Since Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari exit was confirmed and the door at McLaren was shut, speculation about his place in the Formula 1 driver market has focused on whether he could move to Mercedes.
Initially, there was a suggestion that he could swap seats with Lewis Hamilton. But with Carlos Sainz Jr confirmed at Ferrari on a two-year from 2021, there’s now a faint din calling for Mercedes to replace Valtteri Bottas and sign Vettel alongside its six-time world champion.
It would be an all-star line-up, boasting 10 titles and 137 victories – statistically the most successful driver pairing in grand prix history. Those searching for some sign that the move could be on or keen to fan the flames have grasped at the opportunity afforded by Mercedes boss Toto Wolff’s comments in the Austrian and German media.
“No good team will simply ignore it if a four-time world champion suddenly appears on the transfer market,” Wolff has reportedly said.
“A German driver in a German car would be a good marketing story.”
What some people have missed is the addendum: “But first and foremost, we are only focused on performance.”
There’s a clear subtext to these comments, and others Wolff has made in public about Vettel.
Wolff’s words acknowledge Vettel’s a free agent, with a great CV, but they also politely sidestep any interest by reiterating that the priorities are Hamilton and Bottas, then its protégé George Russell, who is at Williams.
Nonetheless, Wolff has been respectful of Vettel’s talents. He has made the connection that it is a good fit on one level: Germany’s second-most successful F1 driver and its most successful team.
If Mercedes was to seriously consider Vettel, how would it decide? And how would Vettel fare in that process?
We can make certain assumptions about what Mercedes needs from its drivers, but Wolff has also provided a good list of factors.
Speaking in a Mercedes video published last weekend, Wolff said that when assessing drivers there are two sides: data and personality.
“You look at race results, back into the junior formulas, you look at comparison with team-mates, and how these team-mates then compared to other people,” said Wolff.
“Then there is the personality side, that’s very important. How would the driver fit into the team structure? How would the dynamic be with his team-mate? Who could be the teammate? What’s the plan for the future?”
That provides a decent idea of the criteria Mercedes will consider for its line-up.
So, how does Vettel stack up?
This is not a positive outcome for Vettel if it is weighted towards his recent form. He won just once in 2019 and cost himself victories on other occasions.
However, analysis would likely go back further than judging one specific environment. How did he fare prior to Leclerc’s arrival? He wasn’t on Hamilton’s level, but he was very good. The Vettel of 2015-2018 (well, the first half of 2018) would almost certainly be a strong asset.
A fresh start may bring the best out of him, too – Vettel’s ex-Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost thinks there’s still a title in him.
“He’s only 32 years old, he’s a very high-skilled driver, and if he gets the correct package, if he’s sitting in a Ferrari, Red Bull or Mercedes, he’s still able to win races,” reckons Tost.
“And I’m also quite sure he can win another championship. It depends on which team he can drive for.”
Wolff characterised this as looking back into the junior formulas but we can interpret this to be more relevant to someone like Russell, who otherwise only has one season of F1 to be judged on.
For Vettel this would likely be viewed in the context of his entire career. His status as a four-time world champion makes him a rare option. His track record of winning in different cars is also impressive.
This could yield a positive verdict for Vettel. He’s proven himself adept at moving between two top teams already, and has tremendous pedigree that carries commercial weight – hence the “good marketing story” line.
Comparison with team-mates
This element would undermine confidence in Vettel’s ability to rediscover form in a more positive environment.
He was comfortably the big dog at Red Bull in 2014 but was beaten quite resoundingly by new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in a tricky car.
And in 2019, Charles Leclerc didn’t need much time at all to bring himself to Vettel’s level. In the second half of the season, Vettel slipped behind his new team-mate.
When things are not in Vettel’s favour, he appears weak. Up against Hamilton he would be exposed and under pressure. Bottas’s impressive qualifying form would likewise pose a serious challenge.
How would he fit into the team?
Ignoring the team-mate factor, which we will approach separately, the answer to this is surely ‘very well’.
His work ethic and his awareness of the need to integrate effectively into a team would blend very well with the ethos Wolff espouses at Mercedes.
Mercedes must fancy its chances of extracting the most from Vettel, like Red Bull did, by providing him a supportive environment that shuns a blame culture.
Plus, Vettel’s current team boss Mattia Binotto, reckons “he’s so passionate about this sport” and “he’ll want to get back into it”.
And the opportunity to win again would give Vettel every motivation to make the best of a Mercedes opportunity.
On the other hand is the fact that Vettel works best and is used to driving the direction of a car and has a specific set of objectives, which would not necessarily be entirely compatible with the way Mercedes builds around Hamilton.
Speaking of which…
What would be the dynamic with his team-mate?
This ties together with “who could the team-mate be?”, so we’ll address them as one.
Mercedes doesn’t do number one or number two denominations. But if it did, Vettel would have no chance of being the number one if he was alongside Hamilton.
Alongside Bottas it would perhaps be different, but Bottas would fancy his chances of using his established position within the team to assert authority.
In terms of their respective relationships, Bottas a no-fuss driver. He’s not interested in playing games, has no history of it and actively rails against the suggestion when asked about it.
Hamilton is a slightly different prospect. Not because he would want to manipulate the situation but because of how he responds to whoever is alongside him.
Against Alonso and Rosberg, a tense battle for on-track supremacy manifested itself in a strained relationship. Against Heikki Kovalainen and Bottas, Hamilton has had an inherent advantage that lends itself to a more harmonious dynamic.
Jenson Button was somewhere in the middle. The two were not friends, sometimes there were spikes of something¸ but it was generally a productive working relationship.
Vettel’s not afraid to throw his weight around or act selfishly, which would risk a clash with Hamilton.
But there has always been a mutual respect between the two, particularly during the 2017 and 2018 title fights. Hamilton has even fought Vettel’s corner at times.
And if Hamilton enjoyed a baked-in advantage over a slightly frail Vettel stepping into Hamilton’s team, that would also reduce the chance of fireworks.
What’s the plan for the future?
Until we know the nature of Mercedes’ commitment to F1, this is slightly tricky to answer – but there’s every reason to expect it’s in F1 beyond the short-term.
That means Mercedes is likely looking at two things: how to get the most out of Hamilton until he retires, and how to replace him thereafter.
At 32, Vettel probably doesn’t represent a long-term prospect. George Russell, a decade his junior, does.
So if Mercedes believes Russell is capable of winning a world championship, and Bottas continues to perform at his 2019 peak, then even in a post-Hamilton world Mercedes probably doesn’t need Vettel.
Especially as it also retains an interest in Esteban Ocon, currently at Renault.
Mercedes has made it clear that its current drivers are the priority and that immediately puts Vettel at a disadvantage.
Wolff says he has not spoken to Bottas during lockdown but is happy to see the Finn in a strong position in his personal life. Hamilton and Wolff are in fairly regular communication, chiefly by WhatsApp.
Though there has been no progress on a new deal for Hamilton since pre-season, both parties expressed a desire to continue working together, and said negotiations would take place in due course.
There is also no real reason to expect that to change, now Hamilton’s best alternative (if Ferrari was ever a serious one) has nailed its colours to the mast.
Retaining the same line-up of Hamilton and Bottas makes sense for Mercedes given the car carry-over to 2021. Especially if Bottas can replicate, or build, on his career-best 2019 season.
Consistency will be beneficial and there’s no real harm to Russell’s career to have 2.5 seasons with Williams instead of two (given this year is significantly impacted already).
Wolff says that when all the factors are considered, they are discussed “in a forum and everybody gives his opinion”.
“And most often, everybody within that group has the same opinion anyway,” he adds.
One would imagine that opinion will not be in Vettel’s favour.