Motorsport: The Outside Shot That Could Take Vettel’s Seat At Ferrari

The Outside Shot That Could Take Vettel’s Seat At Ferrari

James Gent By James Gent
May 12, 2020
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It’s not too often that Petrolicious reports on driver swaps in Formula 1, but the announcement that Sebastian Vettel will part company with Ferrari at the end of 2020 has sent shockwaves rippling through the motorsport community. Whether the four-time World Champion will simply hang up his helmet and bid adieu to Formula 1, for the time being at least, remains to be seen, though rumours and speculation have been positively dripping from the pitwall that Vettel could yet end up with Renault or even Aston Martin Racing for 2021.

The other, more crucial question concerns his eventual replacement at Maranello, and the internet hasn’t been shy with its suggestions.

Daniel Ricciardo for instance was immediately in the crosshairs. The Australian, more than familiar with the sharp end of the grid after scoring seven Grand Prix wins with Red Bull Racing between 2014 and 2018, is into his final season of a two-year contract with Renault, a move that, so far, has born limited fruit. 4th place at Monza was the highlight of 2019, and bar a giant leap forward that somehow went unnoticed during pre-season testing, the team could be equally as rudderless in 2020. A lifeline back to the front of the F1 grid, and with a team with which the Italian-speaking Aussie has long since been linked, would certainly be deserved for a driver of Ricciardo’s speed and racecraft. That it could conceivably snap social media in half in the process would also be something to look forward to.

There are a couple of speed bumps in the Honey Badger’s way though, chief among them being Charles Leclerc. Now under contract until 2024 at least and with the Ferrari team fully around him after felling a former World Champion in his first season at Maranello, it seems unlikely the young Monégasque driver will want a tenured Grand Prix driver in the sister car gunning for the title he’s rarely been shy to talk about. On top of that, we all remember what happened the last time a young up-and-comer lined up alongside Daniel Ricciardo…

Carlos Sainz Jr is another name doing the rounds, the young Spaniard ending an impressive campaign in 2019 by finishing ‘best of the rest’ in the standings in 6th and claiming his maiden podium in Brazil. His stock has never been higher. It also wasn’t that long ago, lest we forget, that Sainz was being touted (ish) for the Red Bull seat vacated by Pierre Gasly halfway through last season upon the latter’s demotion to Toro Rosso.

But again, there are potential pitfalls. Walking away from a soon-to-be-Mercedes-engined McLaren that finally looks to be getting its act together is a gamble, given that, alongside Lando Norris, Sainz has proven himself a capable team leader, something that could work against him at ‘Leclerc’s team’. That Ferrari would also be signing a driver from outside its driver development program raises further question marks: how long is Maranello willing to wait for instance before it plucks a certain ‘M.Schumacher’ from Formula 2 ahead of his inevitable Alfa Romeo and Ferrari F1 tenures? One year? Two years? Either way, it certainly won’t be Leclerc’s seat that’s on the chopping block when the time comes.

A one-year deal then probably beckons for the 2021 hopeful. Okay, how about Fernando Alonso?

Stop laughing at the back, you know this makes sense!

The reigning World Endurance Champion is a former two-time title holder in Formula 1 whose speed is beyond question, who’s keen to get back in a race-winning car in F1, and, at 38 years of age, is eying one last hurrah in F1 with all the motivation that goes with that. Granted, a few burnt bridges following the Spaniard’s five-year stint with Maranello from 2010 to 2014 could kibosh that plan before it even gets going.

Kimi Raikkonen? Another former World Champion, another race winner with Ferrari re-proving his worth, and, at 40 years old, potentially open to a one or two-year contract? Sure, but is the Finn willing to give up the more family-friendly home base at Hinwil, a stone’s throw from his home, for the team that sacked him the day before he took pole position at Monza in 2018? Giovanazzi? Hmm, too raw, needs some more development time in the midfield. Kubica? We can all dream, but, c’mon now…

Who then? Who on the F1 grid could Ferrari place in its hallowed second seat alongside their de factor number one for 2021 without rocking the boat? Who is a former podium finisher, could regularly score points in the Constructors’ Championship chase, and already has a working relationship with the Scuderia?

Daniil Kvyat.

Yep, you did read that correctly. No, I’ve not taken leave of my senses, and yes, the rest of the Petrolicious office also thinks I’ve gone barking mad. Still, just think…

The Russian’s F1 track record is, admittedly, spotty at best. In his first full season with Toro Rosso in 2014, Daniil Kvyat proved a solid if intermittently reckless teammate to future Formula E champion, Jean-Eric Vergne, before being promoted to Red Bull for 2015. That the Russian replaced an outgoing Sebastian Vettel on that occasion too offers a nice bit of symmetry, but I’ll admit I’m clutching at finite straws there.

In 2015, Kvyat took his first podium in Hungary, finished 4th at Monaco behind only championship-contenders Hamilton, Rosberg and Vettel after a mature drive, and even outscored Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo, 95 to 92, throughout the season. Admittedly, poor luck for the Australian and the Russian’s occasionally ham-fisted nature in traffic meant this should be taken with a herculean pinch of salt. Indeed, it was this same ‘spirited’ nature that led to Kyvat being bumped back to Toro Rosso after just four races in 2016. Dejected, and outpaced on his return to Faenza, he was gone altogether before season’s end. Even a rumoured deal with Williams fell flat.

Against all the odds though, the phoenix rose from the ashes of Kvyat’s Grand Prix career, due in no small part to the good graces he’d earned as a development driver with Ferrari in 2018. Feeling “stronger and better prepared than when [he] left Toro Rosso”, the returning Kvyat was a different beast to the crestfallen ‘torpedo’ that disappeared after a humiliating one-off race at Texas in 2017, as points in his first race back immediately proved. True, a clumsy coming together with the McLarens in China and a clash with a reversing Daniel Ricciardo in Azerbaijan gave his detractors plenty of ammunition, but come Canada, Kvyat had scored points in all but three of the opening seven races. At a chaotic, rain-affected Germany, he took a shock podium with Toro Rosso, the first driver since Sebastian Vettel to do so, incidentally.

Yes, an excellent performance by then teammate Alex Albon left many wondering if the Thai-born Brit would have been more deserving of the result. Immaterial. Kyvat had been there to pick up the pieces when it mattered, something his 2016-era alter-ego most certainly would not.

Though the return of Pierre Gasly (and a particularly motivated one at that) meant the Russian suffered another wobble towards the end of 2019 might count against him, Daniil Kvyat could yet spring another surprise in his 95-Grand Prix career should the prancing horse whinny in his direction. Managed by Nicolas Todt – son of former Ferrari supremo Jean and also manager of Charles Leclerc, interestingly – the Russian still boasts strong connections with Maranello, and has not been shy about a possible return down the line. We may be reading a bit too much into an interview earlier this year with Gazzetta dello Sport – “Do I think of going to Ferrari in 2021? The important thing is to do well where you are, then in the future you never know” – but, PR speak aside, the thought is on his mind. On top of that, a berth in Maranello’s sports car division would be a good fit for the Russian when his one or two year F1 stint in scarlet comes to a close. Compared with, say, an AlphaTauri seat that almost certainly will not yield a Red Bull Racing return anytime soon.

 

Make no mistake, while not a future World Champion – let’s not go nuts here – Kvyat could be the ‘Irvine’ Ferrari so sorely needs after 11 years of near misses, a comment that’s much less brutal that it sounds. A development driver par excellence, the Russian played a big hand in the burgeoning relationship between Toro Rosso and Honda, and showed with his many hours in the simulator at Maranello that he’s not afraid to put the work in. Not a Ricciardo hell bent on proving he can finally get the job done in his 10th year in the sport. Not a Sainz still looking to prove himself as a team leader. Not an Alonso, who…well, you get the idea. What better support could Ferrari’s next World Champion want?

Prone to the occasional tantrum (we all remember “that’s bullshit, that’s unbelievable, f**k this” after losing 10th in Texas to a post-race penalty) and with a Grand Prix career marred by incidents and the occasional demotion, Daniil Kvyat could realistically begin life anew, albeit for just a year or two, in Formula 1 for the third time in his career. Yes, it’s an outside shot, and a gamble. But then, so was Charles Leclerc. And that didn’t turn out quite badly, did it?

*Images courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool, Ferrari, McLaren and Renault

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