Sebastian Vettel joined Ferrari as a four-time world champion in 2015 looking to emulate his boyhood hero Michael Schumacher and rack up multiple titles with F1's most famous team. But a remarkable fall from grace in the intervening five years now leaves his F1 future in doubt and the genuine possibility of a quiet retirement from the sport at the age of just 32.
On Tuesday, a joint statement confirmed the 2020 F1 season -- should it go ahead -- will be Vettel's last for Ferrari and the four-time champion admitted the recent hiatus in racing due to the coronavirus has led him to reflect on what he wants from his future. His options appear to be slim and fairly undesirable compared to Ferrari, but it seems entirely possible that the father of three could bow out of Formula One at the end of the year.
So how did it come to this? Vettel was F1's hottest property in 2013 -- a seemingly unbeatable force after becoming F1's youngest champion in 2010 with plenty more potential for success ahead of him. He was the perfect fit for Ferrari when relations with Fernando Alonso broke down in 2014. Yet, five years later and driver and team could not reach an agreement to extend his contract.
In Vettel's defence, those five years have represented a turbulent time for Ferrari as it has churned through three team principals without title success and lost its autocratic chairman Sergio Marchionne in 2018. Vettel has been one of the few constants in that time, but his own form has let him down in recent years and, with the rise of Charles Leclerc as his teammate last year, it is not a surprise that he and Ferrari have decided to part ways.
The partnership between driver and team started well, with Ferrari returning to winning ways in 2015 after a dire 2014 campaign in which it scored just a single podium. The 2016 season saw another slump for Ferrari, but by 2017 Vettel had a car capable of winning the championship. Key moments that decided the title in favour of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton included a collision with teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen in Singapore and a faulty spark plug that caused an engine misfire on the way to the grid at the Japanese Grand Prix.
The 2018 season offered another chance for Vettel to challenge for the title, but on that occasion he was found lacking. The key turning point was the German Grand Prix, in which he crashed while leading the race, costing him victory on home soil and an extension to his lead in the championship at that stage. Hamilton swept through the atrocious conditions to take the win and mounted a charge towards another title.
Last year, Ferrari replaced Raikkonen with Leclerc as Vettel's teammate and the dynamic within the team shifted away from the four-time world champion. Vettel started the season as the de-facto No.1 and a pre-season agreement saw him given preference in strategy calls and via team orders. But the car was lacking performance in the first half of the season and it was Leclerc, and not Vettel, who broke Ferrari's duck with victory in Belgium and a home win in Italy a week later.
The race at Monza was a key moment in the Leclerc/Vettel relationship as the younger driver failed to aid his teammate with a slipstream in qualifying, something which initially angered Ferrari's management, but then redeemed himself by holding off a two-pronged attack from Mercedes for an emotional victory the following day. By contrast, Vettel spun out of contention for a podium early in the race with an embarrassing mistake at the Ascari chicane and only regained a modicum of his standing with a strategy-aided victory ahead of Leclerc at the following round in Singapore.
A collision between the Ferrari drivers in Brazil only added to the pressure on Vettel, who was more obviously to blame for the accident and under pressure to reassert himself at the team. Amid suggestions in the media the collision would be the final nail in the coffin of Vettel's relationship with Ferrari, the slate appeared to be wiped clear over the winter. Leclerc was tied to the team on a contract for another five years, but at the launch of the car in February, Ferrari named Vettel as its top choice to partner him in 2021. Since then, the coronavirus pandemic means no racing has taken place this year, and it seems that time at home has given Vettel plenty to think about.
As recently as April, Vettel said he still planned to drive for Ferrari next year, but by mid-May the situation had clearly changed. After reports in Italy claimed he had been offered a dramatic cut in his salary, Vettel was keen to point out that the money was not the reason for his decision. More likely it was the length of the contract on offer, believed to be just a single year, which would have marked him out as a de-facto No.2 to Leclerc and a complete reversal of the situation at the start of the 2019 season. The statement from Ferrari made clear that it was a mutual decision and it is possible that, after five years of trying, Vettel simply believed it was time to move on.
The news begs the obvious question of whether Vettel has an offer from another team. The only possibility that would see him end up at one of the other two top teams -- Mercedes and Red Bull -- is if Hamilton left Mercedes for Ferrari. It's a tantalising prospect, but the reigning champion has strongly hinted that he will remain at Mercedes in recent months. A move back to Red Bull appears to have a certain logic from Vettel's point of view, but Verstappen now rules the roost at the team and Red Bull has shown no intention of buying in a big name driver to partner him despite struggling to replace Daniel Ricciardo when he left for Renault in 2019.
That would then leave McLaren and Renault as options for Vettel, especially as their existing drivers -- Carlos Sainz and Ricciardo, respectively -- are strong candidates to replace Vettel at Ferrari. But both teams are still some way off Ferrari in terms of performance and they would represent a clear step backwards into F1's midfield for Vettel. They harbour ambitions of moving up the grid in 2022 when new regulations could shake up the order, but it would mean Vettel committing to another long-term project to reap championship rewards.
Vettel's official comment on Tuesday left all options -- including retirement -- open.
"What's been happening in these past few months has led many of us to reflect on what are our real priorities in life," he said. "One needs to use one's imagination and to adopt a new approach to a situation that has changed. I myself will take the time I need to reflect on what really matters when it comes to my future."