At the end of this year, Ferrari have a dilemma on their hands on who should partner Charles Leclerc for 2021. Three drivers have been speculated to taking Sebastian Vettel's seat if the German rejects the offers presented to him.
29th April 2020
Ferrari are very eager to start the new decade of F1 right. They have signed Charles Leclerc for on a contract to see him through to the 2024 season. But there has been questions raised on who should partner Leclerc. Current driver Sebastian Vettel is under pressure to perform but he remains Ferrari's first choice for the seat.
It's been speculated in the Italian Media that should Vettel rejects a new contract or leave the sport, that the team have highlighted three back-up drivers. These reported drivers are: Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz and Antonio Giovinazzi.
Leclerc has had his say in the matter and would like to see Vettel stay. He said: "So I'll be happy to keep him, but I'll respect Ferrari's decision for whoever is next to me. I will welcome anybody, but if Seb stays, I will definitely be happy."
Below is a list of the three potential drivers and some other driver candidates that Ferrari should consider to partner Leclerc for 2021.
Let's start with the obvious candidate and the driver who occupies the seat. At the time, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull were a very dominant force in the sport. Taking his first title in 2010, he became a four time world champion at the end of 2013. The introduction of the V6 era in 2014 saw Red Bull lag behind as Renault couldn't keep up with the other engine manufacturers. With Fernando Alonso leaving for McLaren in 2015, Vettel saw an opportunity at Ferrari. A chance to emulate what his hero, Michael Schumacher did five times, win a championship with Ferrari.
Vettel won the second race of the season in Malaysia and secure two more wins. He has remained the closest challenger to Mercedes since. Driver errors and horrific strategy decisions from the team has prevented Vettel from challenging consistently. The second half of last season was more impressive and more like 'Vettel' despite his spin at the Italian GP. A number of errors include spins at the 2018 Japanese and American GPs and spinning whilst battling with Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain last year.
The first part of 2020 would have let Ferrari see if Vettel could sustain that form. They would also been eager to see if the partnership with Leclerc was manageable after their collision in Brazil. Overall, this is a safe bet and ultimately depends on what Vettel wants to do.
This is going to be short and sweet given that Hamilton has made it clear that he has no intention of leaving his "dream team" for a chance to race in red overalls. His contract also expiries at the end of this year. From his brilliant debut in 2007, the championship a year later and then to 2013 when he started his new chapter at Mercedes. Since 2014, he's not looked back and taken all but the 2016 title. Now, he's just one championship away from being equal, alongside Schumacher, as one of the greatest in the sport.
Towards the end of last season, Hamilton opened-up on the possibility of driving for Ferrari but has recently made it clear that he intends to sign a new Mercedes contract. For Ferrari, it would be an expensive deal to make but from the viewpoint of everyone else, what a driver line-up and team combination that would be! Never say never.
Funnily enough, Valterri Bottas's current Mercedes contract also expires. The Finn made his debut with Williams in 2013 and was one of the stars of the 2014 season which saw the new engine regulations. With the Mercedes power unit in the back of the Williams, Bottas finished 4th and took six impressive podiums. 2015 and 2016 remained good years with Williams but the team slowly crept further away from the front of the field. Then came Bottas's golden opportunity, the retirement of newly crowned champion, Nico Rosberg, who partnered Hamilton at Mercedes.
Bottas signed for Mercedes and in doing so, took his maiden Pole Position, three wins across the season which ensured that Mercedes still took the title. He's been a solid driver who's helped Hamilton in times of need on track but his form has sometimes been inconsistent. Nevertheless, last year was his best to date and took the title fight against Hamilton to the 19th round of the season.
In place, Ferrari have a star driver in Leclerc and would be the choice driver leading the team forward. If they need a driver who can play the "back-up role", Bottas is a good choice. Even on the days Leclerc doesn't perform, Bottas can still pick-up the pieces.
Now this would be really exciting! Having signed a two year contract with Renault, Ricciardo is also looking at options for 2021. In hindsight, this was a very good move in signing a two year contract which runs-out when all of the other top drivers' contracts are up as well.
His inspired move to Renault from Red Bull was one he thought he could be able to emulate what Hamilton did when he left McLaren for Mercedes in 2013. Although maybe not his first choice to sign for the French team, Ricciardo showed in 2019 that he can still fight and score with a car that is right in the middle of the tight mid-field battle. He's a proven race winner, his race-craft is excellent and he can seize opportunities that other drivers can't.
He's still in his prime and eager to be back at the front fighting for wins and championships. If Ferrari want two top, exciting and dynamic drivers, then this is their pairing. An interesting poll on the official F1 website revealed that 39% of fans think the Aussie will remain with Renault with 28% predicting a move to Ferrari.
Not since Giancarlo Fisichella last raced for Ferrari at the end of 2009, replacing an injured Felipe Massa, was he the last Italian to race for the Scuderia. But what of Alfa Romeo's Antonio Giovinazzi? Having made his F1 debut for Sauber in 2017, replacing an injured Pascal Wehrlein for two races, Giovinazzi sat out the 2018 Season as he remained the reserve and test driver for Sauber and Ferrari.
In his first full season in the sport with Alfa Romeo, whilst partnering Ferrari's last F1 Champion Kimi Raikkonen, Giovinazzi made a lot of mistakes. He ended the year in 17th with 14 points. It's no secret that Ferrari have ploughed a lot of time and money into Giovinazzi's career and they need to assess the validity of placing him alongside Leclerc.
He's proven that he is a quick driver and is someone who knows Ferrari inside and out due to the amount of simulator work he's conducted behind the scenes. But is he up for the job or is it still too early to give him a top seat?
Carlos Sainz Jr
One of the standout drivers of 2019, Carlos Sainz took the opportunity to lead one of McLaren's best season of racing and results since 2014. His contract also expires at the end of this year. Sainz was part of the Red Bull Young Driver Program and made his debut at Toro Rosso in 2015 alongside Max Verstappen. Although evenly matched, the senior team chose Verstappen for 2016. He continued with Toro Rosso and then was loaned to Renault. It was at the end of 2018 that Sainz cut his ties with Red Bull and moved to McLaren.
Being overlooked by both Red Bull and Renault could have been the end for the Spaniard but it hasn't and last year showed that he has developed into a all-rounder F1 driver. Due to a time penalty for Hamilton at Brazil last year, Sainz got his maiden podium which saw him finish in 6th in the championship as "best of the rest".
He's consistent, quick and he's come along way, pushing past several set-backs in his career to get where he is today. He would fill the role of number two at Ferrari very well but he's got what it takes to be winning races and championships.
For the Mexican to jump into the Scuderia seat, it would be no means an easy task. Right now, he's currently locked-in with Racing Point with a contract till 2022. He would have to wrangle out of the contract in what seems to be a promising future with the team being rebranded to Aston Martin for 2021.
This isn't the first time that he has been linked or thought he would be within a shot of a seat at the Ferrari. He was considered after his strong performances in 2012 in which he stood on the podium three times racing for Sauber. He was also a member of Ferrari's Driver Academy but this was terminated after he signed with McLaren for 2013.
Since that poor season with McLaren, Perez has established himself as top performer who consistently scores points and is able to lead a team. Is he tired of being "King of the mid-field"? He would make a superb number two driver and on his day able to win races and stand on the podium. He probably won't be able to hassle Leclerc each and very race but would be a great rear-gunner who helps Ferrari fight for the championship.
For me, this is a bold choice and a choice that is unlikely. Hulkenberg holds the unwanted record of starting the most F1 races without reaching the podium. From humble beginnings, Hulkenberg won the GP2 championship in 2009 and drove for Williams in 2010. Taking a year out, he returned with Force India for 2012 to switch to Sauber for 2013. Returning to Force India for 2014, Hulkenberg finally left the team for Renault in 2017. For 2020, he was replaced by Esteban Ocon.
So he's currently without a drive in F1 and not competing in this year's season. He says he's in "limbo" due to the postponed season and looking out for drives in 2021. In the past, Ferrari have considered him for a drive although the reasons would now be different. In the past, they would have evaluated the option of him one day leading the team but now it would be if he would fit the role of number two to Leclerc.
For Ferrari, he offers a lot. For a number two driver he offers a huge amount of experience, ability to score consistent points and the fact that he wouldn't be too fussy. He wouldn't 'rock the boat' in terms of the competitive relationship with Leclerc and they would get their 'bang for their buck' if they went with the German.
A blast from the not so distant past. What a career he has had! He's best known for his two back-to-back titles with Renault in 2005 and in 2006 which stopped the domination of Ferrari and Schumacher. A move to McLaren at time when Hamilton made his debut in 2007, stopped Alonso in his tracks in what became a conflicted relationship. A move back to Renault for two seasons yielded little success so when a call from Ferrari came, he jumped at the chance.
What followed with Ferrari was two titles slip from his grasp. He came agonisingly close in 2010 and in 2012 but when 2013 and 2014 were serious let downs, he chose to rejoin McLaren who'd recently partnered with Honda. It was a total failure and when the team switched to Renault for 2018, they discovered it was possibly the car that was holding them back. Alonso called his time on the sport, for now.
The now 38 year old has tried his hand at other types of motoring events including the Dakar Rally and holds out hope of securing the Triple Crown in which he just needs to win the Indianapolis 500. Has he burnt his bridges with the top F1 teams? Would a return to F1 be fruitful? Would Ferrari have him partner Leclerc? It would definitely be interesting whatever happens.
Your hired: Leclerc's 2021 team-mate
I feel this is a pretty solid list of drivers Ferrari should consider for 2021. Some have higher chances than others but heading back to the potential list Ferrari may have if Vettel rejects or calls his time on sport, it's very good. Either Ricciardo or Sainz would be great at the Scuderia while I feel Giovinazzi needs more time and putting him into the seat at this early stage, would be too costly. More obscure drivers like Hulkenberg and Alonso have slimmer chances while Bottas and Perez would be good candidates. Unless Hamilton is playing the biggest cover-up of all time, he's staying with Mercedes.
So it's either Vettel, Ricciardo or Sainz in my view.