The 2021 Formula 1 driver market erupted into life last week with a triple-whammy of announcements that are set to have major ramifications up and down the grid. 

Sebastian Vettel’s unexpected exit from Ferrari paved the way for Carlos Sainz to get his belated chance at a front-running team, while McLaren swiftly acted to sign current Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo as the Spaniard’s replacement alongside Lando Norris, who was also confirmed at the Woking outfit for 2021. 

Vettel’s impending Ferrari departure once his contract at Maranello expires at the end of the year has blown the driver market wide open in an unlikely twist, and the wider implications of the mutual split have left plenty of unanswered questions in F1’s latest silly season. 

Mercedes or retirement for Vettel? 

Ricciardo’s quick-fire move to McLaren has left Vettel with seemingly few realistic options if he is to continue his F1 career beyond the end of the 2020 season. 

Red Bull has all but ruled out a revival of the partnership that secured four successive world championships between 2010 and 2013, leaving the clearest option appearing to come at Renault. 

However, if reports in Germany are anything to go by, Vettel is said not to be interested in a move to Enstone and is instead eyeing up any potential opening at Mercedes. 

If the Mercedes avenue fails to open up, then 2020 might just prove to be Vettel’s swansong in F1 with retirement another likely scenario for the four-time world champion.

What will Mercedes do? 

The Vettel development certainly adds an extra dimension to the situation at Mercedes, which technically has no drivers contracted to contest the 2021 season. 

Lewis Hamilton is expected to remain at Mercedes for 2021 and beyond, having previously distanced himself from speculation linking him with a sensational switch to Ferrari - a door which has now been firmly slammed shut with Sainz’s appointment - though an official announcement is yet to be made. 

Vettel’s departure perhaps has a bigger bearing on the future of Valtteri Bottas, whose one-year contract extension with Mercedes runs out at the end of the current campaign. 

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted Mercedes "cannot ignore" Vettel’s exit from Ferrari but stressed the German manufacturer remains committed to its current drivers. 

In reality, Mercedes is likely to stick with the safety and security of its current successful combination that has helped it claim all of the world championships on offer since Bottas’ arrival in 2017. 

Renault faces a dilemma  

What happens next at Renault remains the biggest question mark left in the 2021 driver market jigsaw puzzle. 

Renault's capture of Ricciardo back in 2018 represented a real statement of intent for the team and the French squad was evidently irked by the loss of the Australian to a midfield rival. As a result, it is left needing to find a new teammate for Esteban Ocon, who was signed on a two-year deal running until the end of 2021. 

Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul previously refused to rule out a move for Vettel, while Fernando Alonso has also been linked with a return to the F1 grid with the team he won his two world championships with in 2005 and 2006. 

Alonso, who turns 39 in July, stated he would only be interested in an F1 comeback if he had a chance of competing for world titles, which seems improbable at Renault in the short-term at least. 

Other candidates for Renault might come in the shape of another former driver, Nico Hulkenberg, or Bottas, in the unlikely event that Mercedes decides to mix things up with its 2021 line-up. 

Renault could also turn to its young driver programme and promote from within, with highly-rated prospects Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard currently competing in Formula 2, though any step up to F1 for the pair would hinge on them meeting the superlicence points requirement this season. 

And what of the rest of the grid? 

Red Bull only has Max Verstappen contracted to race beyond 2020 with the Dutchman committing his future to the team earlier this year in a deal which runs until the end of 2023. 

Alex Albon is set to embark on his first full-season with the Milton Keynes squad in 2020 and will more than likely be retained if he can make the necessary improvements on the strong foundations he laid with a brilliant rookie campaign last year. 

Racing Point will transition into an Aston Martin works effort in 2021 with Sergio Perez spearheading the charge into its exciting new era. Although there has been no official announcement on who will be the Mexican’s teammate, anybody other than Lance Stroll would be a huge shock considering his billionaire father owns the team. 

AlphaTauri is happy with its current pairing of Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly, though a game of musical chairs between Red Bull’s fleet of contracted drivers can never be ruled out. Red Bull juniors Juri Vips or Jehan Daruvala would have to have particularly standout seasons in Super Formula and F2 respectively to have a chance at promotion to F1 for 2021. 

At Alfa Romeo, 40-year-old Kimi Raikkonen is heading into the final year of his contract and it remains to be seen whether the Finn will want to extend his long tenure in the sport with a lack of real incentive to continue racing beyond his own enjoyment. 

Antonio Giovianzzi was overlooked for the Ferrari 2021 seat and is in need of a performance step up to secure his future at the Swiss squad, with five of the Scuderia’s juniors - including Mick Schumacher and reigning Formula 3 champion Robert Shawrtzman - set to race in F2 this year as they bid to throw their name into the equation for a 2021 F1 drive. 

The Ferrari-affiliated Haas squad could be another landing spot for any of the aforementioned Scuderia juniors if the American outfit opts to remain in F1 and wants to move away from its unchanged line-up consisting of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, who are entering their fourth year together as teammates. 

Williams is unlikely to make any movement until developments further up the grid take shape. George Russell and F1 debutant Nicholas Latifi are probably a safe bet to continue with the team in 2021 barring any surprises, which might come if Mercedes chooses to promote its leading junior Russell. 

 

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