KNUTSON: Things Can Change In A Hurry

Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Like much of the world, Formula One was on lockdown in May, but that didn’t stop a seismic shift in the F-1 driver market from taking place during a very short period of time.

It started when Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel jointly announced they would not renew their contract for 2021. Vettel has been with Ferrari since 2014 but was never able to win the world championship with the famous Scuderia. 

There was rampant speculation about who would replace Vettel, but it soon ended with the announcement that the talented Carlos Sainz would leave McLaren and go to Ferrari on a two-year contract. The other main candidate for the job — Daniel Ricciardo — then decided he would leave Renault and head to McLaren on a long-term contract.

The situation for the “other” driver at Ferrari is tricky. Ferrari made it clear that its No. 1 driver is Charles Leclerc when the team signed him through the end of 2024. Vettel felt unloved.

But both Ricciardo and Sainz have had good relationships with young, fast teammates — Max Verstappen and Lando Norris, respectively — and have been able to handle the situation. So why did Ferrari choose Sainz? 

I’m guessing it is because he had yet to win a grand prix. Ricciardo has won, and that automatically would have put him on an equal status with Leclerc. I’m not saying Sainz will accept a No. 2 driver role, but the team dynamics will be different with a Leclerc/Sainz partnership compared to that of Leclerc/Ricciardo.

Once the world of F-1 gets going again, Ricciardo will be asked why he left Renault after just two years to go to McLaren. At the Canadian Grand Prix last June, I asked him if he had any regrets about leaving the winning Red Bull team to join Renault in 2019.

“As soon as you said, ‘Was there any time,’ I knew that was going to be the question,” he said. “And really, really hand on heart, no regrets. It is like a gut feeling. If you know you have done something the right way … as soon as I made the call in August, I was like, ‘Wow,’ and whatever stress I was carrying, it felt like it was gone. I get asked about this and people say look at Max (Verstappen at Red Bull) this year — he has had a couple podiums and you are far from the podium. This is not criticizing Red Bull, but that is what they have been doing the last five years. 

“At this time last year, I had won two races (in China and Monaco) already with them and they had only had two podiums in the first part of this season,” Ricciardo added. “So I would not be any better off staying there. That is really my argument. And the truth is unless you are at Mercedes no other driver on the grid is completely happy right now because Mercedes are dominant. I definitely do not regret it. Even though we have not had amazing results, I am actually really happy with the Renault team and happy with what I am seeing.”

During the six days of preseason testing in Spain earlier this year, Ricciardo was still very positive about Renault’s potential. But he must have had misgivings. Not about the money — he earned more than $40 million in 2019 and 2020 — but about Renault’s long-term potential. Enough misgivings that he gave up a ride with a manufacturer team to drive for an independent team that last won the world championship in 2008 and last won a race in 2012.

There had been speculation Lewis Hamilton might switch from Mercedes to Ferrari, but the Sainz announcement put an end to that. Hamilton has three choices: Stay at Mercedes, which I am sure he will do, take a sabbatical or retire.

So what does Vettel do? 

He is only 32 years old, so he has plenty of racing years still left in him. Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff is on record that Vettel must be considered. But why ruin the harmonious relationship between Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas?

The only obvious seat for Vettel would be at Renault. But then Fernando Alonso might make a return to F-1 and return to Renault for a third time.

For now, everything is in a holding pattern, but the Sainz and Ricciardo announcements proved that things can get unlocked in a hurry.