The news that Sebastian Vettel will leave Ferrari at the end of the year leaves one very obvious question hanging over the remainder of 2020: who will replace him in 2021?
As the most famous team in F1, Ferrari has the potential to lure almost any driver, and aside from Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, the entire grid is out of contract at the end of 2020. In no particular order, we look at the possible candidates and rank their chances of pulling on a set of red overalls in 2021.
Let’s start with the biggest name of all, Lewis Hamilton. Could he really make a career-defining move to marry the biggest team in the sport with the biggest driver? On the face of it, the answer is no.
Rumours of a move have been rife since he met with Ferrari chairman John Elkann at a social event last year and it’s hard to believe a Ferrari contract hasn’t crossed his mind at some point. But as recently as April, Hamilton slapped down a story linking him to a Ferrari drive with the following post on Instagram:
“First off, there is no dream of a dash to another team. I am with my dream team. Second, there’s not a thing in my way as I’m not trying to move. I’m with the people who have cared from day one. We are the best team! @mercedesamgf1.”
Perhaps the biggest barrier to Hamilton joining Ferrari is the Italian team’s performance. For as long as he has been racking up titles with Mercedes, Ferrari has been underperforming as his opposition and the early signs from preseason testing this year were that it had made another backwards step.
Add to that the questions over the legality of last year’s Ferrari following a secret settlement with the FIA, and Hamilton may be wondering how messy the situation really is behind the gates at Maranello and, ultimately, whether he wants to be a part of it. When a contract extension with the all-conquering Mercedes team is the other option open to him, would he really gamble a record-equalling seventh world championship on a move to Ferrari?
Probably better to leave the door ajar and use it to leverage as much money and flexibility as possible from a new Mercedes deal.
Chances of a move to Ferrari: 2/10
Looking down the grid for an out-of-contract driver to replace Vettel and the standout candidate is Daniel Ricciardo. Half Italian, charismatic, a race-winner, and currently driving for a struggling team, he ticks every box as a potential replacement for Vettel.
When Ricciardo moved from Red Bull to Renault in 2019, he hoped to find the embryo of a new F1 powerhouse akin to the Mercedes team of 2013. But over the past year, the French outfit has been treading water and has offered no tangible results to suggest it will become a race-winning force in the future. With that in mind, and Ricciardo’s contract due to expire at the end of the year, he would undoubtedly jump at the chance to join Ferrari.
But the big question is not whether the Australian would want to move to Maranello, but instead whether he is the right fit for Ferrari. As a proven race-winner entering the autumn of his career, he would undoubtedly come to the team with the expectation of racing on equal terms with Charles Leclerc. Considering Ferrari has committed to Leclerc until 2024, there is a belief that it wants to build the team around him and find a dutiful No.2 capable of grinding out the results to secure the constructors’ championship and not much more.
As a feisty competitor, Ricciardo doesn’t fit that bill and instead would look to lean on his greater experience to beat Leclerc. His likeable personality would be great for sponsors, but if Leclerc slips up, Ricciardo may seize the opportunity to divide the team after learning a few lessons from his time with Red Bull and Verstappen.
It would be a great pairing, but it all depends on what Ferrari wants from Leclerc’s teammate. There’s a belief that if Maranello really wanted Ricciardo, he would be there already.
Chances of a move to Ferrari: 7/10
If Ferrari deems Ricciardo too much of a risk to run alongside Leclerc, then Carlos Sainz comes into view as a clear candidate. Ferrari is said to be considering the Spaniard, who was the star of the midfield teams last year and is out of contract with McLaren at the end of 2020.
With no wins to his name and an aching desire to prove his talent at a top team, he would be a more flexible fit than Ricciardo at a Ferrari team building itself around Leclerc. In his early years at Toro Rosso he showed some serious potential alongside Max Verstappen and, despite leaving the Red Bull fold when Verstappen was promoted ahead of him, he has continued to prove himself as a safe pair of hands and an underated talent on the grid.
While Sainz has been happy and successful at McLaren over the past year, there are no guarantees the team will have a winning car in the next five years. Ferrari almost certainly will be able to offer that and at 25 years of age, Sainz is at the perfect stage of his career to make a move to a top team. From the outside at least, the stars seem to be aligned.
Chances of a move to Ferrari: 8/10
Ferrari’s love affair with Leclerc is partly based on the fact that he is a home-grown talent. Leclerc rose through the ranks of the Ferrari Driver Academy (FDA) to emerge as a race winner in his first season with the team and Ferrari would love to repeat that with more of its FDA members. The next driver in line is Antonio Giovinazzi, but after one season at Alfa Romeo it’s become clear he’s no Leclerc. That might not matter if Ferrari is only after a No.2, but Giovinazzi would still need to make big progress in 2020 and outscore teammate Kimi Raikkonen — who beat him 43-14 last year — to be considered a true contender. And by the time he has the chance to prove that, it might already be too late.
Below Giovinazzi, Mick Schumacher — son of Ferrari legend Michael — is the next big hope of the FDA, but he is also far from ready. Schumacher Jr. is due to start his second year in Formula 2 this year, after a single win in the feeder series in 2019, but even a dominant championship victory in F2 in 2020 would struggle to convince anyone that he is ready to follow in his father’s footsteps just yet.
Chances of a move to Ferrari: 3/10
Although he has rarely been mentioned in the speculation around Vettel’s replacement, Valtteri Bottas is an obvious candidate. In his three seasons at Mercedes he has proved himself as a dutiful No.2, capable of winning races but not quite driving on the same level as teammate Hamilton. Assuming Ferrari want to build a team around Leclerc, he would fit the mould while having the pace to keep Leclerc on his toes.
Since joining Mercedes, Bottas has only been offered one year contracts, so Ferrari may be able to lure him away from the world champions with the promise of a two-year deal. Mercedes is lining up Esteban Ocon and George Russell as future drivers, so Bottas will already be wondering if his time at the team is limited and 2021 could be the perfect jumping-off point.
It would also present a fresh start out of Hamilton’s shadow for him and, while there’s an argument that Leclerc is as fast as Hamilton, he is less experienced and more prone to errors. That could be enough for Bottas to position himself at a shot at the title even if Leclerc starts the season as the No.1 driver at Ferrari.
From Ferrari’s side, it would also disrupt Mercedes at a time when their biggest rival looks unbeatable. Mercedes would likely promote either Russell or Ocon, but from Ferrari’s point of view, both would arrive at the team with the potential to upset Hamilton in a title fight. Add to that the information Bottas would bring to Maranello from Mercedes and it would be a win-win.
Chances of a move to Ferrari: 6/10
Away from the current grid there are two talented drivers who have both signaled their desire to return to F1. The most obvious is Fernando Alonso, who left McLaren at the end of 2018 but has left the door open to a return ever since. He said in an interview last year that he was eyeing a move back to F1, and although no-one expected it to be via a return to Ferrari, the management at the team has changed significantly since he left under a cloud in 2014. Of course, the question remains over whether Ferrari would want the potentially explosive pairing of Leclerc and Alonso so soon after Vettel leaves the fold.
The other option is Nico Hulkenberg, who left the F1 grid at the end of last year after being replaced by Ocon at Renault. There was always a sense that Hulkenberg did not get a car to match his talent, so it would finally give one of F1’s biggest ‘what-ifs’ a shot at the big time. But Ferrari has passed up opportunities to sign the German in the past, and when the likes of Sainz and Ricciardo are on offer, Hulkenberg is unlikely to make the grade.