12 May 2020

Sebastian Vettel and the future...

Every morning I think of Dundee. Not because the Scottish city is of any great interest, but rather because it is where they invented marmalade - and that little bit of orange zing on a piece of toast is a good reminder that there is magic in this world – and that we should always appreciate it. Magic is important and while the lockdown in recent months has been a fairly enjoyable sabbatical after 36 years on the road, I was aware – on the back of my mind – that the magic of F1- the zing - was missing. There was nothing much to report upon. F1 was grappling with the future. It is not the end of civilization as we know it, but it does mean a few changes in the short- to mid- term because all the lovely money that F1 used to snuffle up is going to be in much shorter supply and so the sport of excess must now work out how to cut its coat according to the cloth available.

It looks like sleeveless garments are going to be in fashion for a while... without pockets.

There was a debate going on, amongst those with nothing better to do, about whether or not the car manufacturers would walk away and leave F1 to its own devices. F1 has always been about transactions. The sport gives manufacturers what they want and they pay for the exposure. When they are done with it, or when the money runs out, they walk away. One might even say that it is the world’s second oldest profession. Anyway, the crash of 2007-2008 resulted in the swift departures of BMW, Honda and Toyota from the F1 ranks. One should add, of course, that Renault quit thanks to the team’s activities in Singapore in 2008, having been caught with its trousers around its ankles. After a very louche period under new ownership, Renault took over the team again in 2016. Honda came back with McLaren in 2015, but as history relates that did not go well. The crisis gave the others the excuse to get out. BMW had promised too much to its management and had not delivered, Honda had faffed around for years achieving very little and Toyota had been stuck in its philosophy of kaizen to such an extent that it failed to understand that F1 is really just kaizen on steroids and what works in the corporate world is too slow in the world of Grand Prix racing.

These departures caused some difficulties in F1. The Brawn team grew out of Honda, stuck a Mercedes engine in the back of the Honda chassis and won the World title. One can trace the fall of McLaren to the decision to let Brawn have Mercedes engines to help the team out. Brawn beat McLaren and so the relationship with Mercedes unravelled and the Woking team slipped down the pecking order.BMW left Sauber in the lurch and it took years to recover. And then, just as things were coming together and it had signed a Honda factory engine supply deal (which hasn’t done Red Bull any harm), the new owner decided that it was far better to change the management and go back to being a Ferrari customer.

So, the sport gets over crises and manufacturers come and go. What was lacking in recent months was the zing of gossip. Everyone was so busy locking-down that no-one was really talking about the future. The news that Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are set to split at the end of 2020 after six years together is a great doillop of marmalade on a rather dull piece of F1 toast.

Vettel’s current contract with Ferrari, which was signed in August 2017, expires at the end of the season and there has been much speculation about the triple World Champion’s future. The suggestion from Italy was that Ferrari made Vettel an offer that he could refuse, a one-year deal at reduced money. To be honest, he had earned that with his mistakes. Sebastian was presumably looking around for an alternative and it seems that there must now be one.

The team has clearly indicated that Charles Leclerc is the future, after he signed a new long-term contract. The team continued to say that Vettel was “key” to the future, but he was obviously looking for another three-year deal with tons of loot and Ferrari was not. Ferrari has made no secret of the fact that it thinks that developing young drivers is the best way to go forward but in December Mattia Binotto clearly indicated that 2021 will be too early for a newcomer – bad news for for Antonio Giovinazzi. Binotto argued that with the new rules coming it would be best to have someone with experience. The rules have been put back a year as a result of the pandemic, but this isn’t really long enough for a youngster to get the experience needed for 2022. So Ferrari is looking for a driver for two years – and half the grid would accept that. Being a Ferrari driver means something to most racers, although you might hear a contrary argument from the Ivan Capellis, Nicola Larinis, Gianni Morbidellis and Luca Badoers of the world. The dream, I guess, is not just the red racing suit, but also winning while wearing it. Charles Leclerc has his feet under the desk down in Maranello and while Ferrari will want to keep him hungry, it does not want to knock him off balance. Thus, a Carlos Sainz, a Daniel Ricciardo or a Nico Hulkenberg is probably the best choice for the moment. Ferrari chairman Camilleri has specifically stated that the young driver programme does not mean that the team won’t buy in talent if required.

“We need to find the best talent in the world for the future generation because we would like him to be part of our team growing up with us,” he said.

As for Vettel, his most likely destination in the future – at the age of 32 – has got to be Renault. 

He worked with the French company in his championship-winning years at Red Bull between 2010 and 2013 - and knows many of the people involved. Renault has problems – like all car companies at the moment – but it has an ambitious new boss coming in and is still one of the biggest automobile manufacturers in the world, even if its F1 budget is rather anaemic compared to some of the others. Signing Vettel would be a very good way to help to cement Renault’s F1 project in the future.

The other options don’t make a lot of sense. Red Bull has two excellent drivers in Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon and there is no reason to change that. Red Bull’s Helmut Marko is not a man given to nostalgia.

McLaren might be an option but customer Mercedes engines are not the way to go for a driver who wants to win more World Championships. And with Lewis Hamilton showing no desire to move aside at Mercedes, Vettel does not really have an option there.

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