Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has refused to rule out signing Sebastian Vettel for next year, but says his priority remains with keeping the drivers he currently has at the team.
Vettel, a four-time world champion, recently announced he would leave Ferrari at the end of the year, putting himself on the market for a switch to a rival team in 2021. Red Bull has already rejected suggestions of pairing him with Max Verstappen, but Mercedes, which currently has no drivers under contract for 2021, has been careful to keep the door open.
Wolff said he was not simply showing respect to Vettel by keeping him as an option, but actually considers him a genuine candidate should options on Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas or Mercedes-contracted Williams driver George Russell fall through.
"First of all, it is not lip service because we owe it to a four-time world champion not to come out and say straight away 'no' -- you need to think about it," Wolff told a conference call with select media on Wednesday. "On the other side, we have a fantastic line-up and I am happy with both our drivers and George, but you never know, one may decide he doesn't want to go racing anymore and suddenly you have a vacant spot."
At the end of 2016, newly crowned world champion Nico Rosberg left Mercedes with two years left to run on his contract. He was replaced by Bottas for 2017, but the team was left in an uncertain position over the winter, and Wolff said ruling out Vettel at this stage could result in a repeat.
"That's why I don't want to come out in June and say 'No chance, Sebastian' and that he is not racing for us. First of all, I wouldn't do it to him as a driver -- to be that blunt -- and on the other side, I have seen black swans appearing when nobody expected. Remember Nico Rosberg?
"So in that perspective we are just keeping our options open but of course concentrating our discussions on our current drivers."
Hamilton is expected to renew his contract with Mercedes, but Wolff said neither side has pushed to get a deal done during the hiatus in racing caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
"We didn't see each other over lockdown, we were in different parts of the world, but we were in very regular contact, but we didn't work on any agreement," Wolff said. "Between us there is a lot of trust. We have been together for a long time, and never in these years together have we had to take the contract out and actually read what was written in there, as it comes so naturally.
"Once racing resumes we're going to spend some time together, dig the contract out of the cupboard, look at the timings and the numbers and the rights and hopefully have something pretty soon."
Wolff's future at Mercedes
Wolff's own contract is also due to expire at the end of the season, which, combined with a recent investment in Aston Martin, has led to speculation he might leave the team for a new role elsewhere. Wolff, who owns 30% of the Mercedes F1 team, said he has been in talks with parent company Daimler about how his role might develop, but that he still has "the best intentions" to stay with the team.
"Something I am really proud of in our team is that we have always transitioned senior members of the team into different roles, we have brought up talent, and the same applies to me," he said. "I have been lucky enough to be at the helm of Mercedes since the start of 2014, and with years that I wouldn't want to miss. I really enjoyed the interaction and working with all of my friends, at the F1 team, and at Daimler, and this is something I wouldn't want to miss.
"Nevertheless, I need to question myself. I don't want to become a team principal who goes from great to good without realising that he's maybe not adding as much anymore to the team as he did in the beginning. I still feel I can add a lot, but of course I'm contemplating my future, I'm in discussion with [CEO Ola Kallenius] about how that goes.
"It's not a simple employment contract, it involves a shareholding. We're in the midst of the process in carving our joint future, so I don't want to stick to some particular wording, whether that's team principal or managing director, that plays no role. To be honest with you, I haven't taken any decision yet, as we haven't even started racing yet."