Ricciardo's move to Renault at the end of 2018 resulted in Sainz getting dumped, and now ironically it appears the tables could well have turned. If Italian reports are to be believed, at least.
Why choose Sainz, a driver that's never won a Grand Prix, over Ricciardo? Apart from the probable monetary benefits, Sainz represents a more classic 'number two driver' template. The Spaniard has never had a seat in a leading team before, and will be eager to play tail-gunner for Ferrari's poster boy Charles Leclerc (initially at least, anyway).
Ricciardo, on the other hand, has a team rivalry history of sorts. He and Vettel didn't necessariy get on when paired together at Red Bull, and we all know about the on-track and off-track fireworks between he and his other former Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen. Fresh off a season of fierce rivalry between Vettel and Leclerc, and having spent years watching Mercedes forge ahead with its clear 'number one and number two', you could forgive Ferrari for choosing a more 'agreeable' driver.
So, who else is there?
Well, neither Mercedes driver has confirmed that they'll be back for 2021 just yet. Plenty of people in the Formula 1 press have fascinated for years that Lewis Hamilton harboured a desire to switch to Ferrari. It would perhaps represent a new challenge for the six-time champion, and the lure of being able to claim a title with the category's most iconic team could be a carrot for someone that's been awfully philosophical of late.
But, Hamilton recently stomped on those rumours. "First off, there is no dream of a dash to another team. I am with my dream team," he said back in April, in response to a story claiming a move to his 'dream team', Ferrari, was on the cards by British paper The Sun. "“Second, there's not a thing in my way as I’m not trying to move. I’m with the people who have cared from day 1. We are the best team!"
And what of Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton's partner in crime. He's finished (Finnished?) second to Hamilton twice in the championship, and comes off his best season in the series to date with four wins. The crux of the deal for Bottas is that, a move to Ferrari would most likely still see him retain a 'number two' slot behind Leclerc; a driver that Ferrari fostered for years before taking him on in 2019.
And, with Hamilton ruling out a Ferrari switch, Bottas may be best served if he simply waits for his more fancied teammate to just retire altogether. There's talk that this is why Hamilton's 2021 and beyond contract hasn't been announced. Although that said, he posted back in February that it hadn't even been a point of discussion yet within the team. "Toto [Wolf, team boss] and I have not even spoken about contract yet. Nothing is being negotiated currently, papers making up stories," he said on Instagram, in a post later deleted.
Speaking of Leclerc being fostered, next in line in Ferrari's junior programme is Antonio Giovinazzi. After showing blistering pace in F3 and F2, you'd think the 26-year-old would be on the exact required trajectory to make the next step to Ferrari by now, especially after two seasons with its sister team Alfa Romeo (counting this year, anyway).
It's telling that Giovinazzi's name hasn't really been part of the rumour mill. His debut season in 2019 was arguably an underwhelming one, scoring points at just four events to teammate Kimi Raikkonen's nine. Fifth at the Brazilian Grand Prix at the end of the year was impressive, but Kimi still beat him in finishing fourth. Still, there's reason for us Kiwis to want Giovinazzi to move to Ferrari. Such a move would pave the way for the team to summon more youngsters from its junior programme for Alfa Romeo, and Kiwi Marcus Armstrong is among the programme's leading lights.
Sergio Perez is the other current F1 driver somewhat linked to the empty Ferrari seat, although admittedly he's contracted to race with Racing Point until the end of 2022. Few can deny that the Mexican is one of the most underrated drivers on the grid, but given the other names speculated few can also deny that it'd be quite random to see him pop up there. Perez has a history with Ferrari, having come through its aforementioned junior academy many years ago. He had been tipped to join Ferrari as a result of it, following a stellar few seasons with Sauber. But instead he was poached by McLaren in a deal that would only last one year.
So yeah, Ferrari has a few options out there on the full-time grid. But there's also a few wildcards to consider, too.
Just a day before the Vettel story broke, former Renault racer Nico Hulkenberg spoke of his desires to return to F1. Despite being a strong, dependable driver for Renault over three seasons, 'The Hulk' was replaced by Esteban Ocon for 2020. "I’m staying in contact with people anyway," he told CNN. "It’s early. If there’s a chance, I’ll grab it. If it’s a good opportunity and something that really excites me and gets me going then definitely, I will push for that."
Hulkenberg is known to be a solid, 'bring it home' kind of driver. And that would appeal for a team wanting a reliable number 2. However, he's also the owner of one of the most unfortunate stats in F1 folklore; the most races in the series without a podium finish. The lack of delivery will be key for Ferrari to consider, although with all the chopping and changing (and, maybe, retirements) expect Hulkenberg to factor in the rumourmill elsewhere.
It's a tricky period in the world right now for all sport. Formula 1 in particular has a massive battle on its hands dealing with the politics of crossing all of those European borders in the midst of a global pandemic. Vettel's departure from Ferrari, sad as it may be to fans of the German champ, is just the kind of distraction many in the sport needed.
My money is on Carlos, but my mouth waters at the potential of a Ricciardo/Leclerc rivalry.