The 2020 Formula 1 season is on hold until July, but major news broke on Monday night that will have a massive impact on the sport in the coming year. Ferrari has confirmed that four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel will not return to the team following the 2020 season, as the team and driver “jointly decided” not to extend their partnership.
Vettel’s scheduled departure will leave an opening for the most desired seat in all of motorsports, and it’s yet unclear if the 32-year old plans to look for a new Formula 1 team, change series, or retire from racing.
Ferrari has already invested heavily in a long-term contract for 22-year-old Charles Leclerc, who emerged as one of the top talents in Formula 1 during a breakout 2019 season. With Vettel officially on the way out, there’s no longer a question that Leclerc will be the No. 1 driver at Ferrari – and team boss Mattia Binotto could likely be looking for a new second driver willing to support Leclerc rather than beat him. Who should Ferrari be targeting to take over for Vettel in 2021? Here are the top candidates:
The no-brainer, first call Ferrari should make
This probably is never going to happen, but Ferrari should absolutely make every effort to find out if it’s possible. While Hamilton would most certainly not accept a No. 2 role alongside Leclerc, he’d undoubtedly give Ferrari the best chance to win a world championship, something the team has not won since Kimi Raikkonen won the title in 2007.
He’s also one of the oldest drivers on the grid at 35, and likely wouldn’t be around for too long, ensuring that Leclerc would still get his time as No. 1 eventually and potentially providing a perfect window for someone like Mick Schumacher to continue developing and then step in when Hamilton retires.
The leading, realistic candidates
2. Daniel Ricciardo
It remains to be seen if Renault makes any serious progression in the midfield in 2020, but for the time being, it seems fairly clear that Ricciardo’s move from Red Bull was a mistake. He’s too good of a driver to be stuck in a car that can only hope to finish 7th each week, and he’s proven over multiple years that he’s capable of winning races and dueling with the best drivers in F1.
He definitely would not be comfortable playing the team order game with Leclerc, so both Leclerc and Ferrari would have to be on board with bringing in an equal (if not better) talent, but he’d also help out immensely in the race for constructors titles over a lesser driver willing to play the late-stage Raikkonen role.
UPDATE: According to a report from Autosport, Ricciardo is expected to have a deal with McLaren announced, which would obviously take him out of the running for the Ferrari job and leave Carlos Sainz as the clear favorite.
3. Carlos Sainz
Carlos Sainz was brilliant in 2019, finishing sixth in the standings in his first year with McLaren. One of the most consistent and cool drivers on the grid, Sainz is every bit as talented as Leclerc, but has never driven a car capable of winning races. He already has five full F1 seasons of experience at the age of 25, but clearly has his best years yet to come. The question is whether he’d want to leave McLaren – a prestigious team on the rise, similarly capable of paying him a lot of money – for the potentially awkward political situation of teaming with Leclerc.
4. Valtteri Bottas
Bottas has been an ideal wingman for Lewis Hamilton over the last three years, and Ferrari would clearly like to have the same sort of drama-free setup for Leclerc. Bottas remained with the world champions on one-year deals, but it’s possible that Mercedes could look to replace him with a younger talent like George Russell for 2021. Should that happen, he’d be a sensible, if not exactly sexy, choice for Ferrari.
5. Mick Schumacher
The son of Ferrari legend Michael Schumacher seems destined to reach Formula 1 eventually, but the question is when. The 2018 F3 champion raced his first season in F2 last year, winning once in Hungary, but the current shutdowns have delayed his on-track development in 2020. Jumping into the Ferrari seat straight from F2 would be a monumental leap, and he’d be under immense pressure as a rookie. It seems more likely that Schumacher could land somewhere like Haas, and eventually transition to a bigger team in 2022 or 2023.
6. Antonio Giovinazzi
If Ferrari wants to go all-in on propping up Leclerc at all costs, they could do worse than by signing an Italian driver with a decent amount of F1 experience.
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