Sebastian Vettel holds the key to the 2021 Formula 1 driver market and his future remains one of the biggest talking points amid the coronavirus-related hiatus.

With the likes of Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc inking new deals over the winter and Lewis Hamilton expected to remain at Mercedes beyond the end of the year, Vettel is now left as the pivotal piece in setting off the 2021 driver jigsaw puzzle.

Vettel has been in talks with Ferrari over a new contract and as recently as last week revealed there is a “high chance” an extension would be agreed before racing gets underway in 2020.

Ferrari has repeatedly insisted that the four-time world champion remains their number one option for 2021 despite speculation linking Hamilton with a sensational switch to Maranello.

Such talk has cooled in recent months and Hamilton moved to firmly distance himself from the rumours on Monday when he denied any possibility of him leaving his “dream team” at Mercedes to join Ferrari next year.

A continuation with Vettel appeared a foregone conclusion for Ferrari - that was until reports in Italian media surfaced on Tuesday suggesting that contract negotiations had actually hit a snag with the German not keen on accepting a one-year deal on a significantly reduced salary.

According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Ferrari has set a budget for a one-year extension for Vettel and the Scuderia is said to be lining up three potential replacements if he rejects the terms.

Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz and Antonio Giovinazzi are the three candidates Ferrari is understood to have drawn up as back-ups.

But how likely is it that one of them could end up in the famous scarlet overalls in 2021?

Daniel Ricciardo

Like Vettel, Ricciardo also has a major decision to make over his F1 future as he comes to the end of an initial two-year deal with Renault.

Having shocked the F1 world by leaving Red Bull to sign for Renault in 2019, the Australian endured a disappointing maiden season at the French manufacturer as it slipped behind midfield rival McLaren to fifth place in the constructors’ championship.

Ricciardo would have wanted to see some serious improvement from Renault this year if he was going to commit to a fresh long-term deal, with the team pinning much of its focus on a return to winning ways on the planned 2021 regulation overhaul.

This scenario has since been complicated by the COVID-19 crisis that has jeopardised the start of the season and resulted in F1’s subsequent decision to delay the technical rules revamp by a year. With teams now forced to carry over their 2020 chassis into 2021, there is little realistic scope for Renault to close the gap to the top three teams before 2022.

EDITOR'S PICKS: Why a Vettel-Ricciardo swap for F1 2021 makes sense

That is bad news for Ricciardo, who now at 30 years of age, does not have time on his side in his quest to add to his seven grand prix victories en route to becoming an F1 world champion.

Ricciardo provided an update on his future last week, admitting to Sky Sports that talks have stalled due to the lack of racing, while he did not dismiss the idea of a possible return to Red Bull.

Clearly, Ricciardo is keeping his options open. He has long been linked to Ferrari and would be an attractive fit alongside Leclerc, with additional benefits coming in the form of his happy-go-lucky character and the fact he is fluent in Italian. For Ricciardo, the move would make sense and would put him in a position in which he could surely fight for world titles.

A Ferrari-Ricciardo partnership is a real possibility - he must be viewed as the Scuderia’s leading target in the event of a Vettel departure.

Carlos Sainz

Sainz’s move to McLaren was perfectly-timed. After years lagging in midfield obscurity at Toro Rosso and Renault, the Spaniard flew from the Red Bull nest at the end of 2018 to become part of McLaren’s rebuilding project to get back to winning ways in F1.

Off the back of a disastrous partnership with Honda and a number of uncompetitive seasons, moving to McLaren was a risk, not least because Sainz gave up the prospect of landing a Red Bull seat.

But the gamble paid off handsomely as McLaren enjoyed its most successful season of the V6 hybrid era to date in 2019, convincingly beating Renault to top the midfield order and emerge as the closest threat to the leading trio of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Sainz finally had the opportunity to underline his potential and grabbed it with both hands. A remarkably consistent and impressive campaign - topped off with a maiden podium in Brazil - enabled Sainz to secure his best-ever career finish in sixth spot in the drivers’ championship.

While he is very happy and settled at McLaren, while also beginning new contract talks with the Woking squad, Sainz’s rising stock will have caught the attention of the top teams.

Entering his seventh F1 season at the age of 25, Sainz has already collected an impressive amount of experience under his belt while still boasting time on his side. He would be a more than solid option for Ferrari to partner alongside the ever-improving Leclerc, who would be expected to mount a sustained title charge in his second year at the team as he looks to carry the Italian outfit’s hopes for years to come.

The lure of a seat at F1’s most famous and successful team - and the potential to fight for world championships sooner rather than later - would understandably prove too much of a tantalising offer for Sainz to turn down if Ferrari did come calling.

Antonio Giovinazzi

The final name on Ferrari’s reported three-man shortlist is a driver the team already knows very well. Giovinazzi is highly thought of at Ferrari and has been on the Scuderia’s books since 2016 after he finished runner-up to Pierre Gasly in GP2.

Although Giovinazzi has not burst onto the F1 scene in the same kind of sensational manner that Leclerc arrived from back-to-back title triumphs in GP3 and Formula 2, he has still greatly impressed Ferrari, particularly with his efforts as a simulator driver.

The Italian had a tough first half of his debut full F1 campaign at Alfa Romeo last year, but bounced back with a stronger second half of the season, often providing a match for experienced teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

Notable highlights came with top-10 appearances at home in Monza and again in Singapore - where he briefly led - while Giovinazzi recorded his best-ever result of fifth in Brazil.

Although Ferrari will want to see more from Giovinazzi this season before it would consider him for a seat at Maranello in 2021, a Vettel exit would force the team’s hand in finding a ready-made replacement.

One benefit Ferrari could almost guarantee from promoting Giovinazzi would be a harmonious driver pairing, which it might not get from the likes of Ricciardo and Sainz joining. Giovinazzi would probably, initially at least, be happy to play the supporting role and not upset the apple cart in order to get the chance to realise his lifelong dream.

“I know it and I won’t hide: driving Ferrari has always been my dream,” Giovinazzi told Sky Sports Italia at the start of the year.

“If I look back and see when I was young I always had a red tracksuit and it’s great to be in the mix for a seat in Ferrari – but now it’s all up to me.

“If I have a good season I can really fulfil my dream and finally drive a Ferrari.”

 

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