Almost unnoticed, the Formula One world championship passed the 70th anniversary of its first race, the Grand Prix D’Europe also known as the British Grand Prix, held at Silverstone on Saturday, 13 May 1950.
The anniversary last week was largely lost amid the excitement of Sebastian Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari announcing that they are not going to stay together in 2021 – and the ensuing moves that resulted in Ferrari confirming Carlos Sainz as Charles Leclerc’s team-mate in 2021 and 2022, and Daniel Ricciardo being named as Sainz’s replacement at McLaren on “a multi-year deal”.
Whatever happens in the future, the 2020 season will be remembered as a strange one, and it is decidedly odd to have the first big changes in the status quo for next season taking place without a single race having happened.
The Vettel story was a little unexpected in the circumstances but it is a situation which has been developing for some time as, back in December, Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto was keen to keep Vettel and said that he was “a key driver for us” and “central to our project”.
One must give Binotto the benefit of the doubt because at the time he probably meant what he was saying.
However, it is also clear that discussions with Carlos Sainz began during the off-season and an agreement seems to have been reached before the teams gathered in Melbourne. This may have been conditional on discussions with Vettel, but it appears that no offer was ever made, because the two parties could not even find a basis for starting a discussion, as neither was willing to shift sufficiently to start a negotiation. In the end it was deemed pointless to continue.
The result is that Ferrari will go into 2021 with a very young driver line-up. Sainz will be 26 and Charles Leclerc 23, and the last time that happened was way back in 1968 when the team fielded Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx.
Binotto admits that having such a youthful line-up is a risk but says that the team is keen to begin “a new cycle”.
“He is a real team player and works very hard, so having him alongside Charles will be useful,” Binotto explains. “He’s done well over the last five seasons and has almost always got to the finish line, earning his team so many points in the process.”
We don’t know until it happens on what terms the new parties have agreed to work together and whether there will be team orders. Will both drivers will have the same status or will Leclerc will be given precedence?
The decision to hire Sainz is a big blow for Antonio Giovinazzi, who will now have to wait for his chance until 2023 and by which time he will be 29. The Italian will probably conclude that waiting is not an option, but without Ferrari backing his career in F1 is unlikely to last long, unless he can step up and make a big impression with the Alfa Romeo outfit. Beating Kimi Raikkonen is a must – if there is racing this year.
Ferrari chairman Louis Camilleri has said that he believes developing young drivers is a good policy, but in December he did not exclude the possibility of having to buy-in new talent.
“We need to find the best talent in the world for the future generation because we would like them to be part of our team growing up with us,” he said. “We are very much focused on the longer term. You don’t build the team overnight. We’ve said quite frequently that this is a young team in the sense that we have a lot of experience and talented people.
“However, a lot of them are new to their specific jobs and responsibilities. So we need patience, we need stability and serenity because if you look back in the history of Formula 1, where teams have done very well, there is one common thread: there was a lot of stability within the team and therefore they learned to work very closely together. That is something we are very focused on.”
What is clear is that all of the moves that happened last week have been in the pipeline for some time and the speed at which things were done indicates that they were already at a fairly advanced stage.
As for Vettel, his only real choice is to move to Renault, although he may wait to move until it is clear what is happening with Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. There is no reason for Hamilton to give up his current position and equally it makes little sense for Mercedes to destabilise the team by putting Vettel alongside Hamilton. Such a situation would, in any case, probably not be economically viable in the post-coronavirus era.
Renault does not have the same kind of money as some of the other teams, but it might be able to find it if Vettel wants to join the team, because it would be a big bonus for the company to have such an experienced and high profile driver.
Some believe that Vettel could stop racing but we saw in Singapore last year that his desire to win has not gone away – and he is not frightened of a challenge. At 32, Vettel is still in his prime as a racer and it is probably too early for him to retire. He seems to have been around for a long time, but he won his first title at just 23 and had won four by the time he was 27.
Joining Renault may not seem like a great idea given that the team dropped from fourth place in 2018 to fifth last year, but a closer look at the team suggests that it should be stronger in 2020 and 2021. One should also not forget that Vettel won his four World Championships using Renault engines, so he knows the French firm well. Renault is a serious player in the motoring world and has long been committed to F1. There may be economic difficulties ahead, but the company knows that F1 has a value when it comes to selling cars.
Renault and its partner Nissan, which uses Infiniti branding on the F1 car, are still battling to be the biggest car manufacturing firm in the world, against Volkswagen and Toyota. The engines were once a big problem but these have improved significantly and last year the team understood that it needed a better chassis and has taken steps to improve the situation.
McLaren also accepted that being a customer team with Renault is not a great option – and so has decided to switch to Mercedes engines. However, the Woking team has lost Pat Fry, who was the architect of the revival in 2019. He has moved to Enstone to help the Renault team climb the F1 ladder.
Vettel has been talking to other teams so it is clear that he is not thinking of retirement. Renault may be talking to Fernando Alonso as well, but the Spaniard has had a record of troubled relationships with teams and will, in any case, be 40 in the summer of 2021 and Vettel might be seen as a better choice given that he has won twice as many world titles as Alonso.
Daniel Ricciardo’s move from Renault to McLaren is a sideways move for the 30-year-old Australian. He is a good choice for McLaren because of his experience and while he may see it as being important to have Mercedes engines in 2021, he may end up regretting the move as McLaren still has a lot to prove and ultimately may have fewer resources than Renault.
Renault is not likely to opt for a newbie, although there is much to be said for China’s Guanyu Zhou if he can show the kind of speed that F1 requires in Formula 2 this year.
Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul says that the Renault team’s ambition remains unchanged.
“In our sport, and particularly within the current extraordinary situation, reciprocated confidence, unity and commitment are, more than ever, critical values for a works team. I am confident that the 2020 season will allow us to accomplish even more together.”
Renault will get a new CEO at the start of July when Italian Luca de Meo takes over the company, but it has already secured French government loan guarantees for $8.2 billion to help get through the current crisis and the economic fallout that will follow.