When Sebastian Vettel moved from Red Bull to Ferrari in 2015, his hope was to add to his four Formula 1 championships.
But five years later, Vettel is set to leave the team without achieving any of the success he had imagined after an exit that took the German driver by surprise.
Ferrari announced in May that it had “jointly decided” with Vettel not to extend his contract beyond the end of this season. Mattia Binotto, the team principal, said at the time that it was a decision that “both parties feel is for the best.”
Vettel, however, said he had received a phone call from Binotto shortly before Ferrari’s announcement informing him the team was not renewing his contract.
“It was obviously a surprise to me when I got the call from Mattia, when he told me that there was no further intention from the team to continue,” Vettel said.
“We never got into any discussions. There was never an offer on the table.”
Binotto explained that while Vettel had been Ferrari’s “first choice” in the winter, the pandemic had “changed the entire world, not only motorsport and Formula 1.”
The introduction of a budget cap that starts for 2021 and the decision to postpone the new car rules until 2022 also played a part in Ferrari’s decision.
“The entire situation has changed,” he said.
Ferrari had already been considering plans for Vettel’s departure over the winter, when it opened talks with Carlos Sainz Jr. of McLaren. His signing was announced two days after Vettel’s exit was confirmed.
Vettel is the youngest world champion in Formula 1 history, winning his first title at 23 in 2010, then driving for Red Bull. In joining Ferrari, Vettel hoped to emulate his hero, Michael Schumacher, who won five world championships for the team in the early 2000s.
Vettel was in the hunt for the world championship in 2017 and 2018, but lost to Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes.
“We’ve tried everything together to fight for the championship, which we have done on several occasions,” Vettel said.
“We did not win the championship. So in that regard, you could say that I have failed, and we have failed.
“We got close until I was halfway in some years. We then got defeated quite clearly by Mercedes and Lewis. We were not quick enough.”
Vettel has been overshadowed by his younger teammate, Charles Leclerc, who joined the team in 2019. Leclerc, a product of the Ferrari Driver Academy, won two races and outscored Vettel in the championship last year in just his second Formula 1 season.
Ferrari rewarded Leclerc for his season with a five-year contract, a clear signal that he was the driver the team’s future would be built around.
Vettel and Leclerc also had some tense moments together, notably at last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, when they crashed while fighting for position. They crashed again at this year’s Styrian Grand Prix, forcing both of them to retire from the race.
Ferrari’s 2020 season has been difficult, its car underperforming compared with last year. But while Leclerc has managed to finish on the podium twice, Vettel has finished no higher than sixth. It is his worst start to a season since 2008.
But Vettel did not call it his worst season in Formula 1. “I don’t think it is fair to label seasons or races,” he said. “It is quite difficult to make that statement, because there has only been so many races.”
The poor results had put growing pressure on Vettel, something Kimi Raikkonen, his former teammate, experienced before he was replaced by Leclerc.
“Sometimes we had bad times, and the Italians can be harsh on you on the media side, but that’s how it is,” Raikkonen said.
“But I doubt it will affect how he does his job there,” he said, referring to Vettel. “He’s been in the sport long enough to know that sometimes it’s like that, and find a way to turn it around.”
Hamilton said he was impressed by Vettel’s commitment to helping Ferrari improve its performance.
“It can never be a great feeling, to be told that you’re not wanted to continue within the team, especially when you join a team and you give your all, you give your heart,” Hamilton said.
“The way he is pushing and continuing to try to help the team shows the great character he has” and his commitment to racing.
Hamilton added that he hoped “something really positive comes up” for Vettel to keep him in Formula 1 for 2021.
At 33, Vettel is not near typical retirement age in Formula 1. Many drivers continue to race into their late 30s or early 40s.
He said he was in “loose talks” with Racing Point, which will become Aston Martin’s new Formula 1 team next year.
Otmar Szafnauer, the team principal, would say only that the driver lineup of Lance Stroll and Sergio Pérez was “still status quo” for 2021.
The team is owned by Lawrence Stroll, a billionaire whose funding helped save the team from bankruptcy and improve its on-track performance. Racing Point is currently beating Ferrari in the championship.
Vettel is weighing whether to stay in Formula 1 or take a break from racing, one that would allow him to spend more time with his family.
“I’m not in a rush,” he said. “I want to make sure that I make the right decision for myself. As much as I can, I would like to control and make sure that the conclusion for me is the right decision.”