Sebastian Vettel might walk away from Ferrari after the 2020 season without delivering the Formula One title the proud Italian team so desperately wants.
The question now becomes where the four-time world champion will head next season and who will replace him at one of the series’ most legendary and successful teams?
McLaren driver Carlos Sainz Jr. and Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo are two of the names widely touted as possible replacements for Ferrari.
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Sainz Jr., 25, is the son of two-time world rally champion Carlos Sainz. The Spanish driver finished a credible sixth last season, showing great consistency and good racecraft.
Ricciardo, 30, had a dismal first season with Renault, finishing in ninth. But the Australian driver proved his ability at Red Bull Racing, winning seven races and outperforming Vettel when they were paired together in 2014 (he had three wins while Vettel was winless).
Fernando Alonso returning to F1 and Ferrari would be an outside bet. The two-time F1 champion is 38 and had 11 victories with Ferrari from 2010-14.
Having raced the Indianapolis 500, the Dakar Rally and won the 24 Hours of LeMans and Rolex 24 sports car classics, Alonso still is considered among the world’s best drivers in pure ability. If Sainz. Jr. joins Ferrari, it would open the door for Alonso at McLaren.
The options seem less clear for Vettel, who is leaving at the end of year by mutual consent.
McLaren and Renault could be destinations for Vettel, who has 53 victories, 57 pole positions and 120 podium finishes in 240 starts from 2007-19. Even at 32, retirement would be an option for a driver who reportedly made $40 million last year.
The German driver joined Ferrari in 2015 to replace Fernando Alonso but was unable to add to his four consecutive world titles at Red Bull Racing from 2010-13.
Observers expected him to break Michael Schumacher’s record of seven F1 titles.
Now that is within reach of world champion Lewis Hamilton, who has six. Hamilton’s rise with Mercedes has been mirrored by Vettel’s gradual slide at Ferrari.
Vettel had ample chances to win Ferrari’s first world title since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007. He led the championship at the halfway stage in 2017 and 2018, but a series of clumsy mistakes – unbefitting a driver of his vast experience – proved costly.
At Singapore in 2017, he launched off pole position and tried to cut off Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, causing a multicar crash that Hamilton avoided to win the GP and reclaim the championship lead.
At the German GP in 2018, Vettel on course to a win at Hockenheim. Holding a comfortable lead and with Hamilton some distance behind, Vettel misjudged a routine turn and crashed into the barriers, again gifting Hamilton a win and the championship momentum.
Last year, the pressure appeared to affect Vettel’s judgment. Furious that he was stripped of victory at the Canadian GP because of a time penalty, he theatrically grabbed the big No. 1 sign and parked it in front of his car, while moving the No. 2 in front of Hamilton’s Mercedes.
Vettel was also not helped by erratic and sometimes conflicting team orders, although by the same token his win last year at Singapore was because orders went in his favor over Charles Leclerc.
Vettel could improve his stock with a strong 2020, but it’s unclear when he will have the chance. Because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Formula One has yet to race in 2020. The series hopes to start the season with a July 5 doubleheader in Austria.
It’s possible that 15 to 18 of the originally scheduled 22 races will happen.