Like all sports Formula One is enduring a nasty and lengthy lay-off, when it was supposed to be revving up and burning rubber on track. The season-opening weekend in Melbourne did not go ahead due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and since a good chunk of the season’s 22 races have suffered the same fate.
But as the organisation does it best to return in 2020, news has still made its way in and out, and the biggest so far has been the announcement Sebastian Vettel will leave Scuderia Ferrari at the end of the year. There was a genuine feeling 2020 would be his last with the Italian outfit after years of near-misses and major ‘what-ifs’. Now it has officially eventuated, and it leaves a big hole in need of filling at F1’s biggest team.
Fans of Seb will be reminiscing about a stint that could have gone a whole lot different had Mercedes not been so dominant, or the German been able to overcome questionable decisions behind the wheel. They will also be nervous over what the future holds for the four-time champion.
There is a genuine possibility Vettel will just leave the sport altogether and pursue opportunities elsewhere. Honestly, do his hopes of securing another championship remain? Red Bull Racing, his former team where he enjoyed his most success, is a no-go with their focus solely on exciting youngster Max Verstappen, and Mercedes will keep their heads locked on their current duo of world champion Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. Unless McLaren come calling with the confidence they can return to their heights and Vettel is swayed, no team can offer the German the chance to win crown number five.
But for now, the bigger question that feels more answerable is who will take his place? The writing on the wall thanks to strong rumblings suggests Carlos Sainz Jr. is the favourite, who could be announced as the team’s newest face in the coming days.
A young Spaniard currently with McLaren, Sainz would be a good fit for a number of reasons. Firstly he is talented, having been partnered with the very word since his entry into the sport in 2015. The division between the best teams and those in the middle of the pack has sadly prevented Sainz from breaking through for his first career win, but he has managed a podium and three top 10 finishes in the final standings across the last three seasons with Renault and McLaren.
Add to that his rich family ties to motorsport with his father, Carlos Sainz Sr., being a two-time Word Rally Champion in the early 1990’s.
Secondly, he fits into the likely hierarchy the team is hoping to implement with Vettel gone, focusing on their youngster Charles Leclerc as the future of the team. At the age of 22, Leclerc, hailing from Monaco, has made a big impression in Formula One with promising results for Alfa Romeo in 2018, which transferred over to the red machine last year. Leclerc won two races, claimed a total of 10 podiums and seven pole positions in 2019, finishing ahead of Vettel in wins and points.
Leclerc signed a five-year contract not so long ago now, which all but confirmed who the team’s priority is.
So it makes sense for Ferrari to bring in someone not to compete side-by-side with Leclerc and create division within the garage, but someone to deliver strong results while understanding their status in the team as the number two driver. Almost a Rubens Barrichello 2.0, but without the contract clause if possible.
Unfortunately that would degrade Sainz and make little use of his potential.
Then there is Daniel Ricciardo, the electrifying Australian whose career has headed in the wrong direction since joining Renault in 2019. Ricciardo goes against the mould Sainz could offer, and instead acts as another competitor who would rival Leclerc on track. After all he did struggle to co-exist with Verstappen at Red Bull.
Once winning races and competing for the championship, Ricciardo is in limbo right now, and a change of scenery to a competing team is just what he needs. From 2014 until 2018 Ricciardo won seven races and finished ahead of Verstappen on the final season standings two out of the three full years they were together.
If Ferrari is a no-go, Ricciardo may find his way to McLaren instead, in an attempt to revive his career.
What about the sport’s very best in Lewis Hamilton, who has been linked to a potential switch to Ferrari for some time now? Such a move creates an element of completion to Hamilton’s career – all the greats of the sport at some point have made their way through Ferrari, with the exception of a host of British drivers in the 1950’s and 60’s, and Ayrton Senna (for obvious reasons).
But will it happen? Is it too far-fetched, given Hamilton’s current success with Mercedes that spawned in its full form in 2014, and has continued up until this point? If it ain’t broke why fix it, Lewis?
Whether Hamilton would stay or leave also has a link to what team President and CEO Toto Wolff’s plans are post 2020. But the Austrian and the team are all but certain to stick around in their current structure, with the former remaining on board despite rumours of a possible go at F1’s head role, or a business partnership with Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll at the soon-to-be Aston Martin team.
A dark horse for the prancing horse that could pay-off is Kevin Magnussen. Like Sainz, Ricciardo and Hamilton, Magnussen is off contract after 2020.
The Dane has proved his talent over the last four years driving for Renault and most recently Haas. Magnussen bettered teammate Romain Grosjean, who can generate good results when he wants to, two of the past three seasons in an up-and-down performing car, and has built up a reputation as a gritty, tenacious competitor. That has resulted in him getting too aggressive behind the wheel at times, but either way he has the thick skin needed to drive for the sport’s biggest team.
Whatever does happen, the make-up of the 2021 starting grid will look very intriguing.
Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.