MAKING SENSE of the musical chairs in Formula 1 almost midway through 2020 and the cars have not yet turned a wheel in anger as yet, but its silly season and Velocity Magazines Editor John Morris breaks it down for us in his opinion piece.
In 1975 Alice Cooper, a 70s rock icon sang “We’re the Department of Youth, we’ve got the power!” It certainly seems to be true in Formula One as Red Bull and now Ferrari have placed their trust in a pair of 22 year olds for their long term plans.
As of mid May, the 2020 FIA Formula One Word Championship had not yet turned a wheel over the course of a Grand Prix weekend. In contrast the driver market has been unusually active, with three changes already confirmed for the 2021 season. Under normal circumstances a quarter of the scheduled championship would have been run by now, with a clear indication of team performance throughout the grid. 2020, however, has been like no other in the 70 year history of the Formula One World Championship.
Sebastian Vettel to leave Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel initiated the series of musical chairs with the announcement that he would leave Ferrari at the conclusion of the 2020 season. Reaction to the announcement was fluctuated between the Vettel’s plans for the future and who would take his seat at Ferrari. While such an announcement was normally reserved for the latter half of a championship season, the prolonged COVID-19 induced crisis was reportedly the catalyst for his decision.
“My relationship with Scuderia Ferrari will finish at the end of 2020,” Vettel said in a team statement. “In order to get the best possible results in this sport, it’s vital for all parties to work in perfect harmony. The team and I have realised that there is no longer a common desire to stay together beyond the end of this season. 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.”
Vettel’s decision is perhaps the least surprising of the three. The timing of the announcement, on the other hand, has been distracting and unsettling for others.
Sebastian Vettel had enjoyed a clear number one status throughout his time at Red Bull and for the majority of his six years with Ferrari. Vettel held the unequivocal support from Red Bull’s Helmut Marko, which gave the young German a strategic advantage in the race team politics. When Vettel damaged the last of his new front wing upgrades during the 2010 British Grand Prix, the identical component was removed from team-mate Mark Webber’s car and installed on Vettel’s machine.
That preferential support and perceived superiority was an environment in which Vettel thrived. He went on to claim a run of four consecutive world championships as Webber was unofficially handed the second driver role. When Sebastian Vettel defied team orders and passed Webber during the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, Webber was asked how Red Bull would respond to Vettel’s disregard for team instructions, he shrugged and said,” He will have protection as usual and that’s the way it goes.”
It was a similar situation when Vettel was lured to Ferrari. He was given number one status over Kimi Raikkonen, which did not go down well with the Finn, who happened to be the last Ferrari driver to have won a World Championship. There were a number of on track clashes between the pair during their four years together, with a crash at the start of the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix the most notable. While Sebastian Vettel was soon given a three year contract extension, Raikkonen’s time at Ferrari ended at the conclusion of the 2018 season.
Sebastian Vettel looked comfortable as the number one driver when Ferrari announced Charles Leclerc as Raikkonen’s successor for 2019. Few expected the young Monegasque driver to challenge the four time world champion, but with a four year contract safely tucked away, the former Ferrari Academy driver soon outshone his vastly credentialed teammate. Vettel status as number one looked to have been reaffirmed in Singapore, after an orchestrated pit stop sequence saw him leapfrog an incensed Leclerc to take the win.
When Ferrari reciprocated the move at the Russian Grand Prix it worked in favour of the younger driver. It signalled a fundamental change in the politics within the Ferrari garage. A series of uncharacteristic errors by Vettel during the second half of the season saw Leclerc gain further accolades within the team and led to suggestions that Vettel might be nearing retirement. It was a suggestion that was quickly refuted by the German. At the same time, playing second fiddle to a teammate was not something to which Vettel had been accustomed.
There were unconfirmed reports during the off season in the Italian press that Ferrari had chosen Charles Leclerc to lead the team into the future. Vettel had reportedly been offered a single year contract at a reduced rate instead of the longer term deal that he had sought. As the season opening race in Australia beckoned the story was swept aside as skilfully as Vettel had supposedly left the country in the early hours of Friday morning.
“This is a decision taken jointly by ourselves and Sebastian, one which both parties feel is for the best. It was not an easy decision to reach, given Sebastian’s worth as a driver and as a person. There was no specific reason that led to this decision, apart from the common and amicable belief that the time had come to go our separate ways in order to reach our respective objectives.”
Is there another chapter in the Formula One career of Sebastian Vettel? Red Bull has publicly stated that Max Verstappen is their number one driver and they see no point in having two ‘Alpha males’ in the same team. Renault had been mentioned to be the most likely option if Vettel were to continue. He had won all four of his world championships with a Renault engine. Seeing it is widely accepted that the team is not yet ready to challenge the top three, would that be a situation in which the success driven Vettel would thrive?
Mercedes seemed to be more than happy with the pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas and seemed to be a high unlikely situation with Hamilton happy to continue his winning ways. However, when questioned on the possibility of Vettel driving for Mercedes, team boss Toto Wolff admitted that a German driver in a Mercedes made good business sense. Both Bottas and Hamilton are off contract at the end of the year and could we see a Hamilton – Vettel super team at Mercedes? Lewis Hamilton is supremely confident in his own ability and a head to head with his closest rival from the past ten years would certainly prove who is the greatest of the modern era.
“Of course a German driver in a German car is a good marketing story,” Wolff told Austrian broadcaster ORF (Monday 17th May 2020). ”At Mercedes, however, we are purely focused on success, but Sebastian is of course someone who is really good. For us, the question is what to do about George Russell,” Wolff said. “That’s one option. Then there is also the Sebastian Vettel option.”
At just 32 years of age one would not normally call Vettel old. He also has no real need to continue in a midfield car and may bring his Formula One career to a close while still at his peak. Could Mercedes break the current trend and run the oldest, and winningest, driver combination on the grid in 2021? It is a tantalising thought and one which only time will tell.
Carlos Sainz to Ferrari
Carlos Sainz’s move to Ferrari was a no brainer for the Spaniard. Sainz had become somewhat of a F1 journeyman since his debut with Torro Rosso in 2015. He completed the best part of three seasons for the Red Bull junior team before he was loaned out to Renault for the final four races of the 2017. Sainz was retained for a full season with the French team in 2018 before he was unceremoniously discarded when Daniel Ricciardo was coaxed across as a marquee signing.
Mclaren offered Sainz a lifeline, which proved to be a turning point in his Formula One career. While Renault struggled with technical issues, the customer Renault powered McLarens excelled. Sainz finished 6th in the World Championship, some 42 points ahead of Ricciardo and scored his first F1 podium in Brazil. McLaren also leapfrogged Renault in the Constructor’s title to finish 4th, with 145 points to Renault’s 91.
They say that you are only as good as your last result and, on the surface, it appeared that 2019 had been a pivotal point in the CV’s of Sainz and Ricciardo. Ferrari swooped on Sainz as their second driver for 2020 and committed to a two year deal with the Spaniard.
“With five seasons already behind him, Carlos has proved to be very talented and has shown that he has the technical ability and the right attributes to make him an ideal fit with our family,” said Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto.“We believe that a driver pairing with the talent and personality of Charles and Carlos, the youngest in the past fifty years of the Scuderia, will be the best possible combination to help us reach the goals we have set ourselves.”
Reports from the Italian media have suggested two reasons for this decision. Carlos Sainz was a much cheaper option than a proven winner such as Ricciardo. Secondly, but perhaps more importantly, Carlos Sainz was seen as a solid and supportive number 2 driver to Leclerc. Clearly Ferrari wanted a change in direction, a more constructive team dynamic and have followed the lead of Red Bull with their youngest ever driver line up.
Daniel Ricciardo to McLaren
Of the three changes, this has been the hardest for many to comprehend. Why did Ferrari overlook a proven race winner in the prime of his racing career? Why didn’t he stay with the factory Renault team and why has he gone to McLaren?
I doubt whether the first two questions will ever be truly known. Daniel Ricciardo has never been one to burn bridges by criticising his employer, either past or present. The point shown by his admission that he would never rule out a return to Red Bull when asked earlier in the year.
Throughout 2019, when both Daniel and teammate Nico Hulkenberg struggled for confidence in the Renault R.S.19, the Australian remained outwardly positive as he fought some inner demons.
”Austria, literally, I can tell you the conversations going in my head during that race,” Ricciardo said (December 2019). “I am literally driving around. I don’t want to say not present, but my thoughts were that I don’t want to be here. When I say that, I meant that I don’t want to be in this position. I was 14th or something and it was one of our worst weekends. But it wasn’t a head-down defeat, it was a case of get me back to the front. This is not where I should be. This is not where we should be.”
While Daniel remained positive, Renault team boss, Cyril Abiteboul had been open in his criticism of his star recruit. After a less than auspicious debut with the team in Australia and the Renault Sport team manager was scathing in his remarks.
“To be honest, I can’t say that Daniel gave what is expected of him, from a driver who won races, at least after this weekend that was the first with us,” Abiteboul said.
Esteban Ocon’s arrival at Renault for 2020 may well have been the moment sapped any synergy that had emerged between Renault, Ricciardo, and Abiteboul. A young French driver in a French team, French team manager and one Australian. Spot the odd one out.
Cyril Abiteboul also speculated that Esteban Ocon and not Daniel Ricciardo could spearhead Renault’s challenge in 2021.
“It was important when given the opportunity to seize the opportunity of a complete driver in Daniel last year and we don’t regret that at Renault. Just like right now we think it’s the right moment to start having some fresher blood,” Abiteboul stated (December 2019).
“I think it’s a trend actually you can see in several teams. We are also interested in young drivers with our academy. We hope and expect to have possibly one driver from that academy by 2021. So it’s also a shift of dynamic to start really welcoming young drivers in our line-up. It’s not something that we would have been capable of doing two years ago but I think with more maturity in the team we can now envisage that. And that would be a good test to see if we are capable of also managing that because it’s a different type of management. Managing some who is 20, 22 or in his thirties, that’s different.”
Daniel Ricciardo had already worked at Red Bull with Max Verstappen, a younger driver who was never backwards when it came to aggressive moves, even at the expense of his own teammate. Esteban Ocon was one from the same mould and had a past history of incidents with his previous teammate, Sergio Perez.
The prospect of Ocon gaining preference at Renault was not beyond the realms of possibility.
Hopes of a Ricciardo move to Ferrari were dashed with the announcement of Sainz as Vettel’s replacement for 2021. Many questioned why the better credentialed Australian had been seemingly overlooked.
Mark Webber offered a different scenario late last week (15th May 2020) when he suggested that Daniel Ricciardo may well have been offered the drive but declined to join Scuderia Ferrari Formula One in a supporting role to Charles Leclerc.
With a youth policy at Red Bull, Ferrari and now Renault, 30 year old Ricciardo was once again courted by Team McLaren CEO Zac Brown.
“We went after him a couple of years ago before he made the decision not to join us,” Brown explained. “I’ve talked to him about it since and he went ‘you were coming off a pretty poor season’, which was putting it politely. There was also a lot of this is what we’re going to do to rebuild the team. I hadn’t brought in yet Andreas Seidl or James Key or restructured the leadership team. So there were a lot of promises and, coming off such a bad season, I could see how he would go ‘oh, let’s see how this plays out’.”
Daniel Ricciardo had a first hand view of the revised McLaren as he fought Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris with an identical power plant. The team’s announcement of a switch to Mercedes engines for 2021 offered an opportunity for Ricciardo to access the most successful power plant in the hybrid era.
“He likes how it’s played out,” Brown exclaimed. “He’s seen the changes we’ve made, the leadership Andreas has brought, the backing we have from our shareholders, going to the Mercedes engine, we’re a team on the move and I think he’s going to help get us to the next level.” **
One thing is certain. Given the zeal in which Brown pursued Ricciardo, the Australian seems assured of the team leader role and as a mentor to his 20 year old teammate throughout the 2021 season.
**(It is impossible to know the truths behind these decisions and one can merely speculate, which seems to be of more interest in these days of social media and the sharing of personal opinion. We have tried to offer an informed story, based on the information that has been presented and guided by past events. Whilst this is not a definitive answer, it does offer a reasoned report behind a series of announcements that many fans of Formula One have found difficult to understand.)
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