• Sebastian Vettel ends his contract with Ferrari at the end of the 2020 F1 season.
• He has no race seat signed for next year.
• The Racing Point team has suddenly become a viable option.
• For more motoring stories, go to www.Wheels24.co.za
Isn't it ironic that all the silliness of F1's silly season starts and ends with one person?
One can only speculate where Sebastian Vettel's head was at following the announcement of his divorce from Ferrari at the beginning of May, which eventually cracked under unreasonable expectations from both sides. Apart from the sheer sense of indignation at being snubbed through Ferrari's declaration over Christmas that they'd bet the house on Charles Leclerc by extending his contract until 2024, Vettel had lost control of his destiny in F1.
Image: AFP / Andrej Isakovic
Being a cog in the process, instead of controlling it, is the most painful reminder of how quickly things move on when you're no longer in demand.
If denial is an initial stage of grief, then certainly Vettel did not immediately fully appreciate how far his star had fallen – or how limited his options for 2021 would turn out to be.
Top sportspeople are annoyingly proud and ego-driven; relentless in their self-belief. To his mind, as a four-time champion and the second-highest paid driver in the sport, he could only consider two outcomes: a return to a title-ready Red Bull-Honda or, after being bolstered by official statements that the Daimler board fancies a German-speaking driver, the all-conquering Mercedes team.
But it's doubtful that even in the once-astute Vettel's mind, however clouded it might have been at the time, that the opportunities he coveted at Red Bull or Mercedes could ever be thought to be realistic. Financially and politically, top teams can no longer afford to do superstar driver pairings.
The texts from the Ferrari HR department to return his company car come year-end instead of trying to sell it, are a stark reminder of that.
Whichever was the more attainable prospect of a seat at either Red Bull or Mercedes, it seems Vettel had harboured higher hopes of finding employment at Stuttgart.
Image: GettyImages/Charles Coates
The up-to-very-recently-jobless-for-2021 Valtteri Bottas has been a perennial year-by-year hire, and team boss Toto Wolff might have inadvertently sparked further hope for the Vettel camp by politely acknowledging the German driver's newly-acquired employment status when quizzed about his 2021 line-up.
But it would soon turn out he was only flattering to deceive. The next option was Daniel Ricciardo's vacant seat at Renault once he had bailed for McLaren. Although there were talks, Vettel probably knows that if he ever wanted to step onto a post-race podium again, such a move makes the least sense.
What he needs in 2021 – or beyond – is not money, but another title to soothe the pain from the near-misses in 2017 and 2018. With the poorest-performing engine in F1; a reluctance to invest in R&D and defeat by its own customer team in 2019, the humdrum Renault F1 team only exists as an also-ran as much its prospect of ever breaking into the top three is pie in the sky.
It's little wonder Ricciardo parachuted over to McLaren in a matter of hours once the Sainz seat became available. If only someone told Fernando Alonso that before he signed with Renault for 2021 and 2022.
As the news first of broke of Alonso's return from the dead, later followed by that of Bottas' contract extension for 2021 at Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel's options for staying in F1 had shrunk to none. Other than to opt out for a year and pray for a miracle in the drivers' market at the end of 2021, which may turn out to be forever as it did for Mika Häkkinen after taking his sabbatical in 2002.
Only the Mercedes connection did not completely die if ultimately, not quite unfolding in the way that Vettel could have foreseen. Somewhere between the two Austrian races held earlier this month, it emerged that the Mercedes-powered Racing Point had reached out to Vettel for talks over a 2021 drive.
And he may well be seriously considering it.
Why? F1 may exist in a seemingly impenetrable bubble, but would cease to do so were it not for its links to the automotive world outside: without the buy-in of the boards of Mercedes, Fiat (which owns Ferrari), Renault and Honda, there simply wouldn't be engines in F1.
Over time there have been varying degrees of interest from the Daimler Group in the Aston Martin sportscar manufacturer; the former of which holds a 5% share in the company and Toto Wolff owning about another 1%; while the Mercedes-AMG twin-turbo V8 engine powers the Aston Martin Vantage and DB11 road cars.
Earlier this year, Racing Point's billionaire owner, Lawrence Stroll, bought nearly 20% of Aston Martin and has high hopes for when Racing Point transforms to the Aston Martin F1 team in 2021. That would most certainly require a driver with the requisite gravitas, marketability and skills that his current line-up lacks.
Furthermore, the Aston Martin Lagonda holding company has suffered a raft of financial setbacks over the past two years, including poor sales and low profitability, consequently burning through cash, taking on more debt and seeing its share price tank by 85%.
At the end of May, Stroll sacked CEO Andy Palmer. His replacement? Mercedes-AMG head Tobias Moers.
This is not the first time that such rumours have arisen: could it be that Daimler plans to, over time, gobble up Aston Martin to strengthen the hand of its own sportscar division?
At the same time, the global automotive economy is in dire straits; corporates can no longer be seen to be dallying in zero-return, cash-hungry vanity projects such as F1. No manufacturer – other than Ferrari – stays in F1 indefinitely.
The 'Pink Mercs', better known as Racing Point. Image: Clive Mason / Getty Images
One day that fate will befall the current Mercedes F1 team which, after six successive drivers and constructor's crowns and a guaranteed seventh double-title in 2020, a lack of foreseeably strong opposition on track for the next 18 months and the corresponding diminishing marketing returns, will also inevitably consider moving on.
But Aston Martin, which is a niche manufacturer and a majority shareholder who happens to own its F1 team in his private capacity and doesn't need to kneel for any other man making financial demands, suffers no such pressures. Also, if the Moers move seems like a deployment rather than a departure from Mercedes, then the Aston Martin F1 team retains close ties with Mercedes even after Team Toto has left town.
And while what will remain won't be a Mercedes-branded team, nor an outright Mercedes factory effort, Vettel will get his drive in the best-placed Mercedes team and Daimler their German driver – if it still matters to them by that time. If you don't get to date the cheerleader, then surely her younger sister can't be too bad when she shares the same genes?
Such a scenario may take several years to play out, and by the time it does happen, Vettel may well have retired; or not. His decision may also be swayed at seeing the podium-finishing potential of the controversial, but blindingly quick, Racing Point RP20 this year.
If the FIA declares the "Pink Mercedes" legal following Renault's earlier protest of the RP20's alleged copies of the brake ducts of last year's championship-winning Mercedes W10, that form is set to carry over to 2021 as part of a cost-cutting development freeze which will lock in the cars' performance.
Certainly compared to his 2020 Ferrari's appalling pace, which is now locked in for the next 18 months (and conversely, the speed of the RP20) owing to an FIA-mandated cost-saving tech freeze; the Racing Point seat already seems like an alluring prospect.
Quo vadis, Sebastian? (Where are you going, Sebastian?)