Sebastian Vettel would appear to have only one real choice if he wishes stay in Formula 1 in 2021.
And that one option, Renault, has more positives tied to it than one might think.
The trouble for Vettel is that he is a proud man and he wants to be paid what he thinks he is worth, even if he is smart enough to understand that the market has changed and driver salaries in Formula 1 will need to moderate a little in the years ahead. Those who price themselves out of the market will be those who cling to the past.
According to Forbes in the USA, Vettel’s salary for 2019 was $62.5 million, behind only that of Lewis Hamilton, who Forbes lists earning $77.5 million.
That same publication has current Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo as the third-highest-paid driver at $43 million, before he moves to McLaren in 2021.
So why would Vettel take a salary cut to drive for a team that has not won a race since 2008 (Fernando Alonso, Japanese Grand Prix)?
Vettel doesn’t need to be in Formula 1, but I doubt that the passion he has for racing and his belief in himself—as we saw when he fought back from a dark moment at Monza last year to win the race in Singapore—has waned at all.
If he were to retire it would probably be too early.
Vettel has been around a long time, sure, as he’s been racing in F1 since 2007. At just 23 in 2010, he became the youngest World Champion in history, and he was just getting started. When he hoisted his fourth title in 2013, he was still but 26.
He’s third on the all-time wins list with 53 and 11th on the all-time starts list (240), but he would seem to have plenty of races left in the tank.
On the other hand, at 32, Vettel is older than Nico Rosberg was when the Mercedes driver retired after winning the 2016 championship at 31. Niki Lauda retired at 30 in 1979 after winning two World Championships with Ferrari, but then found that he missed the sport too much and returned in 1982, winning a third title two years later with McLaren.
It’s difficult to see that Vettel is finished with F1. The fire still burns, even if the new # 1 at Ferrari, Charles Leclerc, planted a few dents in Vettel’s suit of armor when he outscored the German 264-240 in last year’s drivers’ championship as the two Ferrari drivers finished 4-5 in the standings.
Could Vettel possibly score a career comeback at Renault?
First, one must not forget that Vettel won his four World Championships using Renault engines while at Red Bull from 2010-13, so he knows the French firm pretty well. Vettel knows also just what a big empire it is. People tend to forget that until recently Renault and its partner Nissan were fighting to be the world’s biggest car manufacturer with Volkswagen and Toyota. It is fashionable to divide the two, but the reality is that they are tied tightly together and working with one another. Look at this year’s Renault F1 car and on the engine cover one sees the name Infiniti—a Nissan brand.
Secondly, although Renault has not been very successful in recent years, there is a program in place to return the firm to its winning ways—and things were looking up last year. The engines were decent and reliable, and the team recognized that it needed a better chassis.
Changes were made in the staff to make that happen. McLaren understood that being the second Renault team was probably not a great idea and decided to switch to Mercedes engines. And Renault has also brought in engineer Pat Fry from McLaren. Prior to that, Fry was at Ferrari. Vettel has never worked with him, but Fry has a good reputation, which was underlined when he popped up at McLaren and made a big difference.
But is that enough to keep Vettel in the game? Or has he won his last Grand Prix?
Those are questions really only Vettel can answer, although it is quite possible Renault’s Abiteboul already knows the answer.