Motorsport fans arose Thursday morning to a whole lot of interesting news. Following four-time Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel’s vacating his seat at Ferrari earlier this week, it was announced that one Carlos Sainz, Jr. would fill his seat. Within minutes of that announcement it was confirmed that the now-empty Sainz seat at McLaren would be plugged with affable Aussie Daniel Ricciardo. So where does that leave Vettel?
As far as competitive seats go, Vettel could spend his time lobbying Mercedes to take Valtteri Bottas’ seat, or a return to Red Bull, stealing Alex Albon’s. But why on earth would Vettel want to do inter-team battle with strong number ones like Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen? With McLaren’s seats full, the only other place to go would be Ricciardo’s recently vacated spot at Renault where he’d at least have some factory backing and an improving team. But are they improving fast enough?
No, none of that sounds enjoyable for a strong-willed racer like Vettel. He wants, and some might say deserves, to have a team built around him.
A few days ago the legendary Mario Andretti put out a public call for his former team Ferrari to join the IndyCar series. Many brushed it off as a way to get headlines and column inches for IndyCar and the Andretti name in the midst of a light motorsport news day. I mulled it a bit and decided that it was improbable, but that was before Vettel’s departure from the Scuderia came about.
It was also before, just a few hours ago, Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto confirmed that Scuderia Ferrari was launching an evaluation mission to evaluate joining the IndyCar grid as soon as 2022. With the coming budget restrictions in Formula One, Ferrari does not want to fire its race team employees, and could instead be launching a new project to keep them on staff. IndyCar might be just the perfect thing.
“Ferrari feels a lot of social responsibility towards its employees,” Binotto explained to SkySports Italia, “and we want to be sure that for each of them there will be a workspace in the future.
“For this reason we have started to evaluate alternative programs, and I confirm that we are looking at IndyCar, which is currently a very different category from ours [F1] but with a change of regulation scheduled in 2022 [introduction of hybrid engines]. We also observe the world of endurance racing and other series. We will try to make the best choice “.
“In recent weeks there has been a lot of discussion about the downsizing of the budget available for Formula 1 teams,” concluded Binotto, “and a conclusion has now been reached. The limit of $175 million that had been defined and voted [in 2019] will be lowered to $145m. At Ferrari we were structuring ourselves based on the budget approved last year, and the further reduction represents an important challenge that will inevitably lead to review staff, structure and organization.”
The puzzle pieces may be starting to come together. Why would Vettel announce a departure from the Ferrari F1 team only to be dumped into a middling Renault or worse? Perhaps it was the plan all along that he and Binotto would move forward with a Ferrari assault on the American open wheel series. Besides, just look at how good the current IndyCar looks in Rosso Corsa.
IndyCar has been garnering a lot of attention in Formula One circles these days with high-profile and well-recieved Fernando Alonso efforts of late. The series features a number of drivers from the F1 paddock, like Alexander Rossi, Marcus Ericsson, Sébastien Bourdais, Takuma Sato, etc. The draw of an Indy 500 win has been a draw for F1 Champions historically.
What better way for Vettel to cement his place in history as one of the greatest drivers of all time than to follow in the footsteps of legends? Vettel could go down in history with greats like Mario Andretti, Jacques Villeneuve (!), Jim Clark, and Graham Hill who won F1 championships and have their face on the Borg Warner. By building a well-funded factory-backed team around himself, Vettel could have a chance to be regarded in the same way as Nigel Mansell, who won F1 and CART titles back-to-back.
It’s not likely Vettel will find a team to allow him to ascend to the levels of Michael Schumacher or even Lewis Hamilton in F1. By leaving, Vettel can pursue new challenges, even take a step toward racing’s triple crown if that’s what he wants to do.
The going thought was that Vettel left his Ferrari seat because he was looking for a longer contract than what Ferrari were willing to give him, presumably a four-year extension. Four years is a very long time in F1, but in IndyCar that isn’t much of anything. Hell, Helio Castroneves has been contracted with Penske for 21 years! A new team is going to need some stability and a driver who is something of a constant to build a team around, and four years would be the bare minimum to get a new team up to speed.
The fact is, Vettel is 32 years old. Aside from walking anomaly Kimi Raikkonnen (40) and Lewis Hamilton (35), he’s the oldest guy on the grid. He may not have what it takes to be an F1 champion again, but he may have enough to give IndyCar a go, where folks like 39-year-old Scott Dixon are still title contenders.
Add in the fact that Vettel himself is a largely reserved person with a growing family, and it makes even more sense. The Vettel family could move to a nice quiet place in the U.S., like suburban Indianapolis. One great thing about the IndyCar championship is that it is all held within the confines of North America, and surely international travel has got to be wearing on the family. With 22 Formula One Grands Prix planned for the 2020 season (obviously not happening, but that was the plan) it would have been another busy year for the Vettels. IndyCar’s comparatively quiet 15-weekend race calendar would be a welcome respite for an seemingly tired Seb Vet.
Besides, how great would it be to watch a Ferrari vs. McLaren battle at the Brickyard? I’m 100 percent in for that potential future.