Formula 1 has been turned upside-down overnight following the announcement that four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel will be leaving Red Bull, apparently bound for Ferrari in 2015.
It’s the only team he has ever known and the brand that has defined his success in motorsport. He’s spent more of his life with Red Bull than without it. This is, quite simply, one of the biggest driver moves in the history of the sport.
And the knock-on effects cannot be underestimated.
Let us start with Vettel himself. This could turn out to be the move that defines his racing career, just as Michael Schumacher’s decision to leave Benetton for Ferrari in 1996 did. Ultimately, he has seen a need to leave the nest and spread his wings – clearly, he feels that the time is right to walk away as the ‘dream team’ that made Red Bull a tour de force falls apart.
The German driver has clearly been thinking about this decision for some time, but the final call came in the past few days. In fact, Sebastian only told Red Bull he wanted to leave last night, having even agreed to a new merchandise deal on Thursday. Clearly, the team had a contingency plan in place though, with Daniil Kvyat swiftly being announced as his replacement.
For Kvyat, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. He has always been highly rated by Red Bull, so much so that he was given the nod ahead of Antonio Felix da Costa and Carlos Sainz Jr. for the seat at Toro Rosso in 2014. His debut season has been an impressive one, even if it hasn’t yielded a huge amour of points, but at the age of 20, he will become a Red Bull driver after just 19 grands prix. It’s a promotion that is even quicker than Vettel’s own from Toro Rosso after 25 races with the B-team.
At Toro Rosso, the first thought for many was that this news handed Jean-Eric Vergne a reprieve. He was due to be ousted from the team to make way for Max Verstappen in 2015, but with Kvyat on his way, does this leave room for the Frenchman?
Realistically, no, it does not. Just as Kvyat stole the seat from da Costa and Sainz, Verstappen took the place everyone had set for Sainz. The Spaniard is set to win the Formula Renault 3.5 title later this month, and should replace Kvyat at Toro Rosso. Just when his F1 career looked dead in the water, it has life again – although it is worth keeping an eye on da Costa and British driver Alex Lynn as other possible options for Toro Rosso.
In a matter of days, the speculation about Fernando Alonso’s future has become fact. He is set to leave Ferrari after five years of unfulfilled potential. It was meant to be the marriage that took both parties back to the top of F1 – instead, he’ll be leaving through the back door as Vettel arrives with all of the fanfare.
Strangely, Kimi Raikkonen’s position at Maranello has never been stronger. The Finn’s passion and ability was questioned earlier this year, but he has found his form in recent weeks. The arrival of Vettel will only help his cause, given that, to quote the German himself, he is the closest thing he has to a friend in F1.
So where does this leave Alonso? Apparently, McLaren or bust. With this announcement from Vettel, his bargaining power has significantly weakened. He has nowhere else to go. The rapid rate at which his relationship with Ferrari has soured has forced Vettel into action: he smelled a seat was going, and has grabbed it. The departure of Luca di Montezemolo as the marque’s president was the domino that set this chain of events off.
However, Honda will already be writing the check to get Alonso on board at McLaren for 2015. This leaves both Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button fighting for their place at the team, and, quite possibly, their F1 careers.
It really depends on what McLaren wants for 2015. Would it rather keep on Button, an experienced and proven driver but with retirement on the horizon, or Magnussen, who is less experienced but hasn’t yet had a chance to prove himself? If K-Mag were to be jilted, it would be a harsh call, comparable to Sergio Perez’s departure from the team at the end of last season. Either way, both will be on red alert for a seat for 2015, although an early retirement might be more viable for Button if the team decides to stick with Magnussen.
Vettel’s decision even has implications further down the grid. On Thursday, I wrote how Alonso’s imminent departure could hand Ferrari junior driver Jules Bianchi the chance of a lifetime. However, with Seb coming in, the Frenchman will be forced to wait his turn – most probably until Kimi decides to retire, which could come at the end of next season. Other drivers with designs on the Ferrari seat – Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean, to name but two – will also be left hanging.
Where does Red Bull go from here though? Just as Ferrari will begin a new era in 2015, so will the defending world champions. The team will enter next season as ‘underdogs’ in a funny sort of way, given the inexperience of its driver line-up. Daniel Ricciardo has been in sensational form this year, but he will now have to lead the team in the post-Vettel era. Immense pressure, but an immense opportunity, also.
F1 entered a new dawn in 2014 with the new regulations, but a whole new era led by Vettel, Alonso and Ricciardo – not to mention the two Mercedes drivers – will begin in 2015.
What a time to be watching Formula 1. This crazy, crazy sport can even surprise itself from time to time.
So why not consider another couple of curveballs? Final word to NBCSN’s Will Buxton on this one.
So here’s one for the mix. Fernando stays at Maranello. So does Kimi. Seb’s Ferrari deal is thus the first confirmation of 3 car teams.
— Will Buxton (@willbuxton) October 4, 2014
Are McLaren Honda about to announce the greatest coup in modern F1 memory and announce Vettel and Alonso for 2015? I’m only half joking.
— Will Buxton (@willbuxton) October 4, 2014