Our F1 correspondent learns some juicy gossip relating to the F1 driver market as he outlines in his latest column F1 Rumours and Shenanigans.

We are living in truly interesting times. While Covid-19 has shut down the world, leaving people to meet online and work from home, it has left the human race to make some extreme life decisions. In the world of Formula 1, this has revolved around the future of Sebastian Vettel…

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Seb axed by Ferrari

At the beginning of the year, press stories related to renewal of driver contracts had Vettel in discussions with Ferrari. In February, the Italian press began rumbling about Seb receiving a year extension with a severe cut in salary, with the German rejecting the offer. Barely a month later, the world was in lockdown and meetings were held online with regard to F1 cost capping – a concept Ferrari was strongly against. The team has confirmed looking at other options, including WEC and Indycar (check out a rendering of a Ferrari IndyCar at this link), to justify the cost of their racing program. This contradicted their subsequent shock press release, explaining that they will not be renewing Vettel’s contract beyond the 2020 season.

Musical chairs

It began a domino effect behind closed doors with teams and drivers shopping for new, last-minute opportunities. Daniel Ricciardo was the hot favourite to sign for the Scuderia, only for the Italian marque to announce the signing of Carlos Sainz, while Ricciardo slips into the McLaren seat for the foreseeable future to replace the Spaniard.

Where to next?

Vettel has since been dropping hints at various press conferences, while the press expected Renault to announce Vettel as Ricciardo’s replacement. The delay had fans wondering: after Vettel’s first hint about wanting to join Mercedes, would Valtteri Bottas be moved out? Toto Wolff, team principal of Mercedes F1, was diplomatic in his response but it was clear they would not be making any rash moves to unsettle their current dominance in the sport. Further hints from Vettel indicated he was still shopping for a drive, however, all doors seem to have been firmly shut in the German’s face with public rejections from Red Bull Racing, as well as Racing Point.

A champ returns

Renault finally made their move, announcing the sensational comeback of Fernando Alonso to the team, apparently sealing Vettel’s fate for 2021. Renault is currently facing a financial crisis and has had to make major changes to its manufacturing plants. The racing program has also been in doubt at some stage and the loss of Ricciardo before the 2020 F1 season turned a wheel in anger dealt the manufacturer a heavy blow.

The appointment of a big name was necessary to try to save the Renault brand and Alonso must have been cheaper than Vettel’s asking price. Renault F1 boss Cyril Abiteboul justified the Spaniard’s signing by stating the team needs the pressure from a top driver to perform, finally acknowledging Ricciardo’s contribution in this regard. Vettel, on the other hand, stated that initial discussions took place, but he heard nothing from them since…

Early exit…?

Actually, the German claimed he heard nothing from Ferrari at all with regard to contract negotiation, contradicting statements made from the team. One can imagine that this has caused some bad feelings between team and driver – which leads to the next rumour doing the rounds. It is being touted that Sebastian Vettel will not see out his contract with Ferrari and that he will close the door on his Ferrari tenure sooner rather than later, possibly after the Styrian Grand Prix, making way for, wait for it… Kimi Raikkonen!

Click here to read the latest 2020 F1 calendar.

The Iceman is a firm favourite, with the Tifosi and with F1 fans in general. He has been a loyal soldier for Ferrari before and strikes me as a driver who harbours no hard feelings. Seeing out his F1 career at the Scuderia will be a real high. Ferrari has nothing to lose as they have made it quite clear they favour Leclerc over Vettel. The Germans on-track attitude seems a little lacklustre of late. Alfa Romeo isn’t really a contender who will miss the 2007 F1 champion. The vacant Alfa seat could be filled by the likes of reserve driver Robert Kubica who, surprise surprise, spent all of FP1 in the Alfa Romeo C39 at the Styrian GP…

Ferrari firings

This is not the first time that a driver has left the Italian marque under a cloud during mid-season. Niki Lauda left Ferrari in 1977 (his world championship year) before the end of the season to make way for a young upstart named Gilles Villeneuve. Lauda took the seat at Brabham (he walked away from Brabham – and F1 altogether – in 1979).

Rene Arnoux was mysteriously fired (he refuses to talk about why to this day) after the Brazilian Grand Prix (the first race of the season) in 1985, making way for a relatively unknown Stefan Johansson. Alain Prost was fired in 1991 for criticizing his machine throughout the season, although he did finish the last race of the year (and sat out the 1992 season). Kimi Raikkonen himself was paid by Ferrari to ensure he didn’t drive for any other F1 team in 2010, after leaving the team a year before his contract was due to expire.

While there have been many years of the top teams keeping drivers and low-profile contract extensions, 2020 has been nothing short of explosive leading up to the delayed start of the season. Hopefully, the rest of the season will concentrate on explosive racing rather than what happens behind the scenes.